Billy Reid’s brand was just finding its footing. On September 10, 2001, the designer held a blowout New York Fashion Week show for his new line, William Reid, that garnered massive response from store buyers. More than 70 of them made appointments to see the clothes the next day. Of course, none of those appointments ever materialised. The brand folded not long after, and the designer—who trained at Reebok and who grew up in a boutique his mom owned—moved back to his wife’s hometown of Florence, Alabama, to try something new. In 2008, after successfully remounting a comeback as Billy Reid he opened his first store in New York…on the day the stock market crashed in 2008. This is all to say: Reid is no stranger to bad luck, genuine disaster, and the million other small misfortunes that can befall a small business.
But he’s figured out how to make the best of those bad moments. Despite the challenges, he boomed during menswear’s Americana era—hoovering fashion awards in the process—and stuck with it as trends moved on. He’s carved out a sustainable business doing what he knows best, fostering local community—most publicly through a music, food, and fashion event he hosts called Shindig—and making the most of that network when a guy like Daniel Craig becomes a loyal customer during his prime Bond years.
You could forgive Reid if, after any of those moments—9/11, or the stock market crash, or the pandemic—he’d stormed off in frustration. Instead, after more than 20 years in the business, he is still juiced by it all. He misses the big fashion events. He buys Off-White sneakers! He laments “jaded fashion editors.” He’s got big hopes for New York Fashion Week, lately on life support. He’s always open to the possibility of something special coming along—like it does when, outside our Zoom frame, an eagle flies by his window. We talked about how he’s seen the last decade of menswear unfurl, what’s changed the most, and how he keeps things feeling special.
GQ: You’ve been doing this for so long and have weathered so much in this industry. Maybe we could just start with the current crisis: has the pandemic made you think differently about clothes, about retail, about being a brand?
Reid: Going through a lot of the chaotic moments definitely threw some major challenges at us throughout the years. So, I tried to rely on that to create an optimism, that there is a light at some point. But the timing—I mean, it’s never a good time for something like this—but we have been going through a pretty extensive introspective look at: what we do well? What do our customers expect from us? We went through a pretty extensive brand survey and reboot. We worked with an outside firm, just to narrow the focus somewhat. We got a tremendous response. Having that, and feeling that we needed to reset, and then the pandemic comes around—you’re absolutely in major adjustment mode.
I’ve been doing this since ’98, and you definitely can start to watch that funnel where you started begin to expand out. Before you know it, you’re making things that are outdoor-influenced, you’re making hand-tailored clothing, you’re doing a whole denim collection, you’re doing athletic-inspired things, you’re doing women’s, you’re doing…all of these things. And you’re doing runway. How does that affect your core customer, and what is their perception of it?
We needed to narrow it. One thing the pandemic forced us to do is, make a lot less, and trim down, and really get down to what we do best. Our customers are looking for things that are sophisticated, looking for polish, they’re looking for things that are ageless. Those are things they expect from us. Yeah, and all those little details that we put into it without just screaming at you. They want clothes that are going to live with them. I think we really benefited as an organization. And we’ve really seen it in our business. Our wholesale business has actually increased during the pandemic.
Wow, that’s surprising.
It’s completely unexpected. But I think what helped was our reboot. I think we were showing so much stuff that it gets confusing. If there’s a silver lining, it’s been that benefit.
That’s something you hear from a lot of designers or people who run brands: there’s this idea that if you’re good at that one thing, you could do this, you could expand into that…There’s this need to get bigger instead of asking what the right size for the brand is. Do you feel like that’s what was happening with Billy Reid?
I’ll take the blame for some of it, for sure. I love to make things. Obviously you want to continue to create and work on something different. The perfect example was: anytime we worked with someone, whether it was the Southern Foodways Alliance, which is a charity we work with, or Muscle Shoals Sound, the music studio, we sell out, and we end up having to make more of this stuff. So you go, man, we should be making a whole damn collection of this stuff.
When they’re special, they work. But if you do a ton of them, it’s not as special. I’ve seen this expansion in other categories too. We were doing denim, and before you know it you’re doing eight washes. It’s like, Man, we don’t need eight washes. The number-one piece is still the number-one piece. The denim shirt, one of the first pieces I ever made, it’s still our number one shirt today.
Yeah. I think that’s such a good mantra for the whole fashion industry: If it’s special, leave it special. The idea that we need less is resonating with a lot of people.
Completely. It’s one of those things too where cutting back is kind of scary. Because that means whatever that style is, it’s got to work. There can’t be a loser in there. It’s definitely a bold decision, but man, our sell-throughs [a product that sells out as full price] have been—even through all of this craziness—much, much improved. I mean we’ve had our best sell-throughs that we’ve ever had this season.
You’ve been around long enough to see this whole wave of Americana come and go, in the late aughts and the early ’10s. Everyone wanted to know how their clothes were being made, and they cared that their denim was from Cone Mills, and there was such enthusiasm for that. How has being an American brand changed over the last decade? Did the Trump administration affect that perception or enthusiasm at all?
I’ve been a huge proponent of Made in America since the beginning. I used to make so many things in New York City in the garment center for years, and that just completely shriveled up. Then we began manufacturing relationships with factories all over the country. They go out of business. I’ve been in so many situations where you get the relationship started, and then it’s like, “Hey, we got to close.” And then you’re looking for somebody else to make something.
I’m very persistent with it. We have definitely had to adjust in different categories. But we still keep a consistent base—particularly in denim and tailored clothing—in the United States. I don’t want to change that. I think people have always looked to us to be a brand that stands for that. It’s something I really believe in, and it really wasn’t as a marketing ploy.
Now, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to walk in and see something made in Italy, or see something beautifully made from Portugal or France or wherever, or Japan. We have to make things in those countries. And sometimes it’s just a capability issue. The knits that we do out of Japan, I couldn’t get that out of Italy. They do something very specific. And we try to tell those stories. It’s a big world, man.
But made in USA with Trump, I try not to let that drive things. I do think the tariffs were not beneficial for American manufacturing. I’m not trying to get political about this, but from a business standpoint, and as it relates to the apparel industry, we need raw materials to make things. For what we make, I can’t find the raw materials in this country. There’s nowhere to go make those types of things in this country at the capacity we need it, or anywhere close to the price we’d need it. And in most cases, maybe you can’t make it at all. But if I could get the raw materials and I could ship them to the United States, then I’ve got a chance to make those, and cut and sew it in the United States. And there’s manufacturing jobs. But if you add a 25% tariff to that, then the equation is not possible.
In terms of different movements within menswear, is there something that’s changed over the last decade or so, whether it’s within the business or style, that stands out most to you?
The customer having a better idea of what they want.
If I look back through the years, even going way back to when I started, I remember making flat-front pants. Now everyone that was working, business guys, they’re wearing pleated pants. And I remember trying to get my buddies to wear flat front pants. It was like changing a mind one at a time to get it. Now we’re in a situation where we’re all trying to get guys to wear pleated pants again. There’s that whole reeducation.
But I think in general, the customer has a little bit better feeling for what they want, just because they see more, they’re more in tune. Now, there’s still guys who have no clue. But in general, that’s been the biggest change: the information.
Even guys who were enthusiastic about fashion loved to adhere to a guidebook, or a list of rules. They knew: you should get the double monk shoes, you get the jacket with the surgeon cuff, etc. But as men in general have gotten more into style and fashion over the last 10 years, all of these things can co-exist at once.
Yeah, that right there, I mean—double monk straps, oh my God. Jeez. We couldn’t stop making them. We could not stop making them. Everybody had to have a pair. And those sort of [dominant] trends, I just don’t see them right now. I think there is definitely a more self-focused customer. I don’t think they’re as much looking to be like, “I’ve got to have this because this guy has it.”
I love that you couldn’t stop selling double monks, and that period was such a big moment for you and your brand too. That was around the time that you won CFDA best menswear designer, and you had won the Vogue Fashion Fund Award. What happens after those years as people are moving on, chasing the streetwear thing? It would have been so easy to chase those trends, and many brands did do that. What decisions did you make, and why?
You have things that have made you successful. And then there are those… Man, it’s athleisure. It’s street wear. It’s outdoor-influenced things. You’re getting this information from our staff in the shops, you’re getting it from various customers. “Oh, I just bought these stretch pants from Lululemon, they’re my favorites. I wear them with everything and for every flight I get on.” All of these different trends. And, honestly, we did chase those. Because I did start to listen to all of the stuff. Now, we kept making those things that made us successful. But you start to look to these new things and think that’s the wave of the future.
And you need to add that to your repertoire, so to speak. And even as a customer, if I’m buying a pair of Off-White sneakers because I want my son to think I’m cool, and I love the design, that’s okay. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be what our collection is about.
It doesn’t mean you don’t challenge the norm. It’s all about how you interpret those trends. We don’t need to go out and make a cotton-nylon stretch yoga pant. Let’s go out and make that in cashmere, and make it lux and make it relate to the collection better.
That’s where anyone can make mistakes. The Vogue Fashion Fund, CFDA—those are big moments. You start to think you can do anything, and you can, but you really need to focus. Focus is a big, big word. It’s lessons learned through the years.
You’re also in a unique position because you’ve been in Florence, Alabama for 20 years—you’ve removed yourself from the epicenters of fashion. I wonder, what are the challenges? And I’m sure there are benefits that come with that as well.
Up until two years ago, I averaged 25 flights a year to New York. So I was spending about half my work time in New York. Obviously we had the shop there. But then there’s also events, and general fashion stuff—big-time fashion stuff. There’s a challenge with doing that. There’s also that challenge of, through the years, if you need a 32-line horn button, well I can’t go to Hobby Lobby and find those down the street. So you have to plan better. And through the years, I haven’t been able to go to every single GQ and Vogue event through the years. I’ve missed some of that.
On the flip side, from a personal standpoint, I’ve been able to raise my family exactly where I wanted to raise them, and do things I probably never would have had a chance to do if I were living in Manhattan or Brooklyn or Connecticut. I’m coaching baseball, and going to every one of my kids’ activities through the years. And also just being a part of this community here and what we’ve been able to contribute by being based here has been something … It’s probably one of the most gratifying things that we’ve been a part of. And seeing people from all over the country and all over the world come to work for us in a small town. And they’re young and they’re creative and they’re energetic, and people visit from all over. Then they mix with the locals. And that energy that comes from that really has changed the entire vibe of the community. I probably couldn’t have done that in New York. We couldn’t have had that effect on a community that way, and I think that’s been the biggest part of it.
You mention the fashion events. Do they feel less useful, or essential to doing a business like this now?
I think they’re still essential. My kids were also at that age where they’re all in high school at one point. And I purposely had to pull back on some of that stuff, just to make sure my family life was balanced. But I think they’re important, because that way you don’t lose touch with folks. Those are things I personally feel like I should be better at. I beat myself up for not being at those things.
I love doing fashion shows. The energy from that, everything you put into it, the reaction, I loved those times. But I’m also not sure how important it is, in some ways. Lately, before the pandemic, we started hosting a fashion show at Shindig. [Reid hosts an annual music, food, and fashion show in Florence.] We can have 450 of our best customers sitting in an audience that are not jaded by fashion shows, that are so excited to see it, and we run the looks out, and it’s so cool to share that with them because that’s a moment they’re not going to get. It’s not like we went to Dillard’s and had the model walk inside a department store. No, we’re putting in the same energy that we would do for fashion week in that show for those customers. And man, that reaction, and that idea of sharing that with them, was working. Because they’re going right from the runway and seeing that to shopping. That’s a good thing.
Do you think, stripping the pandemic away from it all, that New York Fashion Week still has a place? Because it has definitely been contracting over the past couple years.
I certainly hope it does. I really do. I feel like this country still has a lot of creative people and can make some beautiful things. I feel it has a place, I really do. Does it evolve? It’s hard to think of it without thinking of the pandemic in some ways, just because of the effect this has had on everyone’s businesses. But it needs to have a place.
I’m pleasantly surprised by your answer, because part of me thought you had stepped away from New York Fashion Week and from the big capital-F fashion stuff, but it’s nice you still have a little romance, a soft spot for it.
I can’t help it. All of those things that happened for us were in many cases related to that. If we weren’t doing New York Fashion Week, would we have had those successes and the recognition? I don’t think we would have.
I felt like we were doing our part to represent American fashion in that format. I really felt like we did our part. I miss a little bit of that, but I totally also understand the finances of it and the effect of being able to take that same process and put it directly in front of the customer.
The last thing I want to ask you, and I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but I heard a new detail related to the famous Bond coat [that Daniel Craig wore in Skyfall]. He originally bought this from you and then loved it so much that he basically forced them to put it in the movie, is that true?
That’s one of those things again that we couldn’t have scripted it. Daniel had been shopping in Nashville with a customer of ours who’s in Kings of Leon. He was staying at their house and they brought him into the store, and he fell in love with the store. He buys the peacoat. And he’s wearing it constantly—it’s his favourite coat. And then when he’s in New York, he’s shopping in the store there. He just became a really good customer. So when he gets the script for Skyfall, there’s wardrobe attached, and it says peacoat. Well, he tells the wardrobe team that he wants to wear this peacoat.
So we get a call from the wardrobe folks. “We need 19 mediums and 11 larges.” We were like, “I don’t know if we have that.” We were able to fast track the order, get it to them, and that was kind of it. We didn’t really know what was going to happen from there. And all of a sudden, the movie comes out, we get word that the coat did make the movie, and it was on screen for like 15 minutes. I mean, it was front and centre: the leather details, the whole thing. And we didn’t understand that there’s this whole universe of Bond. Whatever’s in the movie, these folks virally spread it. It just blew up. I mean, it blew up. And we chased reorders on that coat. I think we sold it in 25 different countries, all online. We chased it for five years, just trying to keep up with the production of it. It’s still one of our best selling outerwear pieces, even now.
He’s still a customer, and he’s pulled some things for the next movie. It was kind of cool that it happened that way where he owned it and loved it so much that he wanted to wear it in the movie. Hopefully more. Please.
Maybe it’s in the next movie!
We could use another one like that. Yeah, we’ll take it, buddy.
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