Vision Quest: Designer Billy Reid on His Eyewear Line and His Relief Efforts

Fashion designers tend to gravitate to certain cities—New York, Milan, Paris. Less likely is Florence, Ala. (or anywhere in Alabama, for that matter). But that’s why it appealed to Billy Reid, the iconoclastic designer known for serving his whiskey straight and his menswear with a dash of Southern swagger.

Reid is devoted to this small town, where he set up headquarters for his namesake luxury brand and from which he oversees the running of his 13 (and counting) shops across the country. It’s also the site of his annual Shindig, a down-home festival of blues concerts and cookouts that he hosts for loyal customers.

Penta spoke with Reid a year ago, but a lot has happened since—namely Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast. Reid raised funds for his relief efforts (his HOPE for Texas initiative included a fund-raiser T-shirt, with 100% of proceeds benefiting those in need). All of this on the eve of his first eyewear launch—a line of sharp aviators, retro Wayfarers (like the ones Reid wears), and bold round frames for women (like the Jeanne, named for his wife). Sunglasses hit stores in November and optical frames will arrive in February.

He chatted with us recently by phone.

Penta: What’s the key to wearing glasses well?

Reid: I’m consistent with shape. That has kept me from being self-conscious about wearing glasses. At some point, they just become a part of you. Sometimes, even my family will say, “Oh, you look so different without glasses.” The only time I’m not wearing them is if I’m sleeping or bathing.

Designing eyeglasses—that’s a whole new ballgame. How was the learning curve?

The process of making a prototype is the same, whether we’re pulling a fine wire to make a frame…or making beautiful cotton shirting. And the fittings are similar—do the temples fit around the ear correctly? Is the nosepiece wide enough? But we can develop a fabric and see our design in four to six weeks. With frames, every arm, every hinge—we customize all that stuff—and the lead time for fine metals is much, much longer. So if you mess up, you almost have to start over. [He chuckles.] If you mess up a garment, you can always make alterations.

How do you make something so small still distinctive?

You want it to stand out enough that people say, “Those are Billy Reid glasses.” But you want it supersubtle—not overbearing. So you’ll see details inside the frame, more than on the exterior. Like our ribbon stripe.

That detail appears on your apparel, too.

It started when we first began—we’d wrap the clothing in butcher paper and use a ribbon to tie it. I found a box of this striped ribbon a few blocks from my office, at this crazy store that had saved everything since the 1960s. [He laughs.] When we ran out, we developed our own…and started using it in garments—like inside pocket welts. On the horn glasses, it’s etched inside the frame on the temple, and the titanium nose pads are embossed with it.

Who are your glasses-wearing style icons?

Michael Caine comes to mind immediately. And Buddy Holly—someone I’ve always loved. I have a photograph of a gentleman I used to work for in college, when I first started in the business. He had a great men’s store in Amite, La. He was always impeccably dressed, drove an MG, and had these great aviators. That image has always stuck with me.

Switching gears—the Gulf had a rough go of it this hurricane season. It’s hard to know how best to help. How do you determine that for your brand?

We have a shop in Houston—we’re part of that community. So we had a large sample sale. We drove a giant truck out to the store, partnered with great chefs, musicians, and friends in the community, and made it a larger event. We try to be community-centric, and not just in times of need. If there’s, say, things to help the tourism in your community, bring attention to it. We’re proud of our hometown. Anytime you’re doing charitable work, it needs to be something that’s true to you. That’s the first good rule. My parents’ house was completely flooded last year. Seeing that firsthand, then seeing Houston—it was like, good gracious—we had to do something. It took my parents nine months to get their house back. They had to rip everything out—all the way down to the studs, and then start all over. It was…sad. But you recover. And life moves on.

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