Billy Reid on the Timeless Denim Shirt
It was 10 years ago. The first time I met Billy Reid, I had no idea who he was, and I was a broke recent college graduate still wearing my crayon-box collection of polo shirts and oversized oxfords my mom bought for me. I really had no business being in the same room as Billy Reid—at least, that’s what I thought.
My friend convinced me to go hang out in Billy Reid’s new store in Charleston. At the time, hanging out at a “clothing store” wasn’t something I thought made much sense, but I was persuaded with the promise of free whiskey (remember, broke college grad). So guard up and bullshit meter high, I reluctantly followed along. To this day, I still remember the feeling I had when I first walked in. My guard went down faster than shots before last call.
Tip: if you’ve never been into a Billy Reid store, do yourself a favor and change that. They are some of the most thoughtfully styled, but also well lived-in, welcoming experiences in retail.
We poured a glass of whiskey and sat on the most perfectly patina-ed leather couch I had ever seen. Great tunes playing, walls filled with a random-yet-perfectly curated collection of photos and one-of-kind vintage finds. It was like hanging out at your friend's house that was effortlessly cool, which, at the time, was a new experience for me. Then, in walked Billy, himself, who was in town from Florence, AL, to check out his new store. I’ll be honest, I remember thinking the fun was over. Like when the boss shows up to the office happy hour—time to button it up. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Billy poured himself a whiskey and sat right down next to us.
We talked about baseball and music (both passions of Billy’s), and he asked me about myself: where I was from, my family, what I wanted to do in life. We talked about his inspiration for the brand and how he wanted people to feel in his clothes. He was as genuine as they come. The product, the store, the experience—the brand was Billy through and through. And never once did he try and “sell me” during our time together. But I did end up leaving with a shirt—a two-pocket, red-and-grey flannel workshirt. An important first step in ridding my closet of a sea of same.
The Billy Reid shirt I bought that day is what I wore the first time I met Rich and Andy before joining Huckberry.
And it was there that I first realized how important it was to me that I support brands that offer great, long-lasting products, but just as importantly, support the people who pour everything into bringing those visions to life. Billy and his brand represent that in so many ways. He was the first to show me that “style” can still be classic and approachable, but also thoughtfully unique in the same vein.
Coming full circle, Billy Reid has become a great Huckberry partner for the past two-plus years, and this season we are excited to roll out our first exclusives with Billy and his team. I recently had a chance to reconnect with Billy and chat about our new exclusive—and why I should start wearing black. If one thing sums up Billy’s brand best, it’s his assertion that clothes are meant to be lived in, not just worn. Amen, Billy, amen. Next whiskey is on me.
What first drew me to your brand 10 years ago is that you really make good style approachable. Is that something you intentionally think about when designing?
Yeah, we want people to be able to use clothes, you know? There’s interest [in style], and we put a lot into it. But at the end of the day, man, you want the clothes to be able to live with somebody.
The denim shirt is a perfect example of that. I included in the second or third collection I ever made right around 2000. To this day, I still have one of the original shirts. I've worn it under a tuxedo to the CFDA awards. I've worn it with gym shorts and a pair of sandals to concerts. I've worn it on long trips, I've worn it to work, business meetings, and everywhere in between. I always look at a denim shirt as something that you can dress up or down at any time.
I love those types of stories because it means we got something right.
It’s one of those products that can tell a story of all the places you’ve worn it over the years.
It looks one way when you buy it, but as you wear it and wash it, it does evolve. It’s like a leather chair. What you see now is not what you're going to see in five years. That character and the beauty of the shirt—it has a life, you know? I love pieces like that. And that's what’s made the shirt such a popular shirt for us. We could probably have this conversation five years from now, and it will probably still be our best seller. I love those types of stories because it means we got something right.
You didn't invent the denim shirt, but you’ve certainly added your own personal touches to it to make it a classic in your collection. Tell us about that.
Yeah, definitely. First, the fit—we wanted it to be something you could wear without anything under it, but if you wanted to add another layer, it wears almost like a shirt jacket. It’s light enough to wear on its own and not so humongous that it swallowed you without anything under it. Finding that perfect balance was important.
And beyond that, we really pay close attention to the details, which makes our denim shirt unique. The pocket shapes are designed to elongate your body. The brass snaps are just the right size where it feels like it can be a shirt or a shirt jacket. And the wash treatments we do really softens it, so you can pull it right off the rack, and it feels like you've had it for years.
So our Billy Reid exclusive denim shirt on Huckberry is black. I’ll admit I used to be that guy that was afraid of black. I felt like it was too cool for me.
Yeah, a lot of guys feel that way.
I think the fact that this shirt broken in makes it a great gateway for somebody who’s not sure if they can wear black.
So what would you say to me three years ago when I thought I couldn’t wear a black denim shirt?
Get over it. Black looks great on everyone, you know? It's a very flattering color, and it’s easy to wear at any time of year. With this shirt specifically, it's washed, and it's soft. It's not like some glittery black fabric. And I think the fact that it’s broken in makes it a great gateway for somebody who’s not sure if they can wear black.
So you’re overcoming your fear of wearing black. You buy this shirt. How do you wear it?
Pairing it with your favorite beat-up jeans is always a great look. I also love it with navy pants. I think black and navy is a really sophisticated combination. Black and tan is great too. You just have to figure out how to mix it in with whatever you’re comfortable wearing. I think this type of shirt with this fabric can take you to a different spot than what you normally think of black shirts.
And what about the shoes?
My personal take on it—and it may not fit for everybody—I wear a black shirt, I'm probably not going to wear black shoes. I'm actually wearing the shirt today, and I have on a pair of brown suede chukkas. I think that tones it down and makes me feel more comfortable with it. I'm also the guy that doesn't match his belt with the shoes.
Good, I never do either but wasn’t sure if I was just being lazy.
That's right, it's actually cooler.
So who do you think has worn the denim shirt the best? I always think about Paul Newman and his style.
Paul Newman is a great example for sure. I think Ralph Lauren’s look was terrific too. I'll always have that image in my head of him in that shirt. He really helped mainstream the denim shirt. Also, Peter Fonda—I've got a photograph of him in a pair of aviators with a denim shirt that's just absolutely awesome.
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