Flip through the pages of any fashion magazine or sneak a peek at billboards dotting America, and the look of the clothing is decidedly urban: black, form-fitting, totally inappropriate for a backyard barbecue or a Sunday stroll with family.
Tennessee-bred Reese Witherspoon, for one, wants to bring some country flair into the mix. “About three years ago, I was making a movie in Atlanta and going back and forth to visit my family in Nashville,” says the Oscar-winning actor, producer, mom, and, most recently, fashion and lifestyle entrepreneur. “There was a real interest in the South to broaden our cultural reach—with hotels opening up, interesting restaurants becoming popular, and music emerging. I felt like I was seeing an artistic and cultural resurgence.” People she knew from “the coasts” were moving back, and the South was being championed for its creative spirit.
And yet, good Southern retail—where a handbag might match a pair of shoes and black was verboten—was scarce on a national scale. So Witherspoon, who’s had great success in business behind the camera with her production company, Pacific Standard (the folks who brought the films Wild and Gone Girl to the silver screen), jumped into this void in the market. “At that same time, I was being approached by a few East Coast brands to represent them,” she says. “I have been to the Hamptons only once. I haven’t traveled in the Northeast. What I know is Charleston and North Carolina and the beaches of Georgia. Tailgating. Sipping tea on the porch. Sunday dinners. Dressing for church. Those are the touchstones in my life. Those are the stories I wanted to tell.”
So instead of taking a big paycheck for being the face of another brand, she invested in her vision of an authentic Southern lifestyle. The result: Draper James, named for her grandmother and grandfather and representing a true Southern gentility, a place where people “took care of each other and created an environment where everyone belonged.”
Witherspoon launched Draper James online with clothing, accessories, and home decor inspired by her favorite moments in Tennessee and beyond in May. Just a few months into her new adventure, she’s raised $10 million in capital, with Forerunner Ventures leading the Series B round. The fund’s charismatic founder, Kirsten Green, who has an impressive track record with retail concepts including Warby Parker and Bonobos, joins the board of directors.
Witherspoon and CEO Andrea Hyde, a veteran retail executive who’s done stints with Chris Burch, French Connection, Gap, and Calvin Klein, approached only three venture capital firms in total; two of them invested. “More often we see concepts built around a certain product or a business model innovation,” says Forerunner’s Green. “Reese’s company stood out in that it is less about an item, or even a category, and really about an attitude and a whole way of life. It’s easy to see a content and product strategy striking an emotional chord with a consumer and delivering a unique experience—which we believe is the strongest place to compete from in business.”
Witherspoon’s authenticity and commitment to devoting precious hours along with her other demands also encouraged Green to invest. “We look to founders with vision, discipline, and the magnetism to attract all the necessary constituents to get a business off and running,” says Green. “Reese has a clear and significant vision for the company and is undoubtedly a real doer. In addition, she was able to get top talent from the start and debut the brand with a full-scale offering—no small feat.”
Witherspoon’s real-girl attitude and easy-breezy connection to consumers has been a huge boon to Draper James’s early triumphs. When she first wore the brand’s “Totes Y’all” bag, it sold out; the company has since reordered the bag four times. “We have almost 2 million visitors to our site, from 15 countries,” says Hyde. “There has been an amazing response to the brand, and our customers are telling us exactly what they want. We are 40% above what our projected budgets were, and this direct line to our customers will help us decide our next steps as we scale the business based on their expectations.”
The entrepreneur’s rather large megaphone hasn’t hurt, either. Witherspoon uses Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest to engage with her consumers daily. “As an artist, often waiting months for feedback on a film, to be able to hear our customers’ feedback in real time has been amazing,” says Witherspoon. “I feel like that has helped us create products that are specific to what they want.” One example: When Draper James launched in May, it had one particularly popular dress in short sleeves. “By July, we knew that women wanted their arms covered,” says Witherspoon. “So when you see spring, you’ll see similar dresses with sleeves.” What else consumers want: children’s clothing, bridesmaid dresses, fragrances, larger sizes, and more color. “It’s wearable, happy, cheerful, and very approachable. It has a sense of joy,” says Witherspoon of her dresses, bags, and entertaining decor. “It’s also well-priced for the quality.”
Everything has been touched and designed by the founder and her team, and most of what is offered on the e-commerce site is made in the South. “We are investing in a workforce that is Southern, and that is an inspiration,” the founder says. “I went to Blue Ridge, Georgia, and met these incredible women from 35 to 70 years old who have been making blue jeans all their lives, and they talk like my grandma. They have pride in their work. And they show me how they make these blue jeans from start to finish.”
With the $10 million cash infusion, Witherspoon and Co. will expand their direct-to-consumer model and layer on more traditional distribution channels, like opening a brick-and-mortar store in Nashville at the end of October, followed by a boutique in Dallas. The brand will also invest in its vertical pipeline and shore up its flexible operating model so that it can effectively adapt its technology to react quickly to customer demand.
With all the growth just around the bend, Witherspoon is ever more determined to stay grounded in her Southern roots. “I have never been particularly urban,” says the founder and creative director, who resides in Los Angeles. “There is a whole world out there, people who are educated and interested and cultural. I want to speak to that audience.”