Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James collection has Southern charm
The rugged Danner hiking boots with red laces that Reese Witherspoon donned in the film “Wild,” displayed in a Lucite box in one corner of her Beverly Hills office, would never make the cut for the actress’ latest endeavor: a genteel line of Southern-inspired women’s apparel, accessories and home accents.
The line, called Draper James, was introduced in May at Draperjames.com, selling out many dress styles almost immediately. In early October, the company announced it had raised $10 million in venture capital for expansion, and later this month, a flagship bricks-and-mortar store is to open in Nashville, where Witherspoon grew up and owns a home.
No wonder Witherspoon is all smiles as she rushes into the office on teetering blue suede Manolo Blahnik pumps, a few minutes late for an interview and unaware that one leg is streaked with dirt from the car door. She carries Saint Laurent’s navy Sac De Jour handbag in one arm and in the other a Draper James carryall emblazoned with the phrase “Totes Y’all” that has sold out three times. Also in tow is the 39-year-old’s lookalike 16-year-old daughter Ava, who helps with the company’s social media postings and schleps another tote and garment bag, filled with new Draper James designs.
Items printed with cheeky Southern expressions are among the top sellers.
“People really enjoy humor, that we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” says Witherspoon. “Southern people are literally always joking around and teasing each other. It’s part of our culture.”
The actress-entrepreneur oohs and aahs as she unpacks a stack of jewel-toned sweaters, some embellished with pearls. Flipping through a rack of feminine dresses and Chanel-like tweed skirts and jackets, she remarks that her favorite floral fit-and-flare dress is missing, because she gave it to Taylor Swift when she attended the singer’s L.A. concert a couple days earlier.
“But are you ready for the most exciting thing?” she asks, beaming as she unveils a pair of distressed Old Gringo for DJ western boots with feminine stitching, the brand’s first footwear launch. “The DJ cowboy boot! It goes with dresses or with jeans. It’s the perfect height — we made the heel. I’ve had [a pair of] these boots forever. I called the company and they said, ‘We don’t make those boots anymore,’ so I asked if they would do a special run for us. … Everyone who goes to Nashville asks me where to buy cowboy boots, and I don’t ever know, because they’re too hunky-dunky country western, and you can’t take big old fringy boots back to L.A.!”
At $500, the boots are towards the top of Draper James’ price range, which starts at at $14 for a notepad or pencil set and tops out at $595 for a short dress with jeweled detailing.
Witherspoon’s interest in fashion started at an early age.
“I’ve always loved clothes; I even sketched my own clothes when I was little,” she says.
“When I was 8 years old, I was obsessed with Esprit, so I drew them an entire spring line and mailed it to them. I liked their styles, but I thought I could improve on them!”
Named People magazine’s “Best-Dressed Star of 2015” on Sept. 9, Witherspoon cites Tom Ford, Jason Wu, Carolina Herrera, Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein, and Oscar de la Renta as favorite fashion labels and describes her style as “definitely feminine.”
“I don’t love pants,” she says. “To be totally honest, they’re not my thing, probably because I’m 5’2″ and they make me look really short. I like wearing dresses because they’re easy, and I like skirts. I like matchy-matchy. I just do. It makes me happy. It makes my life easier when I’m running all over, running a production company, picking up kids from preschool and dropping them off at high school.”
Witherspoon’s travel essentials include a white button-down shirt, go-with-everything jacket, “cute sweater,” pearl earrings for day, gold earrings for night, plus a dress, heels and clutch handbag “because you don’t know when someone’s going to ask you to do something fun!”
Witherspoon, who won a lead-actress Oscar for her portrayal of singer June Carter Cash in 2005’s “Walk the Line,” drew on famous Southern women, including Sissy Spacek, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Cybill Shepherd (as seen in “The Last Picture Show”), for her design inspiration. The team also looks to retro photographs of grandparents and vintage store finds.
In fact, Draper James is named after Witherspoon’s paternal grandparents, Dorothea Draper and William James Witherspoon.
“My grandmother was always so impeccably put together,” she says. “She was the quintessential Southern lady. Her bag always matched her shoes. She got her hair done once a week and her nails done on Thursdays. As a little girl, I would sit and watch all these women getting done up, and there’s a sense of pride in that tradition of pulling yourself together and presenting your best self to the world.”
Her dapper grandfather Jimmy, who never left home without a hat and sports coat, devoted his career to raising money for veterans, Big Brothers Big Sisters and the YWCA.
“His inspiration to me was the giving-back component, taking care of people in the South,” says Witherspoon. “A big part of our company is how we can bring back production to the South.”
More than 50% of the collection is made in the U.S., and Witherspoon explains, “We are making blue jeans in Georgia, candles in South Carolina, and working with one of the oldest printing presses in North Carolina on our stationery. There is such a long-standing tradition of artisanship, and it’s exciting to be able to tell those stories.”
Getting the new store open by the target date of Oct. 20 is the main order of business now, with plans to eventually expand throughout the South.
“[Reese’s] vision for the flagship is for it to feel warm and welcoming, like being invited into the home of a modern, chic Southern woman,” says Draper James CEO Andrea Hyde, the former president of C. Wonder.
The store’s checkout counter will mimic a marble kitchen island, the back entry will boast a mud room, and homemade sweet tea will be served to all.
In 2016, the company plans to partner with national nonprofit organization Girls Inc. to sponsor an Economic Literacy program (starting at the YWCA in Nashville, which Witherspoon used to frequent) to help educate middle school and high school girls about financial issues.
“We don’t learn this in school, and there’s so much you need to know before you go to college or are a mother running a household,” says Witherspoon. “Hopefully this will start a conversation with women about how you keep your credit score good and how to start saving when you start making money. It’s a piece that I haven’t seen explored a lot with young people.”
In the end, Draper James is about “traditions and things that touch your heart,” says Witherspoon.
“I was looking at the metrics on our social media, and one of the most liked images was a picture of an old, beautiful house,” she says. “It had nothing to do with clothes. It had to do with a feeling. It had a big porch and beautiful weeping willow trees. There’s an idea of getting back to something that was there before us, things rooted in a past and a history that I think means something to people. There’s so much that doesn’t mean anything!”