As Billy Reid sees it, he makes clothing. He makes wearable, luxury designs with a focus on lived-in fabrics and classic styles with softened silhouettes that are the foundation of a brand he has been building for over two decades. The garments have been called downhome bon vivant, buttoned-up bumpkin and relaxed, yet refined. The collections include chunky knits, dapper peacoats, wash denim shirts, a suede duster and dinner coats that look best layered together. The designs are ordinary — and astounding.
Appreciation for the Alabama-based clothing brand came early and for reasons beyond just the clothes themselves. It is a sense of community that lends the label its allure of inclusivity while maintaining a cool-kids-club character. The way we see it, Billy Reid collections are a showcase of Southern ideas, and a platform to call attention to the region and its cultural contributions to the world. In short: Billy Reid does so much more than make clothing.
Billy Reid was raised in South Louisiana by his father and mother, who instilled in him a sense of hospitality. As a store owner herself, his mother introduced shoppers to a hospitality-centric environment that was ahead of her time, according to Billy. “It was a place where people were entertained,” he recalls of the clothing store and jean shop housed in his grandmother’s old home. “She created a shopping experience before shopping experiences were the order of the way.” Although unable to appreciate this at a young age, his mother’s influence on the Billy Reid brand is indisputable.
Following a failed college career as a physical education major, Billy moved into design at The Art Institute of Dallas, which preceded his combined 10 years with Saks Fifth Avenue and Reebok. Under the name William Reid, he launched his (then) men’s-only clothing line in 1998, in Texas. He quickly moved the company to New York, where he was awarded CFDA’s “Best New Menswear Designer,” and hosted his first runway show on September 10, 2001. Then, as he puts it, everything started to unravel and fall apart given the events that took place the next day.
In the years since, Billy has relocated to his wife Jeanne’s hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He relaunched his clothing line under the name Billy Reid (because no one calls him William), opened a dozen storefronts across the nation and helped revive the world of brick-and-mortar retail. Moreover, he received two additional CFDA awards, added womenswear to his collections, watched Daniel Craig wear his peacoat on screen and collaborated with Levi’s — a personal favorite of Billy’s. Not to mention, he celebrated 20 years as a designer and played the ever-charming host at the annual celebration of communities of fashion, music, food and art, at an event widely known as Shindig. His success thus stems from far more than the clothes he makes.
“This idea of community is what has helped us be successful,” he says when we turn the conversation to the folks, both locally in Alabama and on a broader scale, tied to the brand. “Making friends and pulling those like-minded people — whether chefs, musicians or artists — into a community, is an opportunity to support each other. This is how we have grown — through word of mouth. And that has given us a very loyal clientele,” Billy explains.
This wide-spread community gathers in the home of the iconic FAME Studios and birthplace of music greats in Florence, Alabama, each August. The event marks the end of summer and turns the town into a hubbub of downhome enjoyment, with creativity on full display. The three days filled with music, fashion, food and art are a natural extension of the brand, and it isn’t hard to wrangle folks into coming.
Like any homegrown event, Shindig had modest beginnings. In its first year (2009), there was an intimate late-night performance by the Civil Wars, plenty of moonshine, music in the streets and an elegant dinner inside the home of Billy and Jeanne (a tradition that continued until the fourth year, when the crowd outgrew the space). Over time, friends of the designer, including Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves, Frank Stitt, Sean Brock and Jack White, have made appearances.
During this year’s runway show for the Spring 2020 collection that took place during Shindig, looks were modeled by friends of the label. It’s hard to pick a favorite, although the marble-print linen coat worn by Nashville’s Libby Callaway to start the show is a top contender. If there was any doubt regarding the wearability of his clothing, the well-dressed, Billy Reid-clad crowd put it to rest.
Billy has an even tougher time identifying an item in his new collection that he is particularly jazzed about. For him, he is more excited by internal growth. For the small label, it’s been hard to keep best-sellers in stock, but Billy says, “We are catching up on inventory of key products, and that frees up the ability to take chances on things, such as our alpaca coat.” Another area of focus: expanding an already-long list of storefronts.
When detailing Billy’s commitment to community and Southern hospitality, it’s hard not to lean on language that reads as cliché. Instead, we will look inside his stores where the commitment to those ideals is evident. Take the newly opened Birmingham store, for example, which is found in Birmingham’s wildly popular Pepper Place. Racks of Billy Reid favorites live atop warm wood floors softened by neutral-toned rugs. Exposed ceilings that reach 24 feet reveal industrial elements authentic to the building, garage doors open to the outdoors, and original brick was left untouched. The building, a rehabbed Dr. Pepper bottling plant located in Birmingham’s downtown, holds a beautiful rawness that Billy didn’t want to disrupt. The store opened to much chatter just last week, but there are more plans in place. Billy hopes to open an attached restaurant and create product lines with other artisans to offer home decor, art and books — firsts for Billy Reid retail spaces.
Each shop is absolutely unique unto itself, although they maintain a shared aesthetic and Southern sensibility. In many cases, they are housed in well-loved buildings, including his home base in Florence, which occupies an old bookstore. The designer hopes that each store shares welcoming environs like those his mother created in Louisiana — whether you are in New York or New Orleans.
In celebrating the opening of his 13th store (“lucky number 13”), Billy remains humble and grateful. When asked if he attributes his success to luck or hard work, he readily admits it’s both. “I have seen both ends of the spectrum, and there have also been moments when I was worried about how I was going to feed my family,” he shares. “I am fortunate to do what I do, but I also know that I work very hard for it. I’ve seen the ups and downs, and I don’t take it for granted.”
“We make clothes,” the Alabama-based designer reiterates. “I am not going to overemphasize how important that is, but I hope to represent Alabama, the South and America, as a designer. We do our best, and if people appreciate it, that is fantastic.”
Find Billy Reid online or in stores in Florence, AL; New York, NY; Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Charleston, SC; Chicago, IL; Nashville, TN; New Orleans, LA; Washington, D.C. and, now, Birmingham, AL.
All photos provided by Billy Reid.
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