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Interviews

In conversation with Billy Reid

In conversation with Billy Reid

Designer Billy Reid doesn’t make clothes that stand out. He makes clothes that stand the test of time. When he designs a new collection, he does so with the intention that men one, even two generations apart can walk out the door in and feel like themselves – whether they’re grabbing a bite to eat in Soho or frequenting his local coffee shop in Florence, Alabama. And he doesn’t want his designs to last just one or two seasons. He creates pieces guys can throw on for years to come. 

Proof that Billy’s designs do indeed endure? The fact that some of his most popular pieces were designed nearly 20 years ago. “Some of the first things I designed are still in the collection,” he says. One of these pieces, in particular, was even worn by 007 himself in the 2012 film “Skyfall”. We caught up with the Southern designer about when James Bond’s people call, how uprooting his eponymous brand to Alabama made him a more confident designer, and why his outerwear is always so damn good. 

Photographed: Henley from the A/W collection Billy Reid Louis Cashmere Blend Henley ($174)

Tell us about the Billy Reid customer today?

We’ve got an incredibly diverse customer base, and that’s something we’ve been proud of. It’s been cool to watch a 19-year-old guy and a 65-year-old man walk into the store, and both walk out with the same item. We’ve never looked at demographics by age – we’ve always sort of looked at it as a mindset in some ways. Our guy is looking for something that’s going to set him apart without standing out. It’s subtle, it’s more personal. He appreciates the hidden details and the quality of how something is made. I feel that when they’re shopping, they’re buying things that work with them. It’s usable luxury. It’s not just clothes that look good – they’re going to stand the test of time, not just in terms of durability – but from a style perspective. 

 

A really great example of that is the peacoat worn by Daniel Craig in “Skyfall”. Can you speak to how that came together? 

That’s been our number one selling outerwear piece. The first time I made it was actually in 2001, so that's a piece for us that really stuck around. Then you have someone like Daniel Craig, who actually bought the piece in the shop and was wearing it. He was a customer – that’s how it happened. So he bought the piece, and when they started on wardrobe for “Skyfall,” there was a scene that called for a peacoat, and he said he wanted this peacoat. And thank God. [Laughs] Then the wardrobe people called us and said, “Do you have 19 mediums and 11 larges?” And we’re like, “No, we don’t.” So we scrambled and figured it out, and we really had no idea if it was going to be in the movie. Lo and behold, it was in the movie for quite awhile, and it just took off from there. A lot of good fortune, and we’re really grateful that it happened. 

 

Why did you decide to make Florence, Alabama your home and design base? 

For me, I grew up in the south, in south Louisiana, lived all over, and worked in New York. I launched my collection for the first time in New York. I had a runway show on September 10th, a day before the terrorist attacks. We had to really start it all over. My wife is from Florence, Alabama, and she’s one of nine children, so we kind of moved here out of necessity to restart life. We launched in 2004 here in Alabama, and probably the most significant thing is that is that it gave me more confidence because after losing something like that and going through what we went through, I realised what’s important personally: family. So I really started to build work around my life and not life around my work. That freed me up to really be myself and create from gut instinct. 

Photographed: Tee from the A/W collection Billy Reid Washed T-Shirt ($79)

How does where you live influence your designs?

I think it subconsciously influences things. It’s not intended; it’s sort of second nature. This area in general has this crazy creative energy. Everything that happened here with Muscle Shoals Sound and Fame Studios and all the musicians that came through here, and that vibe is still here. There’s still great music being made here. It’s this creatively charged little oasis here in the rural south, and it’s been great to be a part of that. I definitely feed off of that energy. We don’t look at fashion as anything regional. We try to make clothes that maybe great here at the Rivertown Coffee shop in Florence but also great in Soho in London. I think that helps us continue to evolve and stay current. 

 

How has your design perspective changed since you launched your collection?

From a business perspective, some of our best-selling pieces are some of the older things. There’s always been sort of that running thread of those foundational pieces, like the peacoat. We have a denim shirt that’s still our number one shirt that we’ve made for 15 years now. Some of key classic pieces that have details that are signature and proprietary to us. But we’re constantly looking for new fabrics and developing new textiles and silhouettes and shapes. So change is constant yet there’s a consistency as well. We refer to some of the early runways shows all the time, and it’s sort of a gut check in a way. But you still need that freedom to evolve. I think it’s important to evolve. I look at people who’ve been around for a while, and I think that’s helped them throughout their career.

 

Tell us about the direction for your latest collection?

I can’t help but think of the outdoors during wintertime and fall. I love making outerwear. It’s certainly my favourite thing to work on because it’s the most complicated, and it’s where you can probably put the most detail in the piece. We usually start our fall-winter collections with knitwear and outerwear. It has some influences from the outdoors and combined with influences from the street. There’s a little more colour injected into the season and certainly in some of the details and interiors where there’s pops of colour. And for me, it’s always about texture. Just great textures, whether you’re knitting it or weaving it. Bringing something to the surface that you notice but again it’s subtle. I think having that subtly helps it to be more timeless, but also in the same way, it’s what makes it modern. 

 


Words: Allison Pavlick
Photography: Courtesy of Billy Reid