Southern Style

Talking Shop With Reese Witherspoon

The Oscar-winning actress on grace, grandmothers, and breaking ground on her Nashville store

Photo: Paul Costello

Witherspoon, wearing Draper James, photographed at the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia on July 23, 2015.

Self-determined since childhood, Nashville-raised actor and producer Reese Witherspoon has always been a get-it-done kind of woman. And so it was with Draper James, her budding fashion and lifestyle brand, which she developed because she “couldn’t find the sort of items I wanted anywhere else.” Named after her grandparents, Draper James celebrates what Witherspoon sees as a renaissance in Southern style, featuring playful dresses and jewelry alongside engraved julep cups and embroidered linens. This fall, she plans to open Draper James’s first store, in Nashville, realizing her dream of building a new tradition in the town she credits with building her.

Tell me about the genesis of Draper James.

I started this for many reasons. First, because I was being approached by Northeastern brands to represent them and I thought, I don’t know anything about the Northeast. I don’t even go there very often. [Laughs.] Then, two years ago I was shooting a movie in Atlanta, and I noticed this boom of cultural growth in the South: in food, music, art, fashion. I saw something similar in New Orleans and other places. I feel like a lot of people who left the South are moving back and bringing with them everything they’ve learned from living elsewhere.

You source and develop much of your line in the South. Your denim is sewn in Blue Ridge, Georgia; your linen pillows in Savannah.

Southerners have such pride in their work. I was tapping into a community that already existed. I started the company myself and funded it myself so I wouldn’t have to do what someone else wanted. My goal was to create a retail experience that spoke to Southern people. I feel like Southerners have their own unique sense of style, and I wanted to be a part of telling the story of what it means to be a contemporary Southern woman.

You’ve always been a bit of an ambassador on that front.

My mother always said, “If you want to get something done, ask a Southern woman to do it.” It’s so true. No matter what you need, within twenty-four hours it has gotten done. The last movie I shot in Georgia, I couldn’t find summer camps for my kids. And I asked one friend, the phone tree happened, and before the day was over I not only had a camp but also women volunteering to drive and pick up the kids. It’s incredible how Southern women take care of each other.

That care often extends to appearance as well.

Yes. Every Southern woman I meet is always so pulled together. I’m just saying you don’t see a Southern woman standing in the airport in sweatpants. You just don’t. Even when they are stressed and their kids are swarming around their legs, they do things with grace. It’s how we were raised. We all have those lessons of what your mother or grandma told you was “appropriate” or “attractive.” That idea is quintessentially Southern.

So much of what you’re doing with Draper James seems to get at that nostalgia and sense of wanting to preserve the past.

You can travel to so many places where you only see the same things, but you go to the South and you always experience something unique. It has identity. And in a world where anything goes, sometimes it is nice to have a sense of respect. Events and occasions you need to dress for. It’s about honoring the history of the people who came before you and created these traditions that became the cornerstones of our culture.

The romance of the Southern narrative is a powerful one.

It is. And women in the South want their stories to be told. It is so emotional for me. We call what we do “unapologetically pretty.” It isn’t edgy. Or urban. It just makes you feel ready to take on the world. I never realized how much work it would be. But I’ve never been afraid of hard work.

How does it compare with producing films?

Producing is completely different, but there is a commonality in that both ventures are about storytelling. Every piece in our line has a story. We have our team bring in pictures of their grandmothers and look at what they were wearing to weddings, parties. My grandmother was always, always dressed to the nines. She was always put together. She had her hair done every Friday. It made her feel good. If you look good, you feel good. And that is an important part of life. We have this incredible wealth of Southern women to look up to. So we’re never short on inspiration.

You just bought a house in Nashville, and you’re opening your first brick-and-mortar Draper James there as well.

We’ll be located on a busy, walking street in the 12South neighborhood, which is so exciting for me. When I was growing up we had this amazing store in Nashville called McClures, which is closed now. I have so many memories as a kid of sitting there while my mom tried on clothes, running into everyone we knew while we shopped. I want to re-create that environment. A gathering spot where the mom brings kids in, and you drink sweet tea while you browse. That community. The charm of the old Southern department store feeling.

You sound a bit homesick. Are you sure you didn’t create Draper James as a way to live in the South even when you aren’t?

Part of this is my wanting to get back home. I think the older you get, the more you want to go home. Whenever the plane lands in Nashville, I breathe deeper. I take in the air; I don’t feel the stress I feel every other place. I can live my life there. I can walk around and feel like I belong. I want to bring that sense to more people. I hope this brand does that. Because that’s all we want in life—to feel like we belong somewhere. And the South offers that.