Reese Witherspoon opens Draper James in Atlanta—and explains how the city inspired the brand
The actress and producer shares the Southern inspiration behind her lifestyle brand
Hollywood A-lister Reese Witherspoon makes no secret about her roots: She’s from the South. And last night the actress/producer made an appearance in Atlanta, where she was celebrating the opening of her fourth store for her Southern-inspired clothing and lifestyle brand, Draper James. A product of Tennessee, Witherspoon’s speech is dripping with “y’alls”—and so are her products, which range from party dresses as perky as Elle Woods to bright sweaters, home accessories, and cheery paper goods, many emblazoned with Southern sound bites like “Happy Y’allidays” and “What Would Dolly Do?”
It makes sense then, that she’d open a store in the capital of the South. Witherspoon, an actress best known for roles in Legally Blonde and Walk the Line (for which she won an Academy Award for best actress), also runs a production company, and recently produced hits Gone Girl and the HBO show Big Little Lies. She launched Draper James in 2015, and yesterday was granted the prestigious Étoile award from SCAD for her contributions to fashion and design. Draper James manufactures many of its goods in the South, and this spring, select SCAD students will produce a capsule “Mommy + Me” collection for the brand.
The new Shops Around Lenox boutique was designed by Mark D. Sikes, the celeb designer behind Witherspoon’s own home, and patterned wallpaper and brass accents set the scene for her florals, patterns, and classic denim (which is manufactured in Blue Ridge, Georgia). Glossy blue oversize doors welcome guests like a fine Southern estate—just the kind of hospitality Witherspoon wants to project.
There’s nothing subtle about the theme of this brand—it’s all magnolias and sweet tea and porch-sittin’, the genteel version of the South that Witherspoon learned about from her Tennessee grandparents, who inspired the store (right down to the name, drawn from Dorothea Draper and William James Witherspoon). The goods are cutesy, to be sure, but so is the pint-sized star, who has claimed to love “matchy-matchy” clothes and quaint aphorisms.
We sat down on a blue plush sofa in the store with Witherspoon to hear about what she loves so much about the South—and Atlanta.
You’ve said you were actually in Atlanta when you had the inspiration for Draper James. Tell us more about that experience—why you were here, what was going on around you, what you saw that inspired you. I was here making a movie—I can’t remember what movie—but it was five or six years ago, and I just thought there was this cultural explosion here. The South is having this renaissance. All the food experiences were just so different and amazing, and all these chefs were bringing ideas to the city. People were moving here—[it seemed like] everybody I met was like “No, I used to live in Brooklyn, now I moved to Atlanta.” I was being approached to represent other brands, but I thought, I don’t understand other brands—I’m from the South, and how come there’s no brand that’s about the South and how we have such a gracious, open, warm, hospitable culture? So that’s when the idea was born.
What were these amazing food experiences? Oh my gosh, I ate everywhere—what’s that place, the one from the guy who wrote A New Turn in the South?
You’ve clearly spent some time here. Why do you think this city is a good fit for your brand? I just think women [in Atlanta] love to dress in happy and optimistic colors. I think it reminds me a lot of my grandparents and where I grew up. My Grandma was my biggest inspiration, and she took care of me and taught me all about fashion and food.
Share some things you learned from your grandmother. My grandmother was just an incredible hostess. She was always cooking a million things and setting a beautiful table and putting herself together. She went and got her hair done once a week at the same hair salon—she just really believed in presenting your best self to the world, creating this feeling that when you look good, you feel good. She loved to take me shopping, so she started my love of fashion. She also loved books and taught me how to read.
So what are some specific examples of Draper James pieces that were directly inspired by her? Well, I love all the home goods. There are a lot of things [in that collection] that remind me of my Grandma. She was always making sun tea on the porch. Now we have this great collaboration with Crate & Barrel, and we have products coming out in spring, and there’s going to be a lot that reminds you of setting a Southern table and creating a party atmosphere.
How much are you involved in the design process, and what does that look like for you? We have an incredible design team that is working full-time. I come in and they present designs, we talk about fabric, we talk about fit, what works, what sells well, what doesn’t sell well. It’s been a real learning curve for me because obviously I’ve never worked in retail before. I kinda jumped two feet into a cold pool and thought, well, you know, I’ve been an actress for a really long time, but I want to try something new and have a new challenge in my life.
We know you produce a lot of the goods in the South—the denim is made in Georgia, for example. Why is that important to you? The factory in Georgia is so emotional for me because it’s all these women between the ages of 40 and 70 working in this factory in Blue Ridge, and they make all the denim, and they speak with the same accent that I have and that my grandparents had. It’s just really important to me to give back to the place that gave me so much. I’m excited that we work with them—and we also work with a candle company out of South Carolina, we do some shirting in North Carolina, our stationery is made in North Carolina. It’s just great to give back to the South.
You speak a lot about empowering women in the film industry. How do you apply that to Draper James? Well, it’s a female-owned business, and it was born out of an idea that I had, and obviously we employ a lot of women and our factories employ a lot of women. But another big component for us is giving back to an organization called Girls Inc., and we fund after-school programs for financial education for young girls in the communities where we have stores. And they also come and intern in our stores and learn about retail first-hand.
You do so much. You must give something up. What do you not do? I definitely do have sacrifices that I make. I don’t sleep very much.
What time do you go to bed and what time do you wake up? I go to bed around 11 p.m., and I wake up around 5 or 5:30 a.m. because my five-year-old wakes me and goes, “Mom, get up!”