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High Fashion Meets Southern Hospitality


Louisiana-born fashion designer Billy Reid had his spring runway show yesterday in Florence - Florence, Ala. It's part of a weekend where high fashion meets Southern hospitality at Reid's annual Shindig in northwest Alabama. NPR's Debbie Elliott was there.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Billy Reid's design studio is in a circa-1900 building in downtown Florence, Ala., population 40,000. Reid has been creating his internationally acclaimed line here since moving from New York after 9/11. This is his wife's hometown.

BILLY REID: At that point, we just sort of made a life decision to sort of base our work around our life, not our life around our work.

ELLIOTT: He says there's a strong sense of community here in the Shoals, the region along the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama known for its rich music history. Aretha Franklin recorded her first hit record here. Now, thanks in part to Billy Reid and another acclaimed local designer, Natalie Chanin, this has also become a fashion and art hub.

FRANK STITT: Florence is this little town that is performing way over its weight.

ELLIOTT: That's Birmingham chef Frank Stitt from Highlands Bar & Grill, named the best restaurant in the country this year by the James Beard Foundation.

STITT: There's a German potato salad with a fig relish.

ELLIOTT: Several hundred people are dining in the courtyard of the local art museum. They include Reid's customers from around the country, along with regional artists, foodies, designers and musicians. It's Reid's attempt to share what inspires him and showcase a changing South. Living in Florence keeps him real, he says, but also means he has to work a little harder at times to overcome some stereotypical assumptions about the place. Shindig started 10 years ago when he hosted a party for fashion journalists to get a feel for his line and the cultural flavor here.

REID: We try to create sort of Camelot for a weekend, basically, where it's just - everything is wonderful.

PAUL JANEWAY: We are St. Paul and The Broken Bones all the way from Birmingham, Ala.


JANEWAY: We are honored to be here at Shindig...

ELLIOTT: Billy Reid's sense of hospitality and eye for fashion come from his mom, who ran a boutique out of Reid's grandmother's old house in Amite, La. There was a kitchen and parties. He describes it as "Steel Magnolias" set in a clothing store.

REID: You know, kind of through osmosis, it stuck with me. I just wanted to feel the way my mom's store felt, you know? It just had a - that sense of home. And you just - she put you at ease. And she could sell you a lot of clothes (laughter). She was very good at it.

ELLIOTT: After working for other fashion companies, Reid started his signature line with a single piece 20 years ago.

REID: It was a simple, white, button-down shirt...

ELLIOTT: ...With the kind of details he couldn't find elsewhere. Now he's got 12 stores. And you see his designs on celebrities, including Drake and Daniel Craig, who wore his own Billy Reid peacoat in a "Bond" film.


ELLIOTT: In the last decade, Shindig has grown into a weekend that draws creative people who are tops in their fields, whether it be design and music or food and drink, people like whole-hog pitmaster Rodney Scott of South Carolina and Alba Huerta, owner of Julep in Houston and a leader in the craft cocktail movement.

ALBA HUERTA: There's energy here to be around creatives that are actively defining their own regions of the South. And that's very exciting.

ELLIOTT: For Billy Reid, the creative culture on display at Shindig is part of the broader story of change that started here decades ago.

REID: As bad as everything in the outside world was - happened in Alabama in the '60s and '70s, there was, at least for a brief moment, an oasis here in Muscle Shoals, where people came together and made this wonderful music. And I think that shows hope. That shows character. That's meaningful to me.

ELLIOTT: Reid says he hopes the experience of community at Shindig can help build on that spirit. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Florence, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.