Look at pictures of men from the southern United States of the 1960s, and you’ll start to see a pattern. It’s painfully obvious. Take Bob Dylan, protest singing in Greenwood, Mississippi, circa 1963. Or Paul Newman languishing in a Southern everytown for 1967’s “Cool Hand Luke.” Or famous Richmonder Tom Wolfe pretty much at any time that decade.
There are lots of cotton chambray shirts and seersucker suits.
Today’s menswear designers are hungry for such source code, because they can build customer trust with a company story. They’re up against the anonymous “athleisure” aesthetic — part gym rat, part startup nerd — which is a market juggernaut.
But Ledbury, the Richmond-based fine shirt-maker, has done more than peddle the prospect of authenticity. In six years, it’s become an internationally recognized pioneer of New South fashion.
“I love being located here because there are so many overlapping creative scenes,” Chief Executive Paul Trible says, reclining on a plush couch in the store’s custom shirt room. “I feel like Ledbury can find inspiration for an identity here, and I’m always thinking of new ways I can build relationships with customers.”
The challenge, of course, is for Ledbury to decide which vision of the South it represents. During a long tour of Ledbury’s 14th Street shop Trible seeks to explain why the company is here to stay in Richmond. Along the way, he demonstrates how Ledbury is giving new life to such Southern staples as chambray and seersucker.
“Some guys need some handholding, maybe their partner is encouraging them to dress better,” Trible jokes. “Others want to be directly involved in the design process, and that’s where our Ledbury Workshop on Patterson comes in.”
Last summer, Trible and co-founder Paul Watson purchased Creery, a century-old shirt-maker in Richmond’s West End. The space enhances Ledbury’s image as a purveyor of modern Southern culture. While Trible and Watson built their fashion chops in Britain, the Ledbury Workshop will give birth to the Commonwealth Collection, a project that focuses on all things Virginia.
“You’ll find our most innovative patterns there, all made in Virginia, in limited numbers,” says Trible, who grew up near the Chesapeake Bay. “To me, the American South is more than just baking pies and saying ‘y’all.’ There’s something timeless about it.”
Trible shows off a Commonwealth Collection shirt from last year: a bicycle print, made in time for the UCI Road World Championships held in Richmond. Then he trots out an experiment for this season. It’s a white shirt punctuated with seersucker puckers, which are contrasted with bright blue dots. It’s a bold reworking of the traditional alternating white-and-blue lines, yet it retains the basic DNA of seersucker.
“We’re never going to radically change the men’s shirt,” Trible says. “We can make small changes, though.”
Another shirt that screams Richmond to Trible?
“The McDaniel Chambray — it’s such a great fabric for this city’s climate,” he says without hesitation. “We’ve taken away the button-down collar to update it with an urban vibe.”
But even such devoted Ledbury fans as Bill Martin, director of the Valentine Richmond History Center, is hesitant to say Ledbury has cracked the Southern code, questioning which New South that the company represents.
“Ledbury lives in parallel universes,” Martin says. “Sure, they’ve been able to refine parts of our culture, what you might call Southern prep dress. But it would work in the closet of someone who’s into hip-hop, blues or country culture.”
“That’s reflective of Richmond and its growing diversity, too,” he adds, “which doesn’t blend into some uniform thing called the South.”
He suggests that the South’s hallmark gentility lives not in textbooks, perhaps, but in magazine spreads. And he wonders how far back Southern companies are willing to dig in order to find their fashion heritage. If there was some primordial swamp from which the well-dressed Southern man emerged, it may be difficult to pinpoint time and place — and at worst, risk being culturally anachronistic.
“There was an entire manufacturing industry in Shockoe Bottom whose purpose was to dress slaves for sale,” Martin says. “How do you go on to develop gentility and refinement in clothes from that?”
In a blog post for Ledbury’s magazine, Easy Goer, Martin notes: “There’s this tension between how we think about our past and what our past was.”
The modern Southern man probably won’t be a fast-dying fad, even if he lives in an imaginary past. He is already a timeless phantom, well suited to the digital age.
Take actor Daniel Radcliffe, who was baptized in a river of memes after proudly sporting Ledbury’s Richmond-made shirt on late-night television. He’d recently finished filming a movie in Hopewell and was looking dapper.
A Twitter user responded in the most neighborly way possible: with a choir of hallelujah-hands emojis.