Son of the South

Design | May 2017 | BY Josh Peskowitz

In August of 2016, Billy Reid held his first runway show in the South on the second floor of a wood beamed warehouse on a sweltering day in Florence, Alabama. The temperature inside was not conducive to cashmere sweaters and winter coats, but the models weren’t complaining. Almost all were part of Reid’s extended circle of friends and were happy to sweat it out for a few minutes, most of them under the realization that an art-fueled shindig—make that Shindig—was afoot.

In fact, local singer-songwriter John Paul White, one half of the Grammy-winning duo The Civil Wars, was serving up some hot folk licks around the corner, which were followed by a raucous-filled alley party. It was the third night of Reid’s 8th annual Shindig, the Louisiana-born, Florence-based designer’s weekend-long summertime celebration in Muscle Shoals—the northern Alabama hamlet along the Tennessee River that was once known as the “Hit Recording Capital of the World.”

Everyone from Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding to the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan came to the town to record with its famous sessions musicians (or “swampers” as Lynyrd Skynyrd famously called them in “Sweet Home Alabama”).

What started as a Florence block party has morphed into a Southern summit for the best young and established talent—regionally or nationally—in music (Alabama Shakes; Justin Townes Earle), food (New Orleans’ John Besh, Charleston’s Sean Brock and James Beard Award-winning Mississippi chef John Currence), visual art (Alabama folk artist Butch Anthony; rocker-turned-painter Alison Mosshart) and fashion (Alabama Chanin’s Natalie Chanin; New York jewelry designer Pamela Love). All of which revolve around Reid’s undying enthusiasm for his adopted hometown.

Many of the participants have a personal relationship with Reid, who is the Gladwellian connector for the soigné Southern set. The latest edition of Shindig even included a club baseball tournament pitting Reid’s Alabama Slammers against Jack White’s Third Man Triples. (The cooler of beers didn’t last long, nor did the ice, which quickly went down the players’ shirts.) After the tourney—in the space where Mosshart had her first solo show of drawings, “Tonight Only”—a glowing Reid proclaimed, “I’m never doing another show in New York!”

But the carnival that is New York Fashion Week is hard to quit cold turkey, and six months later, Reid was back in New York for his Fall 2017 show—his 21st—with a takeover of the Beekman hotel for a Shindig-styled two-part event he dubbed, “The Show and The Speakeasy.” There were musical performances during the runway show by the Watson Twins, Karen Elson and Cedric Burnside, and a spoken word piece by Tony Award-winner Alex Sharp.

“It always has to start from a real place,” Reid says. “We can’t afford to do what we do if it isn’t about community. I mean it’s not like Karen Elson would come play without that connection. Without the real folks involved, it doesn’t work.”

Reid, who is readying for an international expansion of his brand, has been able to convey this sense of place into his collections—and customers identify. Not only with his aesthetic, but his ethos. It’s an ethos bigger companies pay millions to marketers to achieve. For Reid, that’s simply a way of life. “I want to be able stand behind it and say, “‘We didn’t go out and buy this,’” he says. “We made it happen.”

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