Pressing Questions

The Gilt MAN Q&A: Billy Reid [2013 Edition]

Talking James Bond, quality bourbon, and the importance of clothes you can be proud of with 2012's menswear designer of the year.
Photo: Gabe Alonso

Billy Reid: Reason to smile.

When we launched Gilt MANual in September 2010, I decided to kick things off with a conversation on style with a menswear man of the moment, someone talented, thoughtful, and getting lots of buzz. In 2010, that meant Billy Reid, who’d just been named GQ’s Best New Designer of the Year. Two and a half years later, as we enter a new chapter for Gilt MANual, Mr. Reid happens just as talented, thougtful, and buzzed about as he was then, so it made sense to revisit our conversation following some further success, including a Menswear Designer of the Year trophy from the CFDA. To mark the occasion, I brought along a little treat: a couple solid pours’ worth of ultra-rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbon from a bottle that he and I, along with my former colleague Josh Peskowitz, first cracked back in 2008. I like to think that the following conversation doesn’t betray the quantities of delicious brown liquid that accompanied it, but I’ll leave the final judgment to the reader.

It’s been an eventful couple years since we last spoke on the record—menswear designer of the year, that peacoat cameo in Skyfall
[Laughs.] Daniel Craig had personally walked into the store and bought this coat, maybe four years ago. And when they were planning the film, he said he wanted to wear this coat. So they called and said, “Do y’all have this coat? We need thirty of ‘em.” And we were like, “No, but we can make if for you…” It got into this universe of people who worship James Bond, and it just went frickin’ crazy. We were getting orders from South Korea and Australia and Russia—it was insane.

Never underestimate the power of Daniel Craig. You should make a short swimsuit—a tiny little pair of trunks—if you really want to make some bucks.
[Laughs.] I tried that once, and for some reason that didn’t quite fit with our guy that well.

Fire in the fireplace + a pop of Pappy = a fine evening.

Repeating a question from a couple years back, you’re unique among most independent designers in that you’ve got a solid retail footprint. What are your customers telling you these days?
Right now, what seems to be working is anything unique, and luxury products are doing really well for us. Suiting has been one of our biggest categories.

You’ve previously talked about how personal your collection is, but your most recent couple collections have felt a little more European in flavor. What’s inspiring you these days?
That’s actually a really great question. Backtracking to last fall, we had spent and extended time in Europe. It did have an effect on things. I’m a Southerner, and sometimes people think that means we’re going to come out with a piece of hay in our mouth, or look like Col. Sanders. There’s certainly that side of the South, but there’s certainly another side that’s very sophisticated. Our best selling things are our more luxurious things, and I wanted to show that side of it, with an influence that’s more global conceptually, but it still came from us. I did want to put a little more polish on things…. There was so much happening with workwear and heritage, and I wanted to show that, “man, this is a small part of what we do. We make hand-tailored clothing, we make hand-knit sweaters, we make alligator bags.”

A little more Florence, Italy than Florence, Alabama?
A little bit. I’m a little more relaxed on that posture now. At the end of the day we’re out there making as thoughtful and gutsy clothing as we can make. And primarily, we make it right here in New York City. The luxury side has been our best business, and it’s what I love to make. I love to make outerwear and suits. It’s where my heart is.

I hear you.
Cheers. [Ed. Note—By this point, the Pappy has disappeared, and we’ve moved on to Billy’s personal stash of Old Weller Antique 107.]

Cheers. How’s the Old Weller treating you?
This is your best backup for Pappy. Can’t find Pappy? Old Weller Antique 107. Grab it, immediately. It’s so good.

I believe you once called it the perfect whiskey to help get a guy ready for an evening with the in-laws.
Oh, yeah [laughs]. And the Old Granddad 114, which is seven proof higher, is also fantastic—although it’s a little angry. So if you want to go with a little edge, go with that one. If want to go happy, go here.

Duly noted. So what’s inspiring you now?
Soul music has been inspiring me a lot lately. Two music documentaries. Searching for Sugarman, and there’s a documentary about Muscle Shoals that was at Sundance… It’s been great that somebody finally documented that. And then Bobby Womack just cut an album last year, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I’ve been really into these old soul guys, and finding old photographs of them.

Are we going to see that on Friday?
You’ll see and hear a little bit of that in different ways. The English and how they embraced Muscle Shoals, Alabama – the Stones coming to record there, and Dire Straits. They were astute to know where the music was coming from in the United States. They appreciated it more than the Americans did.

Who are you listening to these days?
A band I really like right now is called the Bear. I love what they’re doing. A soft, kind of folk experience. Been very much into something I was into, John Mayall. Loving old John Mayall right now. Rodriguez. Trying to find as many LPs of his as I can. Been doing a lot of research on Sun Ra right now. I’ve also been into Otha Turner. He does a big festival in Mississippi, it’s all drum and fife music, and it’s kind of the beginning of all blues music. It’s a family picnic he has every year. I’ve been listening to a lot of live recordings from that festival. That is a very neat situation down there. Francis Ford Coppola, all these people, go down there and hang out in the Mississippi Delta in an incredibly raw setting and watch these guys play handmade instruments.

I like the sound of that. Our reader’s always looking for smart style advice. What should be guys be doing right now?
My advice really doesn’t change much on that. Always, quality over quantity… Buy something that’s made well, that fits well, that you can hold onto. Find those pieces. That is absolutely the most important part. Maybe that is a European approach in some ways. The closet is small, but what’s in there is good. You’re going to get a pair of boots? Get you a pair of kickass boots that are made well, that fit well, that you’re going to want to resole when you wear the hell out of ‘em. You may pay a little more for ‘em, but get the pair you like.

If you’re going to buy a jacket, or a pair of shoes, get something nice. And mix the two together. I mean, it’s not a mystery. We’re all mixing and matching things.

Yeah, invest in something great, and economize on other things.
Invest in something you’re proud of. You want to buy something you’re proud of. Man, I am proud of this jacket – how it was made, whatever it is about it. It’s different for everybody. Somebody may want leather on the lapel, and if they’re proud of that, man, dig it, and be proud of it.

More Billy Reid:
The Gilt MAN Q&A [2010 Edition] >
Video: Sporting clays with Mr. Reid >

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