NEW YORK — Billy Reid could be a case study in resilience.
Since he created the first William Reid collection in March 1998, the soft-spoken Southern designer has experienced more than his share of ups and downs.
The ups: He has built his Southern-flavored Americana designer collection into a successful wholesale business at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom and 13 of his own Billy Reid stores. He’s also won four Council of Fashion Designers of America awards.
The downs: His initial foray into fashion, William Reid, failed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, driving the designer and his family from New York back to his home state of Alabama.
But despite the roller coaster that has defined his career, Reid is happy to be at the helm of a $25 million brand as he prepares to celebrate his 20th anniversary next year.
“Failure? I’ve been there,” Reid said, sitting on a chair in his showroom on Bond Street here. “Losing everything overnight was so humbling, but it makes you realize what’s important to you and that you can recover.”
Reid’s story begins in the small town of Amite, La., where his mother owned a women’s boutique called T.J.’s for Her that operated out of his grandmother’s home. “It was like ‘Steele Magnolias’ set in a clothing store,” Reid said with a chuckle. “She created an experience where people just wanted to go and hang out.”
Reid attended Southeastern Louisiana University to study physical education in hopes of becoming a football coach, but he flunked out. “Thank goodness for small miracles,” he said. “That sent me on the right path — you learn and move forward.”
With his mother’s urging, he attended the Art Institute of Dallas, where he studied fashion design and merchandising. While still in school, he started working in the men’s department at Saks for four-and-a-half years, ending up as a manager while still a student. “It was a great place to learn about luxury and the designer business,” Reid said.
He joined Reebok International for six years, where he worked on the launch of the Greg Norman golf collection.
But Reid always felt he had something more to say in terms of fashion and in 1998, he created the William Reid label. It was a risky move. “My wife was pregnant, we had a new house and a new business,” he recalled. “My office was in our bedroom — it was complete chaos. In my first season, I only got two accounts: Stanley Korshak and Fred Segal. But the collection sold, so they reordered.”
While the business was small, the exposure at such well-respected retailers helped Reid build the brand quickly. “The next season we had 35 accounts,” he said.
He moved the company to New York, finding a “dirt cheap” warehouse space on 28th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, where he began doing women’s and staged his first runway show in September 2000.
“The space was dirty, but the response was great,” he said. So much so that Reid won the CFDA’s Best New Menswear Designer award that year.
The business chugged along until 2001 when the World Trade Centers fell and “the whole world changed,” he said. People stopped shopping and stores stopped buying his collection. The self-funded William Reid collection didn’t have the wherewithal or financial ability to keep going. “We didn’t even have a single appointment,” he said. “It put us out of business.”
So Reid packed up his wife and two children and exited New York to return to Alabama to “regroup.” They wound up in his wife’s hometown of Florence. “We were living with my mother- and father-in-law with our two kids and two dogs in a three-bedroom house,” he said. “I tried to keep the collection alive, but it was just me and it wasn’t working.”
To make ends meet, he did freelance design work “anywhere I could find it,” he said, including Fruit of the Loom underwear, TaylorMade golf apparel and Reebok. “It was quite a struggle and a soul-searching few years,” Reid said. “I went from feeling on top of the world to everything falling apart.”
It was about that time that some friends suggested Reid relaunch his line, but sell it through his own stores. This would allow him to be more in charge of his own destiny and less beholden to the fickle world of wholesale. He took that advice and restarted the collection as a retail-only business under a new name, one that better fit his personality. “No one calls me William,” he said of the decision to call the line Billy Reid. That was in 2004.
The first stores opened in Dallas, Houston and Florence, where Reid found an old home that could house the store downstairs and his design studio upstairs.
He took a page from his childhood and created stores that had a similar feel to his mother’s T.J.’s for Her store. From the music to the scent, the stores were quintessentially Billy Reid. “I wanted to create a loyal connectivity and a personal touch,” he said. “When we open a store, it’s not about commerce, but community and gaining local support.”
By 2009, Reid had seven stores around the country, including one on Bond Street in Manhattan, where he created a space downstairs for meeting with retailers. It was then he decided to again try his hand at wholesaling again.
And once again, it worked.
In 2010, Reid was named GQ/CFDA’s Best New Menswear Designer and won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award. Two years later, he was named the CFDA’s 2012 Menswear Designer of the Year.
Today his collection is known for its classic American designs and vintage details that he twists in a modern way. His mastery of textile design and high-quality construction also help set the brand apart.
In addition to his core men’s brand, Reid has a successful women’s line as well as accessories. An eyewear collection launched in November exclusively in his own stores and over the years, he has collaborated with brands as varied as Levi’s, J. Crew, Coach, Neiman Marcus, K-Swiss, the Kentucky Derby and the New York Mets.
But the ghosts of the past are never far from his mind.
“It’s taken a long time to feel stable,” he said. “But it’s made us stronger and taught us how to fight.”
So instead of planning some big blowout to celebrate his 20th anniversary, Reid is actually slowing down.
“We’re starting with a clean rack,” he said. “There’s always so much pressure to come up with new things every six to eight weeks and all we’re doing is competing with ourselves.”
After doing this for so many years, he explained, “you learn what works and doesn’t work and what the customer responds to. So we’re focusing on the things we do best, and making special things. Less but better.”
What that translates into is a focus on his greatest hits — some 25 to 30 consistent bestsellers that “you can build a career on” — and eliminating the rest. “We’re cutting the collection in half and reducing the inventory,” he said. “We’re embracing what we stand for and making the denim shirt, the peacoat, the blazer, the moleskin jean feel important. It’s very cleansing and energizing and is giving us a new lease on life.”
In addition to key items, Reid is taking a cold, hard look at the company’s web site. “We feel that’s a big opportunity,” he said. “It’s only about 15 percent of our business now, but we think we can almost double that by investing in it.”
He worked with Trey Laird to build a brand book for the first time and will also invest in more direct marketing and upgrading the stores. “We’re going to link the stores, web site and book in a three-headed revenue model, all of which complement the others,” he said.
“We’re fortunate to have built a large customer base, but they don’t hear from us,” Reid added. “We’ve got to have a more effective way to communicate.” He said his database has close to 100,000 names and “we see that as a giant opportunity to connect with people.”
For holiday, the company created a coffee-table-worthy catalogue that features an intro from Reid talking about how he is embarking on a new way to communicate “and some exciting product introductions, including our hand-crafted eyewear collection and K-Swiss sneakers made in New York. Our branding marks and signature ribbon stripe take shape in the launch of new small leather goods, luxury accessories and gifts.”
Reid stumbled across the black and gold ribbon in a family-owned dry goods store in Florence when he was rummaging through dead stock inventory of sewing notions, beaver hats, vintage lingerie and old workwear. He was immediately drawn to the ribbon with the bias stripe, buying it to wrap packages at his stores and eventually incorporating it into his branding. “To me, branding is something that shouldn’t be forced,” he writes on his web site. “It should come from a real place, needs to have meaning…and has to be able to live with you as a designer for an inevitable period of your life.”
That stripe is now used in subtle ways on Reid’s men’s and women’s pieces, embossed on his leather goods and even emblazoned on blankets and a women’s shirtdress. “We never wanted to force anything, but it creates a point of difference and you can tell from the design mark that it’s ours,” he said.
Right now, he said his business is 45 percent retail, 40 percent wholesale and 15 percent e-commerce. Women’s wear, which represents about 25 percent of sales in his stores, is not wholesaled. But it is a growing category. “It was only 12 percent of the business four years ago,” he said.
At William Reid, within two seasons, women’s had grown to account for 85 percent of overall sales, so he knows there’s potential. Even so, Reid said he’ll work to develop the women’s customer in his own stores before branching out into wholesale.
Other categories he has introduced include men’s made-to-measure, footwear and even candles. “These are all natural extensions for me,” he said. “I want to be personally involved in the process.”
That’s especially evident in his fabrics that he develops in France and Japan. “Most of the textiles we use are our own,” he said. “You can’t get them anywhere else.”
It’s things such as this that Reid hopes to shout about in 2018 as he upgrades his web site and becomes more of a lifestyle purveyor. “We need to talk about things like our favorite chefs, music, our [footwear collaboration] program with K-Swiss,” he said.
To mark his milestone, Reid is hoping to do “some sort of celebration in February during New York Fashion Week.” However, he’s leaning more toward doing something “intimate” rather than a full-blown runway extravaganza. That’s what he did for his fall 2017 collection, when he hosted a presentation/show at a speakeasy in New York where guests sat at small tables and listened to live acoustic performances — and poetry reading — by some friends of the brand, including Tony Award-winning actor Alex Sharp.
“I love doing shows and it’s been a successful format,” he said. “But that was a really special, heartwarming night.”
He feels the same way about his Shindig event.
The idea for Shindig was the brainchild of Reid’s longtime publicist Megan Maguire Steele, who has produced every event since its inception in June 2009. Conceived as a press junket for editors to visit Alabama and personally experience Reid’s world and his Southern culture, it has grown into a consumer-facing music, art, food — and yes, fashion — festival held each August in The Shoals, Ala.
The eighth edition of Shindig in 2016 featured a runway show for the first time, showing current-season merchandise. The ninth edition Shindig this past summer offered live performances by Jason Isbell, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Del McCoury Band and others. A Business Man’s Special baseball game — where Reid pitched and Jack White played first base — a food grove and other events drew a sold-out crowd.
Reid’s spring collection was also on view at the event, presented in an installation format at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Rosenbaum House. He created mannequins that he placed around the house that not only served to showcase the line but also was a nod to the home’s owners.
“It’s my way of bringing a little bit of New York Fashion Week to Alabama,” Reid said.
The Shindig concept has been so successful that Reid took it on the road in November, hosting a three-day event at Blackberry Farm, a luxury resort in Walland, Tenn., in the Great Smoky Mountains. The next edition has already been scheduled for November and the designer is hoping to bring it to other markets where he operates stores including Chicago; Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans.
Shindig is proof that while Reid may have a strong presence in New York, he’s still a Southern boy at heart. “I say that I have dual citizenship,” he said with a laugh. “I took 26 flights to New York last year, I develop product here and produce it in the Garment Center.”
But keeping his primary home in Alabama allows him to create “balance” in his life. “If I stayed in Alabama and did everything there, [my collection] wouldn’t resonate in New York, London or Tokyo,” he said. “But there’s also a lot less regionalism in fashion today, so that’s great.”
So what’s next for Reid as he looks toward the next 20 years?
In addition to the “reset,” where Reid will home in on his key items and “more quality versus quantity,” he’s hoping to expand into even more categories. “We have eyewear now and someday I hope you’ll be able to buy a chair I designed.”
Expanding outside the U.S. border is also on his agenda.
“We haven’t even scratched the surface internationally,” he said. “It’s less than 1 percent of our business and we have nothing in Europe, so that could be a new frontier for us.”
But Reid has learned his lesson from his past challenges and won’t be moving ahead too quickly.
“We need to continue to expand what we have and communicate it in a better way, but we also need to be really strategic about getting our house in order first,” he said. “We’re not necessarily a small business anymore, but not a big business either, so we’re hoping to grow and are looking for the right help to get us there. Hopefully we’ll have something to talk about next year.”