There are two very distinct sides to contemporary Southern apparel. First, there are labels like the movie star Reese Witherspoon’s clothing line Draper James (which is, as its website tell us, “steeped in Southern charm”). And then there are a handful of local labels inspired not by down-home hospitality but the region itself: hardscrabble, indefatigable and ever-changing. Just for starters, here are three of the most exciting homegrown labels operating in the South today.
Club Duquette (Birmingham, Ala.)
Despite its current status as a peppy young cousin to New Orleans’s famed arcade of hipness, Magazine Street, Birmingham’s Woodlawn neighborhood wasn’t much of anything when Duquette Johnston and his wife, Morgan, moved there 10 years ago.
“It was all we could afford,” either Mrs. Johnston or Mr. Johnston or both Johnstons say. The couple speaks in tandem, often cutting each other off to expand on the other’s idea. Both are excitable and irrepressible as they explain the evolution of Woodlawn over the decade since they moved there, what it has become and what it is becoming.
After an 18-month battle with a postpartum illness that almost killed Mrs. Johnston, 34, the couple decided to start their boutique, Club Duquette. They opened shop in September 2016 with little more than a few of their own T-shirt designs, a handful of pieces from the men’s wear label Taylor Stitch and some stock from designer friends. The store sold out in its first weekend.
Club Duquette is one of several newish higher-end boutiques in an area that is beginning to recover from decades of economic depression. And while “revitalization” is often code for shoving out the old, Club Duquette is trying to strengthen what already exists by promoting culture, arts, music and style.
“I can’t write a big check to the community,” said Mr. Johnston, 46, also a singer-songwriter. “But I can host fund-raisers. I can help show people who don’t have access to the arts that you can make music and art and fashion.”
Club Duquette has partnered with Levi’s Premium and Topo Designs, the travel outfitter, for fund-raisers that have benefited Girl’s Rock Birmingham, one chapter of a nationwide foundation working to empower young women and nonbinary people through music, and Ruffner Mountain, a nature preserve a few minutes’ drive from Woodlawn.
Next year, in addition to introducing their first full line, Club Duquette will work with the Initiative for Creative Arts, a hip-hop-focused youth empowerment group, and with Desert Island Island Supply Company to fund local creative writing, poetry and music workshops.
And while their store grows into something of a flagship for the new Birmingham, Mr. and Mrs. Johnston remain cognizant of the Woodlawn that came before them.
“We’re not trying to rewrite the identity of the city,” Mr. Johnston said. “We’re just trying to help create a new layer of it.”
DNO (New Orleans)
In 2005, Jac Currie’s young line, DNO (Defend New Orleans), showed promise. Only two years after it began, DNO was selling wholesale to some of the city’s hippest retailers and growing with direct-to-customer sales.
Then Hurricane Katrina decimated the Crescent City, forcing a nationwide diaspora of New Orleanians. Mr. Currie went to New York City for a time, but DNO, which was mainly T-shirts and stickers back then, began to gain traction as he shipped shirts to the city’s displaced around the country.
“Defend New Orleans meant something to people,” Mr. Currie, 38, said in an interview at his home near the city’s famed French Quarter.
He had returned to a place that was different in almost every way from the pre-Katrina era, perhaps most markedly in its renewed civic pride. “The urgency to express one’s New Orleans-ness or the need to express the fragility of the city really had people clinging to the idea of loving New Orleans,” Mr. Currie said.
Soon, DNO began selling to skate shops, bookstores and record shops around the city. Eventually, Mr. Currie got an invitation to the city’s first post-Katrina Voodoo Fest. There, Mr. Currie sold dozens of DNO shirts to the tired, frightened and proud citizens of his hometown, immediately after handing all of the cash he’d made over to recovery-focused charities.
“That era was kind of the birth of DNO being an operation,” Mr. Currie said, alluding to a shift for his brand from hobby to career and viable business.
Since then, DNO has grown in step with its namesake city. It opened a flagship store on Magazine Street in 2011, followed by a second location in the burgeoning downtown area in 2016.
The brand has stretched from T-shirts and stickers to a haven of arts and design. A website features a journal with interviews with some of the artists, designers, musicians, tattooers and style setters that Mr. Currie and his cohort admire most, highly stylized photographs and imaging, and a live radio player.
Catering to a new New Orleanian while eschewing corny, inauthentic liquor-soaked tourism, DNO exudes and amplifies its city’s singularity.
Billy Reid (Florence, Ala.)
Last August, amid the crushing humidity of a North Alabama late summer, over a thousand people flocked to the tiny college town of Florence for the 10th iteration of Shindig, designer’s Billy Reid’s homage to his native South.
What started as an attempt to attract to Florence the most significant voices of the fashion world for a weekend of eating, drinking and clothing has evolved into something more akin to a full-fledged music festival, with weekend ticket sales, V.I.P. packages and multiple venues. There are performers like John Paul White, Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves, as well as James Beard Award-winning chefs.
One of four towns in Northwest Alabama’s Shoals region, Florence is part Southern Gothic and part Main Street U.S.A., as if Norman Rockwell painted Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. And at two and some hours’ drive from anything resembling a metropolis, it’s among America’s most remote designer-clothing hubs.
Mr. Reid, 54, never saw this as a hurdle. His lines feel at once classic and urbane, while still rugged, coarse and unafraid of hard work, and are advertised by Florence-based musicians, baristas and scenesters in lieu of professional models.
“We’re always trying to promote the Shoals area,” Mr. Reid said, adding, “Do what you feel in your gut is right and then bring others to it.”