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10 Years in, Billy Reid Talks Expansion and What the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Meant for His Business

"Looking back, I don’t know where we would be without it," says the designer.
Billy Reid. Photo: Courtesy Billy Reid

Billy Reid. Photo: Courtesy Billy Reid

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

For upstart fashion designers worried about "making it" in this industry, the story of Billy Reid is a hopeful one. The designer, who is currently based in Florence, Alabama, grew up helping out in his mom's boutique in Amite, Louisiana, inadvertently cementing his career in fashion from an early age. He launched his menswear label, William Reid, in 1998, and in 2001 won the CFDA's Best New Menswear Designer award. William Reid shuttered not long after, the post-9/11 economy too much for the fledgling label. But in 2005 Reid started over, selling his wares out of a small but formidable chain of retail stores, including his Bond Street boutique in New York City, which opened its doors in 2008.

Reid went on to win the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, and now operates 11 stores, with more on the way in 2015. Just days after his second New York location opened its doors on Charles Street in the West Village, I spoke with Reid about where the 10-year-old label has been, and where it's headed. 

Billy Reid's Charles Street boutique. Photo: Courtesy

Billy Reid's Charles Street boutique. Photo: Courtesy

Congrats on the West Village opening. How did you decide on that neighborhood for the second New York location?

New York is so neighborhood centric in a lot of ways. Before we opened on Bond Street six years ago, we looked all over the city. A lot in the West Village, in the area where the shop is on Charles Street. We’ve wanted to have a presence there and be a part of that neighborhood -- we just liked the way it felt. The store has a lot smaller footprint than many of our shops. We thought we could take advantage of that and start to show more things from the runway, one-of-a-kind pieces and special projects. We do some of that on Bond Street, but this gave us a really nice setting to build awareness around those special pieces. They’re always fun to make.

This is your 11th store in the country, and you plan on opening four or five more in 2015. How much of what you’re doing is direct to consumer, and how much if it is wholesale?

We believe in all three channels [e-commerce, brick-and-mortar stores, and wholesale.] They all help feed each other in a lot of ways. It breaks down very equally -- our direct-to-consumer and wholesale businesses are fairly equal in size. We love our stores, it’s a way for us to really connect with the customer. They get to feel [the brand], not only through the clothes but through the environment and our people. We have some tremendous people who work in our shops. The hospitality and service creates good energy around what we’re doing. It’s just a great way to be introduced to what we do.

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One thing I like about your shops is that they’re all a little different. What is the process like when you're designing a concept for a store?

It starts with picking the location. We definitely like spots where you can sort of be a part of the community. When we opened on Bond Street, there wasn’t a lot happening on the street and on the Bowery. It was a little quiet down there for a while, but it really helped us become a part of that neighborhood. I’ve made so many friends there. We felt that in New Orleans, too. It’s a little bit up [Magazine Street], but we loved what was happening. We love that we can endear ourselves to the local community. That store reminds me of my mom’s store the most, because it’s in a house. My mom’s store was like that, it had a kitchen, everything. Our philosophy is to just get in there and feel it. Sit down with a blank sheet of paper and let the space tell you what it should be. We do try to bring somewhat of a residential element, creating that sense of space where you want to hang out.

You won your CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award five years ago.

That’s unbelievable.

Looking back, what did you learn? What has it done for your business?

It was a major honor to be involved in it. The support we’ve gotten, and the awareness it brought to what we were doing…. We did have a business [beforehand], but you know, it was a small business. I think we had six stores, but our wholesale business was really small. Six stores can sound like a lot, but when you don’t have a developed wholesale business... believe me, we needed [the money]. It came at such a great time because we were at that inflection point where something really good had to happen. We needed a little capital to hire [support staff], to make our processes a little more smooth, to build our website out. But we also needed the retail relationships. We got to go to Paris with the CFDA for two seasons, and that was really good for global contacts. Looking back, I don’t know where we would be without it. On another level, it’s good to know that people like what you’re doing, I guess, to make you feel like you might be on the right path. It did help settle my nerves in some ways. We put so much into [the business], and it’s good to know that people do like it. It was a boost of confidence. Once you’re in, they really take care of you.

For the people who know you, your brand has a lot of meaning. It’s very rooted in the South and Southern culture. As you get bigger and you open more stores, how are you going to tell your story to a broader audience?

I’m a Southerner. I can’t change that. Even before we had stores and going back to the William Reid days, people picked up -- unsolicited -- that there was something Southern to it. I don’t think of it as making Southern clothes, it’s just clothes that we like. We want to just keep doing that and let the message be that we’re developing beautiful textiles in Paris and Tokyo and Italy, and making beautiful things in the United States. And all over the country, from Chicago to San Francisco to Los Angeles, to the Garment Center to Tennessee. It’s really not just about the South. It just happens to be that I’m a Southerner and that I live in Alabama. But I also spend half of my time in New York. The best thing is just to be real. If they like the clothes, then the rest of it falls into place. 

I bet you’re big in Japan.

Actually, Asia is a big initiative! We’re just starting to make some footholds there.