Talking Music, Alabama, and Trial & Error with Billy Reid

Billy Reid
Photo: Patrick McMullan
Billy Reid with his CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year award

We really wish we had known Billy Reid in his collegiate days. A full keg, Otis Redding tunes, and good old Alabama barbecue made for quite a downtown shindig this past weekend. In celebration of New York City's annual Big Apple BBQ festival, the newly-minted CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year Award winner threw a block party at his Manhattan boutique and broke away from the well-wishing revelers to talk music and getting single folks to move to Alabama with this fellow Southern reporter.

Congratulations on winning the CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year last week! How did y'all celebrate?
My wife and I were here. Most of the team is back in Alabama...we'll do something next week; we'll get something together. Maybe take a day off. Party on the river or something.

Who would you say the Billy Reid man or woman is?
That's a good question. Sometimes I have a very hard time answering that question. The [menswear] comes from such a very personal spot—typically just making clothes I feel I would like to wear. And things I would like to wear is the way I look at it, and things I'm looking for—a great rain jacket, I'll make a rain jacket and try to make it as well as we can possibly make it. Our customer is always so diverse. There are 20-year-old kids coming in and buying things, and 65-year-old men. Sometimes they're buying the same items which is kind of bizarre. We didn't plan it that way, it just kind of happened. We had somewhat of a difficult time saying 'It's this person or that person.' We just kind of took that as a point to just go out and make the clothes we want to make and people respond to them. It doesn't mean we don't make mistakes, which we do. [It's] trial and error. A lot of trial and error. Hopefully less of the error.

So many people know you as a Southern designer. Do you think that's inhibited you at all? That people have taken you less seriously or pigeonholed your designs at all?
You know, I don't consider myself a Southern designer. I mean, as well as anyone from, you know, New Jersey would consider themselves a New Jersey designer. We make clothes; I just happen to be a Southerner. I try to look at it that way. If people want to call it Southern then I certainly can't deny that. We don't really go out and make it Southern. It's not anything we focus on. I think if anything it's benefited us in some ways; I guess it's unusual.

What are the advantages of basing your operation in Alabama as opposed to staying up here in New York City?
There's a lot of financial advantages. We certainly operate a lot on a small budget. I'm able to focus in some ways more because my family's there so my personal life is a little more easy to manage with my children. So those advantages are the main drivers, and I find that I'm very, very comfortable there. I love it there too. I need both places. I spend about half my time here, half my time there. So it's really sort of New York and Florence sort of merging together, are sort of at the heart of what it is.

Are there any drawbacks?
Yes. Absolutely. Not everybody in the world wants to move to Florence, Alabama. That's part of it, especially single people. [Editor's note: We have a lot of friends who are willing to start the singles scene in Florence. Seriously. We'll waive our recruiting fee.] But if you're married with children, it's terrific. Also two, I think the availability of materials. In New York, you can just run down the street and pick it up. A lot of our factories we work with are here; they're in the garment centers. That's probably the biggest disadvantage but however, these days with the Internet and shipping and everything, you find a way to work around it.

You've also been a champion in getting more attention for under-the-radar bands. Who should we be listening to?

The Apache Relay—they're starting to make some inroads a little bit. There's a band called The Bear, mellow but really good though. Actually one of the guys plays sometimes with the Alabama Shakes, who have just taken off over the last year. I would have said them but they've gotten too big! It's kind of crazy. There's another band called Wild Cub, kind of an '80s vibe, really cool.