I exit the elevator at the seventh floor of Saks Fifth Avenue and the low hum of disco, funk and R&B hits me. The songs are good. Thankfully the volume is set at conversational volume instead of the standard ear-bleed level at most fashion events. It's a recognizable tune, even though I've never heard it before. It's been copied, sampled, and reinterpreted a few times over the years. The tune is comforting in its strange familiarity.
Nick Sullivan of Esquire magazine sits down to speak with designer Billy Reid and have a conversation about his eponymous menswear collection. Eric Jennings, the creative director at Saks, rounds out the rest of the panel. The conversation is light and friendly. It follows the career trajectory of Billy as he started, stumbled, redirected, and refocused his fashion career over the last few decades.
Growing up in the South, seeing his mother's clothing shop located in his grandmother's house ("It was like 'Steel Magnolias' but with clothing") seems fated to result in a fashion designer son. It didn't. Billy's involvement with sports lead him to studying Physical Education in college. Failing out of the P.E. program led him back to design and a career in selling and designing apparel.
The newest collection is solid. It's made up of easy to wear, mix-n-match pieces. That is what appealed to Nick when he saw Billy's work the first time. These are "clothes that are familiar to wear" he commented. Nothing is too "fashiony." Nothing is gonna raise a disapproving eyebrow from your sweetheart if you wear it. They are staples of a man's wardrobe, crafted with an exacting eye. Changing a detail here, using an unusual fabric there, the collection feels familiar to what's sitting in your closet, but it's done better.
Billy makes clothes he believes in and are inspired by the world and not just the South. It's a struggle for him not to get pigeonholed in Americana. He's reinventing himself to stay current. It's not about just fixating on some dusty archives from the 50's and 60's and staying put. It is about how you interpret that and make something new. That's what Billy does.
The gentle beat of the funk and disco comes back as the conversation draws to a close. It's a new track I've never heard before.
Story & Photos by Matthew Karl Gale
A couple weeks ago, the fella who reported this story was at a party and we wound up shooting the shit during what was a circus of swanked up Dandies at a Paul Stuart event. Standing on the staircase landing, we talked and watched the violently affected parade by. All that was missing was the guy in coveralls with a really big shovel. Matthew tells me he wants to write and asks if I'll help.
I give him a look and wonder if he's having problems with his computer 'cause I damned sure am having problems with my recent conversion from PC to Mac. But he tells me he wants actual help with writing -- I assume for nothing despite my sterling reputation in men's phassion.
I agree, based largely on one single test he passed. After having drinks and dinner at my apartment, Matthew sent a 'thank you' note. Of all the assholes who have Hoover-ed food and drink in my apartment for the last six years, I have only received thank you notes from Matthew, Alice Olive and ELS -- And ELS and Alice don't really count because they're girls and not from this country.
I like the Shuggie Otis album Matthew insisted on including and it's linked in the first paragraph. As a brief aside, Otis rang a bell from my youthful '70s obsession with funk (archived here and at a storage facility in MD.) Shuggie and his Greek Dad, Johnny Otis, did the 1969 album, Snatch and the Poontangs, which was rated "X." Shuggie, by the way, was 16 when it was recorded.
I knew a drill sergeant who stole cadences from 'Snatch.' Or, Snatch stole from my Drill Sgt, regardless, I'll never forget, "Among the whores you might hear my name ring - But a bitch with a head shaped like a four way cold tablet liable to say any God damned thing. And, "...I'd climb over 50 pussies to get to one fat boy's asshole." There's more in the video below if the spirit moves you and I can only hope "Snatch and the Poontangs" will get some more airplay. I'm gonna recommend it to Mordachai Rubenstien for his new radio show, Voices Inside My Head. Tune in Thursday nights at 8PM and be sure to me that 'thank you' note.