Pressing Questions

The Gilt MAN Q&A: Billy Reid

Born in Louisiana, based in Florence, Alabama, and beloved from Texas to New York, Billy Reid makes southern-flavored (but not too southern-flavored) apparel for guys who like their clothes built to last. He’s also an avid hunter, father of three, and an all-around great guy. Here, an overnight success many years in the making talks about the virtues of persistence, authenticity, and dressing up as an act of rebellion

Photos: Michael Williams
I’m just going to put this thing here and record.
Wait, can my phone do that?

Well, this one has an app installed that makes you sound hyper articulate. It’s $4.99, but it’s worth it.
Oh, man, sign me up.

It’s been a big year for you, sir. GQ’s best new designer award, the CFDA nomination.
It’s been a busy year. It’s been great, the chance to meet people I wouldn’t otherwise have met. It certainly gives us the confidence to keep going, to keep doing what we’re doing, and those are all good things.

Is this the sort of stuff you thought was on the horizon a year or two earlier?
You don’t expect it. Certainly I don’t. We make clothes. That’s a constant process, an ever-evolving job, and it never goes away. The award doesn’t stop the work. What it does is make you feel good to keep working.

I saw the Prize Patrol-style video on, where Jim Moore and Jim Nelson show up to break the news, and you looked completely and genuinely surprised.
I was thoroughly surprised. And emotional.

I got emotional watching the video.
You just have to take a breath and take it all in.

This isn’t the first time you’ve caught the eye of the New York fashion crowd. Back in 2001, your previous label, William Reid, label had its CFDA moment. How are things different now versus then?
So much of what we do now is very personal. Every piece in the collection, the stores, everything we do, we just put so much of our heart and soul into it. I mean, we did that before, but I didn’t really think about it as much. Now, it’s second nature, but we’re so attached to it, and so involved with every piece that we’re doing.

You don’t shy away from the fact that you’re a Southern designer. How central is that to what you’re doing?
I can’t change that. It’s who I am, it’s where I grew up. And if that works, that’s great. Certainly we try to make the clothes more applicable elsewhere than just, “Hey, these are Alabama clothes.” We just hope what we do is appealing to folks, so it could sell just as well in New York or Iowa or Tokyo. You want to stand for something, and hope that people can adapt it into their own personal style.

And a lot of your stuff has a subtle Southern feel. It’s not about ‘Hey, look at me in my Southern Gent getup.’
Yeah, “Today, I wanna be Colonel Sanders…” [laughs]

Do you feel you need to be careful of that, of veering into caricature?
Oh, man. All the time. It happens all the time. We were just talking about this with the show, and trying to style the show, and we definitely got that. We were mixing these stripes up and we were like, “No, that guy’s got ‘mint julep’ written all over him. Let’s pull it back a little bit.”

You’re an authentic guy, who happens to be hitting it at a time when authenticity is what everyone’s craving. Even several years ago, going from William Reid to Billy Reid, you seemed to be saying, ‘Screw it, I’m going to do my thing. They can take it or leave it.’
You’re totally right about that. No one called me William except my mother when I was in trouble. So that was the first thing. I said, “We’re going to drop this, man. Everybody calls me Billy so we’re going to go with that.” But at the end of the day, you gotta do what you want to do, and at least you’ve got that.

Every corporate entity out there right now is trying to acquire the veneer of authenticity, while you’ve got it. Do you ever think, “Man, what’s my ‘post-authenticity’ move?”
I’m just glad somebody says that. I think it works because it’s not a “move.” In some ways, it probably held us back a little bit, because I wouldn’t do certain things. No, I’m not gonna do that fabric, or I’m not gonna do f-in’ stretch.

Yeah, I’ve always appreciated that yours is a Lycra-free collection.
Or, “Hey, we need to change the buttons to plastic buttons because we can save five, six dollars a shirt.” Those things that you stand by that can sometimes limit your opportunities—at least we know that what we’re trying to do is something that we wanted to do, and we didn’t compromise on it.

Unlike other labels of your size, you have this retail footprint from Houston to Charleston to here in New York, which kind of gives you an ear to the ground.
Oh, man, big time.

What are you hearing?
Classics sell. Our best-selling jacket, season after season, is the navy hopsack blazer, number one every season. Our number one shoe, pretty much every season—it changes in spring—is the roper boot. That’s just a classic boot. And we’ve got this guy who comes in who wants a shirt that’s a little looser, more of a classic fit. Then we have the guy who wants something trimmer. And the good news is, I think guys are shopping. We’re seeing both of those guys. I would say that when the recession hit, the classic guy sort of fell off a bit. That was your commercial real estate guy who was doing well, that was your banking individual, well that has picked up a little bit.

Are guys classing things up a bit?
I think there’s just a refinement thing happening with some guys, even the younger guys. They have no problem wearing a suit. I mean, it’s almost cool to wear a suit. Things have been so much the other way, it’s got to go to the other side.

It’s almost as though this younger guy is rebelling by dressing up.
They’re rebelling by dressing up—you’re exactly right. Even down to seniors in high school.

Do you have a father-son customer base?
We have a father-son thing going on. The sons are wanting the suits—and they wear them trim and a little fitted but it’s a suit, you know, and they dig it.

What advice would you give to our readers on developing their own personal style?
Less things, but better things. The Europeans have been onto that forever. It’s like, have a great jacket that you can wear with several different things, but make sure it’s made well, it fits well, it’s gonna last. I’m not a big fan of disposable clothing when it comes to things that shouldn’t be disposable. A jacket, a coat, a sweater, even—those things should be made a certain way out of certain materials. That’s always my first piece of advice to anybody: buy good things. Instead of having eight jackets, have two jackets, but make ‘em just fantastic.

You’re on your way after such a big year. How do you capitalize on a raised profile?
I like to take things slowly, man. Good things come, and we’re able to extend our brand or whatever, but for me, I just want to get everything we do right. So I’d rather do less, and make it really good. I’m big into, “What’s the next step?”

You sound like someone who’s in this for the long haul.
I need to continue to have a job! I mean, you gotta work. There’s things that’ll hopefully come up, and we’ll make ‘em work. I’d love to work on all kinds of stuff.

I’m just waiting for an early sample of Billy Reid private label bourbon. When’s that coming?
[laughs] When’s that coming—we could use that now.

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