The phrase “Southern Style” carries a hefty amount of assumptions and stereotypes with it, depending on the topic at hand.
Food is often the subject matter when that phrase arises, and likely refers to all things fried, buttered, baconed, and smothered, though there’s a whole movement of chefs trying to change that perception.
Then, there’s the music (twang), the attitude (“Bless your heart”), and home décor (pineapples, palmetto trees, and bold Lily Pulitzer-style patterns). Some of it’s true, while much of it may be only a sliver of reality.
But when it comes to fashion, specifically for the millennial consumers, there’s a distinct and legitimate Southern, collegiate style that has emerged and spread far outside of South Carolina with the help of some local, Upstate-grown clothing companies: Coast Apparel, Southern Tide, and the Graphic Cow’s newly launched Magnolia Designs division marketed solely to sororities.
This style can be summed up in one sentence from Southern Tide CEO Christopher Heyn:
“They don’t want to be too dressed up, but god-forbid they not be dressed up enough.”
It’s as simple, and as complex, as that, considering that for Southern collegiates, and often their parents and siblings, that appearance must be maintained in the heat, rain, stadium, field, class, and social function. One outfit, or look, has to be versatile enough for all of the above. That’s not a job for your run-of-the-mill pocket T-shirt.
This is where these local companies come in, taking traditional styles, like the polo shirt or dress, and recreating it with moisture-wicking performance fabric with a touch of stretch and an updated fit.
In addition to the performance aspect, that versatility of style is something that has changed in collegiate circles, especially among sororities, says Thomas Smith, who launched Magnolia Designs Co. in May as a division of Greenville’s Graphic Cow design and screen-printing business, which was founded in 1994 in Clemson to bring advertising agency-quality design to the screen-printing world.
A large part of Graphic Cow’s collegiate sales are in screen-printed T-shirts for fraternities and sororities.
In 2015, 93 percent of sorority sales were basic pocket T’s. In 2016, that number dropped to 81 percent, and so far in 2017, it’s dropped even further to 65 percent.
Smith, who spends weeks on the road meeting with chapter leadership on college campuses throughout the Southeast, saw that drop coming.
“Women lead fashion,” he says. “I sensed [the change] of the last few years.”
In response, he created Magnolia Designs to sell apparel to sororities only to boost sales. He discovered what they want is their brand printed on pieces much more individual and wearable than a basic T-shirt.
“Sororities are looking for the most unique thing,” Smith says. “We never proactively marketed to them.”
He credits the rise of Instagram usage for much of the shift. With nearly every occasion being photographed and posted on social media, that means two things for the chapters: First, they don’t want to be a duplicate of any other chapter in the school, and second, the need for event T-shirts to prove they were there isn’t necessary.
The Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina sorority chairs want softer fabrics and flowy silhouettes, and they tend to be more conservative. Florida schools, in particular, tend to lean more toward crop tops, body suits, and racer backs, Smith says.
The challenge is to keep up with the demand.
“My job is anticipating what the next thing might be,” Smith says. “Everybody wants something different.”
The fabric of choice is no longer 100 percent cotton, but poly blends that create a sheer, soft look.
Each chapter wants to be the most fashion forward, while doing so in numerous outdoor scenarios and weather situations. That’s the Southern way.
It’s also a philosophy of style attractive to consumers beyond the Southeast and college campuses, judging by Southern Tide’s and Coast’s expansion in both online sales and brick-and-mortar retail presence.
Southern Tide, the older of the two, and now a wholly owned subsidiary of Oxford Industries (NYSE: OXM), was founded in Greenville in 2006 by 23-year-old Allen Stephenson, and is best known for the Skipjack Polo he developed specifically to be the quintessential versatile Southern shirt. The company has since expanded into a lifestyle brand with full clothing and accessory lines for men, women, and children.
Earlier this summer, Southern Tide announced plans for the opening of three new signature stores, in addition to its Main Street Greenville, Kiawah Island, and Naperville, Ill., locations, as well as an additional admiral partnership — a branded shop-in-shop installation located within a retail location. The new signature stores are in Raleigh, Asheville, and Wilmington, N.C.
In terms of online retail, they currently ship to 48 states, with the first shipments to Hawaii scheduled for next quarter.
They have a wholesale presence in 42 states. Ten years ago, they were only in one state.
Heyn says they’re seeing the fastest growth in the Northeast, which isn’t surprising given the success of prep-brand Vineyard Vines along the East Coast. Chicago and Texas are key regions, and they’re even experiencing growth on the West Coast, because there’s interest in the “Southern spirit,” meaning the comfortable, casual, colorful, and fun style that can work for families, tailgates, fun on the water, and sports, Heyn says.
He says the traditional polo/khaki stereotypical preppy look can seem exclusionary, but that’s not what true Southern style is.
“We’re not about the social club,” he says. “Everyone in the South is warm and inviting.”
Their target demographic is the collegiate and slightly older crew, with a heavy emphasis on drawing demographic info from college campuses through their ambassador program based on the strategy that the product is the No. 1 marketing tool.
The 40 college ambassadors, both male and female, at 38 schools include a sailing instructor, a college lacrosse player, and a fraternity president, for instance, whose goals are to incorporate Southern Tide into the college experiences without the hard sell.
“Our demographic sees through the gimmicks and marketing campaigns,” he says.
The ambassadors report directly to the brand manager and provide information about the brand usage to inform further marketing efforts.
“Our guy actually knows how to drive a stick shift,” Heyn says. “Our girl is never the first one to the party and never the last one to leave.”
Coast Apparel, founded in 2009 by Greenville entrepreneur Chad Odom and business partner Blayne Henderson, has also experienced national growth after being purchased by Delta Apparel a year ago and opening a store at 324 S. Main St., Greenville.
Kerry McLeod, Coast’s president, says that adding the brick-and-mortar presence on Main Street ignited the brand, including online, which has grown 20 percent since. Sales this fiscal year through June were up 68 percent from the previous year. When Delta purchased Coast, they had 25-30 wholesale retailers. Now there are more than 50, McLeod says.
Currently, Coast has three stores: the flagship on Pawleys Island, the distribution site on Augusta Road, and the Main Street location. McLeod says growing the retail footprint is in the cards, as is adding a women’s line in 2018, beginning with the signature soft T-shirts, shorts, and swimwear. A youth line is in the works, also. Currently, Coast sells only a men’s line.
Graphic Cow supplies Coast with its 100 percent pima cotton T-shirts that are customer favorites.
McLeod says their “secret sauce” is creating timeless, classic pieces, with a twist on the trend.
“We’ve created a line that can go from beach to the bar to the boardroom,” she says. “They don’t go out of style.”