Billy Reid on J.Crew, His Retail Approach, and His Beloved K-Swiss

Photo courtesy of Billy Reid
Designer Billy Reid

Billy Reid may have racked up both the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award and GQ’s Best New Menswear Designer Award last year, but he’s no new kid on the block. Rather, the Southern-bred, Alabama-based designer has been building his brand for well over 10 years—we’re just glad he didn’t pursue physical education as he originally intended (really!).

While 2010 may have been his year as far as honors go, Reid’s hardly resting on his laurels: Following past pairings with Levi’s and Stetson, Reid is gearing up to unveil his brand-new collaborations with classic sneaker brand K-Swiss on Tuesday and with beloved preppy standby J.Crew on April 21.

FashionEtc checked in on Reid to chat about William Reid (not Billy!), his unique retail approach, and why he’s doing it his way.

When did you realize you were interested in fashion?

My mother had a clothing store when I was growing up. She probably was the biggest influence on me, but then I steered away from that. I started school as a PE major! But eventually, there were changes. I started going to a small art school in Dallas, where I studied design and merchandising. It really wasn’t my intention to get into fashion, but it just happened.

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Photos: Getty Images

Looks from the Fall 2011 Billy Reid collection.

I had some really interesting jobs; I did product development at Reebok for a while, working on the Greg Norman collection. It was in the early years of Reebok, and it was a really terrific job, traveling the world, developing—it was the best training. Then I started doing my own collection in ’98.

That collection was called William Reid, though, right?

Yes. It was based in New York, and I started in ’98 as just a men’s collection. I did Fashion Week shows and it was going really well. I won a CFDA award in June 2001 for Best New Menswear Collection. The show right after that, we thought it might be the one that would really put us on top—and it was on September 10, 2001. We never recovered from that financially and lost everything. We had to close.

I moved to Alabama, to Florence, my wife’s hometown. It turned out to be the best move. I was doing freelance work, and then some friends called with the idea to open stores. We decided that’s what we were going to do. We wanted to make it totally different: The business model was to only sell to our own shops and really develop the collection. We’d build it up, and that’s just what we did.

How did the new collection differ from William Reid?

It’s really not much different! [Billy Reid] is a more complete collection. Before, we didn’t have our own shops, so we’d send pieces to Barneys or wherever. Now, the collection having its own environment gives it its own identity; it’s a much more personal approach. It’s also a much larger collection, because there are more categories.

Most designers wait until they’re established to open their own shops. Why was your opposite approach better?

I’ve done it both ways, and there are so many positives and negatives to both. Opening your own stores can be a little slower, but you’re really in control. If a jacket doesn’t sell, it’s your fault. You made the jacket, and you have to find a way to sell it. Also, when they’re your own stores, you can make that personal connection with your customers.

Last year, you won GQ’s Best New Menswear Designer Award and the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. But with more than 10 years under your belt, you’re hardly a “new” designer. What was that like?

I still can’t believe it. I was just so happy to be included and be involved with those awards. I had no idea we might actually win something, and all the support and being able to meet so many new people has been fantastic.

Has winning affected your business?

Thank goodness our business has been really good. We were doing well before, and this has really helped tremendously. We’ve been able to do some things logistically [that we couldn’t do before]. We were able to open a showroom—before, the showroom was the store! We would close the store to have appointments, and it was driving every one crazy.

Tell us about your collaboration with K-Swiss. We hear it’s based on a pair of shoes you’ve worn for 25 years?

[Laughs] They’re probably more hole than shoes! I still have them, but they’re literally threads. My wife has threatened to throw them away, but I’ve said I can’t buy them anymore! Then we talked to K-Swiss and said let’s try it. We took the old shoe and made it really great. We’re really pumped about it.

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Photo courtesy of Billy Reid

The Billy Reid/K-Swiss collaboration shoe.

So can you finally get rid of the old pair?

I can’t throw out the old pair—especially not now! It’s taken many, many years to try and replace them. We did one shoe for now, in three colors.

What can you tell us about your J.Crew collaboration?

That was part of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund: Eddie Borgo, Prabal Gurung, and I do a collaboration with J.Crew. They wanted us to take something from our own collection and make it make sense for J.Crew. It really worked very smoothly—they could not be a better group to work with. The collaboration will be in our shop too.

We heard Jenna Lyons consulted on your recent womens collection as part of the CFDA Fashion Fund mentoring. What advice did she give you?

It wasn’t so design focused, but she gave me incredible advice. She’ll really speak freely and tell me what I need to work on. It’s nice to have someone I have so much respect for—and who I personally get along with so well. We talked about business-type things: Should we really try to blow out the women’s collection, make it big, or take a smaller approach? You want to do things right, so we took a more focused approach.

Tell us about the Fall 2011 women’s collection.

Men’s has always been the biggest part of our business, and women’s has been a capsule collection only in our shops. When you put it side by side with men’s in a presentation, it has to have consistency. We really think of the women’s collection as the girlfriend of the men’s collection. She might have some masculinity, like a hand-tailored jacket, but it’s feminine. We didn’t want to fall in the trap of a man’s clothes for women, if you know what I mean. We took a more glamorous approach.

Does your Southern location and upbringing influence your work?

I’m stereotyped as Southern, and that influences everything, but we do spend a lot of time in New York. It’s those two worlds that drive me. There are elements that come through in men’s and women’s, but honestly, it’s more about trying to make great clothes that we believe in. What is the stereotype of Southern women, that they dress like Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side? Not all Southern women are like that. My wife isn’t! Should I put gingham dresses on the runway?

What are you doing when youre not working?

I’m just with my family. I have three children—13, 11 and 7—so that pretty much takes up all my time away from the office! My wife and I are antique buffs; we love working on the house and finding antiques. When I get some free time, I like to get outside in the woods with my friends—but unfortunately, there’s not a lot of free time!

You have six stores now. Are you planning on opening more?

We would like to, for sure. If the right opportunity came up, our plan is to open more. We’re working on something in Georgetown, so hopefully something will come about.

Where do you see you brand in 10, 15, 20 years?

For me, it’s so much about the clothes. I never want to lose the integrity, and I want to grow only as long as we can keep making the clothes as well as we can. I want to manufacture more in the United States; each season we do more here. We want to grow smartly and with integrity—though of course it would be great to be wildly successful!

So many designers are all about building huge lifestyle brands. Does branching into other categories, like home, interest you?

We would love to do that, but only if the timing’s right. We’re not trying to take on too much and we’re not going to lose sight of doing it right. I’d love to do furniture, all that stuff, but only if I could still keep making clothes!