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Fashion Forward

Florence-based Menswear Designer of the Year, Billy Reid says his career threads back to the shop his mom ran in his grandmother’s house in south Louisiana.

Reid modeling his own fashions in a Billy Reid shop.

Reid modeling his own fashions in a Billy Reid shop.

Photo courtesy of Billy Reid

While he was growing up in Amite, Louisiana, in the 1970s, Billy Reid’s mother owned a women’s clothing boutique. While he didn’t plan then to become a leader in the worldwide industry of fashion design, Reid traces his circuitous career path back to those early days, watching his mother manage inventory and serve her small-town customers and neighbors. 

“Her shop was located in my grandmother’s old home, and she influenced my path to the industry at an early age,” says Reid, who in June was named Menswear Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). “Growing up and watching how she was able to have a store, but do it in a way that felt personal and part of the community, was great.”

Reid originally intended to be a football coach, so he started out as a physical education major in college. Eventually, he transferred to a small arts school in Dallas and studied design.

After graduating from design school, Reid started designing clothing, because he had specific ideas of items he wanted to add to his own wardrobe but couldn’t find anywhere. In the fall of 1997, he launched his first collection, William Reid. After a few good years, “unfortunate circumstances” forced him to close that business in 2002, he says.

Reid took some time off and worked on freelance projects for a couple of years. When friends approached him with an idea to re-launch a fashion collection through a new business model, he was interested. The new model involved building the fashion label through its own shops. “Typically, wholesaling to other stores is the first step,” he says. “This strategy gave us the opportunity to control the shopping experience, the environment and message and essentially help us build a foundation of good customers. It also gave me the freedom to build product without the limitations of another retailer. In other words, if we wanted to put it in the shop, then we’d make it and sell it. The result helped us create a full collection of clothing and accessories.”

In late 2004, Reid launched his new label, Billy Reid. The freedom of growing his design business through his own shops meant that he could live anywhere he chose, rather than being tied to fashion-centric New York City. A Southern boy from birth, Reid is married to a Southern girl from Florence. They decided to bring their family, now including three children, back home.

“We decided that we would raise our family here (Florence) and structure our work around life, not life around our work,” Reid says. “So it is a bit of an unconventional path for fashion design, but it works for us.”

While Billy Reid shops are located in Atlanta, Charleston, Dallas, Houston, Nashville and New York, the company’s flagship store and design studio is located on Court Street in downtown Florence. “We set up our headquarters on the main street of our town, and we work hard to be a vital part of our community and build with it,” he says. “The community is also very supportive of the brand. We love it here, which is why we choose it is as home base.”

From this unlikely location, Reid has continued to wow the whim-driven world of global fashion design. “It is a fast paced and fickle industry,” he says. “Through the years, I’ve learned just to be yourself and keep it real. That’s all you can do, and, usually, you will be comfortable with the outcome.”

What are his plans for the future? “Our shops have been the core of our business,” Reid says. “It lets us build the clothes we like without restrictions and the environment that we believe in. Our plans are to seek markets globally where we can expand using this approach.”

He’s been duly recognized for his contributions to the global fashion industry, recognized by Vogue, GQ, and other leading fashion magazines, in addition to the CFDA. But Reid says the accomplishment he’s most proud of was being named the 2011 Shoals Citizen of the Year by the Shoals Area Chamber of Commerce. “It was very touching to be recognized by the people in our community,” he says.

“All of us sometimes take for granted what we have,” Reid said in his acceptance speech for the Citizen of the Year Award. “And this community is so special. Alabama and the Shoals have a rich culture and history, and we need to embrace it.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

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