When Billy Reid was growing up in Amite, Louisiana, near the Mississippi border, he worked summers as a lifeguard at a local country club. “One day I saw this guy down on the first tee box,” he recalls. “He was wearing these houndstooth linen pants and a white Oxford-cloth button-down.” Amite was a small town, and Reid would see him around from time to time. “Every Christmas party he’d be wearing a bright red turtleneck, and he drove a really cool MG.” His voice drifts off into reverie, the way some people remember high-school touchdowns. “Joe Buddy Anderson…”
Thirty-five years later, Reid—now based in Florence, Alabama—has recreated that look in his fall collection, for both his men’s and women’s lines: lightweight tweed trousers, crisp white button-downs, and ice-blue cashmere turtlenecks that feel, for the first time since your 1994 family Christmas card, like the right choice. (“Try it with a soft jacket and stay in easy tones of neutrals and darks,” Reid says. “Ease into it.”) It’s a genteel Southern suavity, but one cut with a downtown edge. There are also wool-bonded leather jackets and biker-inspired boots, a style honed during the decade he spent in Manhattan in the late ’90s and early aughts.
“I don’t think style is regional anymore,” Reid says from his studio, a loft above his Florence store. “I see the same looks in Alabama as I see in New York.” Reid’s collection this fall bears what’s become his trademark earthen palette: tobacco-hued suede boots, russet cardigans, a bone-white twill blazer. What’s new is a fuller, baggier cut to the pants that brings to mind Huckleberry Finn or a Stop Making Sense–era David Byrne. “We’re emphasizing ease and a bigger shape,” he says.
Reid, 52, learned the retail world firsthand as a young executive at Saks before moving to the design side when he spearheaded Australian golfer Greg Norman’s line for Reebok. He founded his own label in 1995 under the name William Reid and by 2001 had won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s prestigious Perry Ellis Award for best new menswear designer. But consumer spending plunged in 2001, and after nine months of stillborn sales, he shuttered his business in 2002 and left New York for Alabama.
Over the next couple of years, Reid turned to freelance design—Fruit of the Loom, Neiman Marcus, J. C. Penney. It wasn’t as glamorous, but he fostered a knack for working with legacy brands. In 2004, he relaunched his label in its current iteration, Billy Reid, with stores in Florence, Dallas, and Houston, and has found continued success in collaborations: a wool tweed hat for Stetson, a white canvas tote for Levi’s, the coat Daniel Craig wore in Skyfall (its name, The Bond Peacoat, refers to both the film and Bond Street, the site of Reid’s first New York store). The coat is his best-selling piece, but Reid’s longest-running partnership is a line of après-tennis shoes with K-Swiss that marks its seventh year this fall. “It’s the old canvas Surf & Court shoe I had in the ’80s,” he says. “We remade them with softer, more refined leather, going for high-end dress shoes. We wanted a fresh take.”
Reid’s collaborative spirit extends beyond the realm of fashion. Florence is just across the Tennessee River from Muscle Shoals, home of the legendary recording studio, and this August, in a series of venues lining the river, he’ll host the eighth-annual Shindig, a festival that brings together artists, fashion designers, chefs, and musicians. Last year, Alabama Shakes headlined, and Reid promises an exciting lineup this year, too, as well as plenty of good food, like lobster rolls from Atlanta chef Adam Evans, Jonathan Waxman’s partner at his new Italian bistro, Brezza Cucina. “Friday night’s a little bit fancy, then Saturday’s a picnic,” Reid says. “We just take all this art and music and fashion and just put it in a blender.”
That broad approach to Southern culture has helped Reid expand to 12 locations, including New Orleans, Nashville, and Charleston, South Carolina. But the feel remains small-town. “Growing up, my mom had this women’s store out of my grandmother’s house,” he says. “There was great denim, lots of Calvin Klein. The house was from the 1920s, with a huge front porch and a big bay window. This was a town of 4,000 people, and all these women would come gossip and hang out and buy a bunch of really cool clothes. It was like Steel Magnolias.”
That sense of intimacy has trickled down to his stores today, including the one on Bond Street, where, on a recent Saturday afternoon, the arched windows flooded the space with light and a crowd was taking bets on the Derby. “Have a drink,” said the guy at the register, gesturing toward a crystal decanter of whiskey. He wore a railroad conductor’s hat and Isaac Hayes sideburns. On the counter was a pair of biker boots, handcrafted near Florence (Italy), their instep cut by a slanting brass zipper. “These things are so tough, it’s like they’re made of horsehide. You’ll have them for 10 years.” He handed them over. “Keep coming back, though. They’ll pay for themselves in bourbon.”