We spent a week this summer invading the offices and going inside the minds of six American menswear heroes. In our third installment, Billy Reid talks salvaged wood, ’60s soul, and creating clothing you’ll pass down to your kids someday.
MEN’S SHOP DAILY: What inspired your Fall ’13 collection?
BILLY REID: It started from the idea of ’60s soul music. We knew of a documentary that was being made about Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where we’re based. There was a ton of just incredible photographs from the ’60s and ’70s—of Mick Jagger, who had visited there, Aretha Franklin, Arthur Alexander, Wilson Picket, Little Richard—all these folks who had visited there, and played and recorded there. So we kind of started there, which was a little more glitzy, and pulled it back to more classic American sportswear…There’s the balance of those two worlds, because not everyone’s going to want an oversized cotton/cashmere raincoat with alligator trim.
Tell us more about the film that inspired your creative process—Muscle Shoals.
It’s just an unbelievable piece of history that’s never been properly told. Even the movie doesn’t hit on all the things that really happened there, but it’s probably the best representation of it that I’ve seen.
Muscle Shoals, back in the early ’60s, there was a recording studio there, and this one particular man, Rick Hall, happened to record ‘You Better Move On’ by Arthur Alexander, and it became a number-one hit. And he did that in Alabama, on basically no budget. Then he met and was able to sign this guy who was a janitor at Ford Motor Company in Florence, Alabama. His name was Percy Sledge, and he had this song called ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ and he recorded that. It blew up, and then Jerry Wexler called him, who was the president of Capitol Records. He said, ‘I have this soul singer—she’s more of a gospel singer—and I wanna bring her down and record with you.’ And her name was Aretha Franklin.
…So he brought [Aretha Franklin] down, and they thought there’d be all these black soul musicians…And when they got there, it was a bunch of white country boys playing this soul music. And you know, this was the ’60s in Alabama. There were some tense times in there, but Aretha Franklin has said, ‘I really didn’t find my voice until I went therer and started playing with these guys.’
And it took off from there. Before you knew it, you had the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson—the list of people who have recorded music there is mind-blowing. From the Osmonds to Liza Minelli…Dire Straits, Jimmy Cliff, Boz Skaggs, Rod Stewart have all cut albums there, and recently, Band of Horses, Alicia Keys. Black Keys cut the Brothers album there, which was probably the best album they’ve cut. The Civil Wars are from there, Drive-By Truckers—so it’s just an incredible little town, with this hotbed of music that’s come outta that place. I call it the greatest story of rock that’s never been told. So maybe this movie will get it out there a little bit.
What are some aspects of those guys’ style back in the ’60s—Mick Jagger, Little Richard—that inspired you?
Oh man, when you see the movie you’re gonna freak. The clothes are off the charts. If you’ve seen Gimme Shelter, the Stones documentary, part of that was shot in Muscle Shoals when they came there. There were stories that they would dress up in drag—and this was, you know, the ’70s in rural Alabama—and walk around downtown, and peole would just gawk at them. The clothes were unvelievable. The footwear—python boots with just holes in ’em, and you can tell they’ve worn ’em for six months, the way everything is broken-in.
What do you think is significant about a band like the Rolling Stones recording in Muscle Shoals?
What’s crazy is that they knew it was there. This was before the internet or anything. They knew that place was there, and they sought it out and they wanted to record there—and they did it. It said a lot about them, to be that curious, and to follow through on it. Because you think of a band of their stature not wanting to get their hands dirty—and they did it. That really appealed to me.
And Muscle Shoals is not far from where you live and work in Florence, Alabama, correct?
It’s basically the same town. It’d be like saying Brooklyn and New York City. They’re sister cities, basically. There’s a river that divides it, and that’s it—although it seems like a lot more than a river that divides it at times. But yeah, it’s the same place.
This leather peacoat [above right] feels a bit Stones-ish. What’s the story behind that piece?
The original peacoat is probably one of our greatest-hit coats we’ve ever done—this super heavy-weight wool/cashmere peacoat that happened to get into the Skyfall James Bond movie, and it sort of went viral for us. We’re still shipping it on back-order. So we took the shape of that piece and made it in leather.
Any tips on how to wear a leather peacoat?
You could take this leather peacoat and make it look a bit Little Richard, but I can see a more traditional customer buying it and wearing it in a totally different way. I love the way it looks over a suit. I love leather and mixing it with tailored pieces. But, I’d say most guys are going to put this on with a pair of jeans. [The key is] it’s not so big that you look like you’re wearing a chair. It’s cut a little closer to your body, so you can put it over a suit, but it’s trim enough to wear with a sweater or T-shirt underneath.
Where did you grow up?
Amite, Louisiana. About an hour from New Orleans, and about an hour from Baton Rouge. We’re sort of in a triangle. All my family’s still there.
What was it like growing up there?
Very quiet. It’s a town of about 4,000 people. The nearest town was New Orleans, so we were in the middle of nowhere. My mother had a clothing store there, which is kind of how I got introduced to the business at an early age.
What was your mother’s store like?
Incredible. She was so ahead of her time. Her shop was located in my grandmother’s old home, so it felt like—it was a place where people would hang out. I always describe that it felt like Steel Magnolias in a clothing store.
So it was constantly people just coming in and out. She had a terrific business for 20 years there. She also opened a second store in our hometown, in the old railroad depot. Called it The Depot, because it was right on the railroad tracks, and it was all denim—just denim. This was back in the days of like, Calvin Klein, Gloria Vanderbilt, Jordache. You know, the premium denim of the ’70s. She had this unbelievable denim store.
Growing up, did you ever help out around your mom’s clothing store, like as a summer job?
I did a little bit—but there was another shop in town that was a men’s store, which a good friend of hers owned. The gentleman who owned it is probably still one of my top-five style icons of all time. So it was great to work there, because I got to be around him, learn from him. We were one of the only stores to have Ralph Lauren in the whole state of Louisiana at the time. This was the early days for Ralph, early ’80s.
The man who owned the men’s store—what kinds of things did he wear, that stuck in your mind all these years?
I’ll tell you this one image of him I remember. I used to lifeguard at the country club, and I remember driving back down the road by the golf course. It’s July in south Louisiana, so it had to be high 90s and humid as hell. I remember looking out on the golf course, and all the men are in shorts and all this stuff. Well, he’s there in these, like, off-white linen trousers, with black-and-white, alligator-trim golf shoes, white oxford dress shirt. And I’m just looking at him. It’s just impeccable. And anywhere he went, he always—it was very classic, but it was just so right on. He just stood out, you know. Drove an old MG.
I remember at a Christmas party, this one time, he had this incredible red turtleneck, with this beautiful navy blazer and charcoal-grey trousers. I remember walkin’ in and just going, he looks like a million buck. And he, just [snaps fingers]—effortless with it. He was always like that, everywhere he went. There was never a letdown. Never a letdown with the guy.
Very consistent. Consistently stylish. Joe Buddy Anderson. The Royal Oaks men’s store, yep.
Was it your mom’s store that inspired you to get into clothing?
No, I was too busy playing football and baseball and everything else, to really appreciate it until later in life. I actually started college as a PE major. I wanted to be a coach and teach. And I flunked out as a PE major, which is really hard to do. I don’t remember [what happened]…Which is maybe why it happened. I was going to Southeastern Louisiana University, which was about 15 miles from Amite. Bad decision. You should not be so close to home with so many bad influences right next to you.
How did you go from an unsuccessful PE major to pursuing fashion design?
I kind of had to move on, and did all kind of odd jobs, from landscape, to working at a sawmill, to picking up trash for the city, to selling women’s shoes, to delivering pizzas—until finally, my mother sent me to the Art Institute of Dallas to study.
What did you do to make money while attending design school?
I got a job selling men’s suits [at a well-known department store]. I got to learn all about it from a lot of grizzled suit veterans…Men who had done it for, you know, 40 years, some of these guys. My boss was 70 years old and had been in the clothing business all his life. So it was great to be able to pull from that and try to absorb as much as you can.
What did you learn at school versus on the job?
In school, I learned more like the terminology. Not really the technical side of how something is made—especially in tailored clothing. The guts of that kind of stuff was more from the guys at the store. I was working full-time selling suits, and going to school, and that kept me out of trouble. I just kept working my way up and learning, and did a ton of made-to-measure suits.
How did you get your start in the apparel business, after graduating?
From there, I moved to California and tried to be an actor for about two weeks. Waited tables for two weeks. Then got very lucky, and got a job with Reebok, who was just starting to do clothing around 1988. Moved to New York, and then to Boston, and got to travel all over the world developing product for [a golf collection], the shark stuff. Not that it was my aesthetic, but such a great experience. We did a lot of stuff in Europe with that collection, and some of the people I met and worked with then are still people I work with today, from 20 years ago.
[Eventually] quit that job. Freelanced—design work. Pajamas. Underwear. Anything I could do. Eventually saved up enough money to come back with samples from Italy, some men’s shirt samples, a small collection of menswear in 1997.
You finally had your own collection. What did you do with it?
[At first we] only opened two accounts. It was the time where you go…Two stores is not gonna put any food on the table. But I said, man, if we could just make these two things happen, maybe we could grow from there. So we were able to stick it out. Next season, we opened in 15 stores. Then we went up to like 40 stores, and it just kept growing, until 9/11. In June 2001, I won a CFDA Award. Our big show was September 10, 2001. Great show. And you know, that’s when you start to book all your appointments [with buyers], and everything just started to fall apart after that. I moved to Alabama, started freelance work again.
Back to square one.
So we were there, and then I got a call from two friends of mine, who had the idea of opening retail stores, and they wanted to call it Hampton Reid. They wanted to open stores but design their own products. They said, ‘Will you come design a product for us?’ I was like, ‘Well yeah, I’d love to, but Hampton Reid, what’s up with that?’ I said, I’d love to restart the collection—it used to be William Reid—I’d love to just take a whole new start, and call it Billy Reid. Let’s try to really make it more personal.
And the rest is history.
We opened three stores kind of at one time in 2004, and we worked the stores. We built the product, and kind of grew it store by store after that. It’s definitely been a rollercoaster ride for sure, man.
Did you used to go by William?
No, never. That’s the funny thing—I’ve always been Billy.
After all these years in the industry—what’s your goal as a designer?
What we really strive for is—whatever that piece is, you want that to be their favorite piece. If they buy a coat, you want that to be the coat they really love. You want that sort of quality that they’ll keep it and pass it on down, so to speak.
Who is the Billy Reid ‘guy’? Who’s your target?
You know—I really don’t know if we have a target, to be honest with you. That’s something that’s really been difficult to put a finger on, because there are 20-year-old kids—I guess they’re not kids, they’re kids to me now at my age—but there are 20-year-old kids coming in here, and there are 55-, 60-year-old men coming here. Sometimes they’re buying the same item. As crazy as it sounds, I really don’t focus on who’s buying it… Sometimes the best way to do it is to not think about it as much.
Seems to be working. What do you think that 20-year-old and that 60-year-old have in common?
I think it’s a person who wants something that they feel good about buying, whether they feel good about where it’s made, or how it’s made, or how it fits…The longevity of that piece—stylistically and durability-wise.
How do you think where you grew up affects your visual aesthetic?
I love old things. My mom’s store, when you walked in there, it felt like it was a home. When we started building our shops, we wanted people to come in here and hang out—feel like they were a welcome guest in our home.
How do you make your stores feel like home?
For instance, when we built this store out [note: Billy Reid’s NYC location, pictured here], every material in here, we trucked here from Alabama. We hand-selected each piece of it, brought them all here. This was actually seven different staircases that we brought up and put together. There’s wood in here from an old cotton gin what was torn down outside of Florence, Alabama. The heart-pine floors are from a factory outside of Abbeville, Louisiana, that was an old sugar mill. These doors [the ceiling, see above left] came out of a school in Jackson, Mississippi. We got 35 of ’em. They’re heavy as hell.
How were you able to track all those things down?
My wife and I, we do a lot of antique shopping, and have made good friends over the years, who have stores and deal in salvage architectural materials.
And how did you get all this accomplished? Did you have help with all these ‘home improvements’?
We milled this timber in here ourselves. Literally set up saws, table saws in here and camped out in New York for six weeks and built the store ourselves. A good friend of mine, who worked on our house in Alabama—he had never been above Chattanooga, Tennessee—he drove the truck up with all the stuff in it. What was hysterical was some of the stuff we had to do before we could get in here. Union workers had to start some of the demo and electrical…They would take breaks every 15, 20 minutes. Meanwhile, my friend from Alabama is freakin’ out in his like, cut-off camo shirt. I mean, he makes Duck Dynasty look like Thurston Howell. Eventually, we get the union guys outta here, and he basically takes over. And he’s just an unbelievable carpenter, so we were able to work here and get all this stuff done. I’m glad we did it that way, it makes it feel that much more personal.
Speaking of wood—it’s been said that in addition to style icons in Muscle Shoals, the concept of ‘wood’ helped inspire your Fall ’13 collection.
We were working on our house, and there was just tons of wood, scrap wood. We had ash. Pecan. Walnut. Oak. We had hickory. All these different woods, and the colors are just so—when you cut it, they each have different shades. As calm as you think wood might be, they all look vastly different with the grain and the color—especially when you start to stain it.
So we loved the palette of that, where you can get some of the green hues, versus the brown hues, versus the red, that come out in the wood. The color names all became based off wood. And then we built this huge backdrop for the show—we took all the scrap wood I was talking about a nailed it to plywood and built walls. It looks like a patchwork, a collage of wood. After we tore that set down, we put it on a truck, sent it to Georgetown where we’re building a store. Now it’s part of the floor there.
Tell us about your new line of Billy Reid suiting.
We’ve always done suiting here at our own shops, and we’ve done a tremendous amount of made-to-measure and custom suiting. But we’ve really never offered it at wholesale and partnered with a retailer until Nordstrom. They were the ones to kind of step up and say, ‘We believe in what you’re doing,’ and want to help get that business off the ground.
What makes Billy Reid suiting special?
We’ve been making our suits here in New York. They’re made the old-fashioned way, so to speak—where you get all the canvas center linings, and there’s no glue inside the garment. And it’s definitely a younger fit. There’s been such a resurgence from a younger customer wanting to buy tailored clothing. Guys in their mid 20s, early 30s wanting a suit, but they don’t want one that’s, you know, cut down to here, it’s baggy here, their armholes are sagging. They want something that’s close to their body, that makes them look fit. So we’re trying to offer a younger-fitting garment that’s made with old-world construction. Combining those two things is the concept behind it.
Why do you think more and more guys are wanting to dress up a little?
That’s a great question. I think menswear in general has just had such a…maybe it’s the internet. Whether it’s The Sartorialist, or—there’s just so much information, and people are just more curious about it. They want to know what goes into that suit, and it sort of breaks down the barrier of price apprehension. I know how it’s made. It’s gonna make me feel good. It’s gonna make me look good. It’s gonna last a long time. And there’s also the intangible of that—does it give you confidence? Do you feel good about that purchase? And they care about where it’s made. I think the fact that we’re doing this in the US gives it a little extra boost, too.
What’s going on in this dressing room [above]?
This wall was actually from the first photo shoot that we ever did. It was a three-day shoot with a gentleman by the name of Charles Moore—you would recognize some of his photographs. The one where the kids are getting hosed in Birmingham? He took that photograph. Then with Martin Luther King on the drugstore counter, where his head’s down on the counter? He took that. He was at the front line of the civil rights movement in the ’60s, and this was actually one of the last shoots he did before he passed.
How did you end up working with such a legendary photographer?
He’s from Tuscumbia, Alabama, ten miles away from us. A friend of mine introduced us—he was 80 at the time. We asked him if he’d be interested in shooting. We had no money. We grabbed neighbors, friends, family—and took three days, drove around and just took photos, and then we mixed ’em with old family photographs that we had. Then we hand-made 1,000 scrapbooks and sent them to 1,000 people we thought would be our customers—friends, editors, all different folks.
It looks more like photojournalism than a fashion shoot.
We wanted it to feel real. Feel sort of raw. Like this guy here. He was a guy that worked on our house and had no teeth. That was my wife. That was my son when he was a baby. This is my neighbor. This is a photograph of my dad and his brothers. This was my aunt and uncle. Where we had photographs left, we made wallpaper and different stuff. It was a lot of fun. Probably one of the most incredible things I’ve ever been a part of. It was weird. We shot it in late July, where it could’ve been 105 outside. And we were shooting heavy Fall clothes. For a few days, it was like 70 degrees, and almost cool feeling. It was kind of a weird sign. We were making it count.
You mentioned your son. Any tips on fatherhood?
Whoa, uh. Patience, man. Kids need time and love. That’s all they need usually, for the most part. Give them those two things, you’re gonna be in pretty good shape. Gotta let ’em be themselves. They’re all different. I got three and they’re so vastly different—personality-wise, and how you have to deal with ’em. Even at that age they’re still people. They have their own minds and their own way of doing things. So you have to learn to adapt to that, be a manager. But yeah, you have to learn as you go. There’s no book, really.
Lastly: You grew up and currently live in the South, but spend a lot of time in New York. How does that manifest itself in Billy Reid clothing?
It’s sort of like living in two places and having two different lives, in some ways, but…I think that balance, or that combination, is really what drives the aesthetic of the collection. We want to make pieces that you can be walking down the street in Nashville or Florence, Alabama, and just as easily take that same piece and wear it right down the Bowery. So I think downtown in New York and the Deep South combined, is what sort of makes it all come together.
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SHOP ALL: BILLY REID
[Photos by Robin Stein. Interview by Justin Abbott.
Special thanks to Billy Reid and team.]