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Selling the South: How Fashion Brands Are Cashing in On Southern Charm

And we're not talking about the Bravo reality show. Well, not entirely.
Reese Witherspoon "playing croquet" at a lunch to celebrate Draper James's collaboration with Net-a-Porter. Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

Reese Witherspoon "playing croquet" at a lunch to celebrate Draper James's collaboration with Net-a-Porter. Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

For decades, fashion consumers have been driven by a common desire to embody the sophisticated edge of a New Yorker, or the effortless je ne sais quoi of a French Girl™; but more recently, a slew of perhaps less glamorous locations have become central to brand building in fashion. One in particular feels, in some ways, like the polar opposite of these fashion capitals: the American South.

From Draper James and Southern Tide to Billy Reid and Krewe, several fashion brands seem to be catering to consumers who want to incorporate a little southern charm into their wardrobes — a desire that can be found far beyond the original Mason-Dixon line. Miu Miu even set its fall 2017 ad campaign in New Orleans, also the backdrop for Sofia Coppola's latest aesthetically driven Southern Gothic film, "The Beguiled." Examples of the success of southern branding can be found outside of fashion, too: "Southern Charm" recently became one of Bravo’'s few multi-location reality series franchises besides "Real Housewives" with iterations in both Charleston, SC, and Savannah, GA; "Fixer Upper," which I find to be the TV equivalent of a Klonopin, has little intrigue aside from its general comforting southern-ness; and also "Nashville" is still on. There are magazines dedicated to covering every aspect of a southern lifestyle, and it's used extensively in marketing for booze, grocery store items, restaurants and more. I am from the Pacific Northwest, but have found myself drawn to the accents, the friendliness, the slowed-down lifestyle and the quaint architecture and decor that I associate with the South... but the clothes? That's where I had questions, such as:

How did a region largely known for its perceived lack of sophistication and progressiveness — both qualities that are typically associated with fashion — become aspirational? Why is an area that was famously on the wrong side of history now on the right side of fashion? And what made the founders of these companies decide to make the South a focal point of their branding?

In 2015, Reese Witherspoon raised $10 million for her lifestyle brand Draper James, which now has stores in Nashville, TN; Dallas, TX; and Lexington, KY. Sure, being a famous, wealthy actress may have given Witherspoon a leg up when it came to getting her company off the ground, but we've seen more celebrity clothing lines fail than survive. In this case, it's Witherspoon’s milking of her Southern heritage — she was born in New Orleans and raised in Nashville — that people are buying into, more so than Witherspoon herself.

Southern-ness permeates every aspect of Draper James. There's the incessant use of "y'all" and other traditional southern vernacular in brand messaging, the deliberately homey store design and the abundance of seersucker and gingham. Witherspoon said in a Fast Company interview around the time of her fundraising that she was inspired by Nashville's cultural resurgence and the fact that many of the brands who wanted to work with her were inspired by the East Coast, which she didn't relate to. "I haven’t traveled in the Northeast. What I know is Charleston and North Carolina and the beaches of Georgia. Tailgating. Sipping tea on the porch. Sunday dinners. Dressing for church. Those are the touchstones in my life. Those are the stories I wanted to tell," she said.

Witherspoon wasn't the first person to realize the southern lifestyle could be sellable in the form of clothes and accessories: In 2006, then-University of South Carolina senior Allen Stephenson founded a line of collegiate, preppy basics for men called Southern Tide in an effort to marry the casual southern lifestyle he knew with European-inspired quality and attention to detail. A website called Bro Bible once referred to it as "one of the most recognizable bro brands in America," which should help paint a picture if you're not familiar. I spoke with Southern Tide CEO Christopher Heyn who says that the South is a "state of mind."

It’s important to note that the aforementioned brands aren't catering to fashion connoisseurs or cool kids and certainly not hypebeasts — they're after the "basics," which, as we've noted before, isn't a bad strategy. "Preppy" is an aesthetic some people are still after, and these brands are doing it with an approach that feels less exclusive than their East Coast counterparts like Polo, Tory Burch, Lilly Pulitzer and Vineyard Vines. 

Thomai Serdari, a strategist in luxury marketing and branding and adjunct professor at NYU's Stern School of Business, suggests that, perhaps fed up with the this country's socioeconomic division (the one percent, etc.), consumers want to buy into a heritage that feels more inclusive. "Most people when they think of preppy, they think of the old institutions, the old money," she says. "Preppiness is also about Ivy League schools, whereas the South [makes] you think of good southern families and their beautiful homes, but this is truly the American middle class, and there is something very appealing about that approachable dream that the consumer can reach and implement in their everyday lifestyle."

But that's not to say more discerning luxury consumers aren't interested in the southern lifestyle as well. Last month, ultimate luxury e-tailer Net-a-Porter launched an exclusive partnership with Witherspoon and Draper James. And a couple of other southern brands (with notably higher price points) managed to capture the fashion world's attention early on. Florence, Alabama-based Billy Reid has shown at either men's or women's fashion weeks in New York for the past several years (his line, better known for menswear, encompasses both); he has also won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and operates a small chain of boutiques that authentically evoke the southern charm Reid oozes himself, even if he doesn't mean to. 

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Stirling Barrett's Instagirl-beloved luxury eyewear brand Krewe is inspired by New Orleans, where he was born and raised, and where the company is based. Each frame is named after prominent streets, neighborhood districts and local fauna of the Louisiana city. 

Even though you'd be hard-pressed to find an article about Billy Reid that doesn't mention the label's southern identity, Reid says he has never made a conscious effort to brand his company as such. "Before we started opening stores," Reid says, "people would relate the collection as something that did have some reference to the South. I don't know if it's because I had an accent or what it might be. It's not something we go and say, 'It's southern.'" Reid, of course, is southern, and is focused on building an "American luxury brand" that feels real and true to himself. He thinks that, if anything, it's the southern hospitality you find in his stores that fans are latching onto. "We want them to feel like they're walking into our home," he explains. "It's more being hospitable, they can take their time, they can relax." He feels people have a tendency to "romanticize" the South, bringing up movies like "Gone With the Wind” (which Southern Tide's Heyn also referenced) and "Deliverance."

"We think the brands that endure are the ones that are really built from the heart that have a lot of emotional connectivity," says Heyn. "There's a historical base and an emotional base that the South provides."

In a way, the South lends itself especially well to branding expressly because of the preconceived notions we have about this part of the country from film, TV and literature: "It has been building in our psyche for so many years and through so many various media that we already all understand," notes Serdari. "I think that's a tremendous asset in anyone who wants to launch a brand."

Serdari sees the South, itself, as a brand — and a very strong one at that. "In branding, we look for the three C's: a brand has to have clarity, to be consistent and to be constant," she says. The South embodies this, almost to a fault. Like some pockets of the East Coast, the South seems to possess this frozen-in-time quality that can be comforting when the rest of the world is changing rapidly and grappling with incessant political unrest. "The fact it has been insulated as a society actually has helped maintain that clarity and consistency. Rather than be integrated into this whole mainstream America, which is culturally diverse, all organized around big metropolises, the south is a nest of ideas, people, social customs and very, very identifiable forms of behavior that are actually very appealing." She points to good manners as an example.

But some Southern designers want to see progress. One question I asked the founders of these southern brands is if there even is a "Southern style" and, if so, what it is. Nashville-based Savannah Yarborough, who creates bespoke leather jackets under her label AtelierSavas, tells me, "I would say that there is, and I would say that I'm here to try to change it." She describes the typical look as classic and preppy, but feels optimistic that it's finally evolving beyond that... basicness. "People here are still developing their own personal identities and what they wear. We're in this big shift where it's not any longer just the uniform of the polo shirt and everything else because of the access that we now have to things. People are becoming more and more adventurous with what they're wearing."

At the same time, that access could also be giving way to a macro trend of regionalized marketing. Serdari uses the "world is flat" analogy to explain how brands have been focused on globalization over the past couple of years. "I think there has now come a time where consumers are looking to move into the opposite direction; in other words, they're not happy any longer with a global identity, and they’re looking for more interesting, nuanced types of stories that can be appealing. I think from a macro perspective, we see the entire market shifting from globalization to a more intense localization." Indeed, the South isn't the only region we've seen used in marketing strategies. There's Shinola and Detroit, Filson and Seattle, and a number of brands promoting their Made-in-LA ethos. There's also an element of authenticity with this kind of branding — something millennials are known to look for in the purchases they make.

"I think successful brands will be the ones who manage to translate that abstract sense of place into tangible product," adds Serdari. "It's about time that the market turns inward to reflect on what we have here and what are the particular cultural elements of these places that can be translated into powerful brands."

Or as Reid puts it, "The most real thing you can do is be yourself."

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