Southern Comforts

Billy Reid is creating a menswear empire—from a small town in Alabama.

It seemed that 2001 was going to be Billy Reid's year. Then based in New York, Reid had long been a fashion insider, and that summer he had won the coveted Menswear Designer of the Year award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The next step was to present his women's collection during New York Fashion Week. In a case of spectacularly tough timing, he sent his models down the runways on September 10. The events of the next day erased any chance he had for commercial success.

To regroup, Reid moved with his wife and their three children to her hometown, Florence, Alabama (population 36,264). Even though the South is home for Reid (he was raised in the hamlet of Amite, Louisiana), the move took him about as far from the mainstream as a young designer could possibly go. Or so it seemed. Alabama also returned Reid to his roots, inspiring him to open a new store in a historic Florence house and launch a line of menswear with a southern Gothic-gone-modern edge.

"In southern culture men are very masculine and women are very feminine," says the 41-year-old designer. "My aesthetic plays to that. There is an antique quality, a sturdiness, but it's done in a fresh way."

Most of the Billy Reid collection is manufactured in Italy. The narrow wool suits— all three-button, double-vent jackets with flat-front pants in earthy colors—are made in the same Italian factory Paul Smith and Ermenegildo Zegna use (suits come ready-to-wear, starting at $875, or can be custom-made for upwards of $2,400). Dress shirts feature classic details such as French cuffs and mother-of-pearl buttons; shoes range from roper boots to old-fashioned wing tips. Reid's jeans—produced in factories in the Gulf Coast states—have the well-worn feel of vintage denim. This fall he introduced nubby handloomed cashmere sweaters for $700 and some scrumptious alligator loafers and boots starting at $1,300.

Working off the fashion grid has allowed Reid freedom in both design and business. He has already opened two more boutiques, in Dallas and Houston, and has plans for ten stores in major cities over the next five years. "The idea was to try something totally different," he says. "By developing the collection and only putting it in our own shops, we could build an environment around it."

In Alabama, Reid has easily found the setting that suits him. He's discovered, in fact, that the surrounding area, which includes Muscle Shoals, has a surprisingly rich cultural history:The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin recorded in local studios. "There are all these young musicians, artists, and photographers here," he says. "It's a hotbed of new talent. " A few years ago designer Natalie Chanin, a Florence native, launched her innovative fashion label Project Alabama (her first New York runway show earned a cover story in Women's Wear Daily).

Reid's Florence shop, which also sells local antiques and a line of embroidered T-shirts he designed with Project Alabama ($175-$395), is a kind of ode to his adopted region. It's an imposing structure called Pickett Place, built in 1833 and later owned by a local attorney who served in the Civil War. Reid painted the high-ceilinged rooms in vivid shades of red, green, and brown (deeper hues of the colors in his textile palette), furnished them with antique mahogany tables and armoires, and covered the enormous windows with lush fringed curtains that fall to the floor. He installed his design studio on the second floor, and on the back porch is a tearoom that seats two dozen.

"The shop is very casual," says Robert Rausch, a local customer and photographer who shot Reid's first collection. "You visit, see his kids, laugh a lot. It is really an extension of Billy's personality. He's just a good old southern boy."

At 438 N. Seminary St.; 256-767-4692; www.billyreid.com.