Reese Witherspoon may dazzle the general populace–People Magazine recently named her the Best Dressed Person of 2015–but venture investors weren’t star-struck when the actress first pitched them on her idea for Southern-lifestyle startup Draper James.
In fact, Forerunner Ventures founder Kirsten Green–an investor in Bonobos Inc., Birchbox Inc. and Dollar Shave Club Inc.–said she initially put Ms. Witherspoon’s celebrity status in the “con category.”
“Founding a company is the hardest thing you can possibly do. It takes an enormous amount of sheer will, and with celebrities who have so many things they could spend their time doing, you question whether you can count on them being there,” Ms. Green said.
After a series of meetings with the star of “Walk the Line” and the “Legally Blonde” movies and questioning handful of Hollywood executives who knew her well, Ms. Green said she was convinced Ms. Witherspoon would be deeply involved for the duration. Ms. Green quickly decided to lead a $10 million round to bankroll the startup’s expansion.
The infusion comes a few months after Draper James launched its e-commerce site and marks the latest in a series of celebrity led consumer Internet startups to capture venture cash and confidence.
The Wall Street Journal spoke with the actress-turned-startup founder about her responsibilities as creative director and what it means to dress Southern. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What prompted you to launch Draper James?
About three years ago when I was traveling between Atlanta and Nashville, I started noticing how much was happening culturally in the South with museums, music venues and restaurants. At that same time I was approached by two Northeast brands to represent them. I don’t know the Hamptons, but I do know the South and I realized there was a white space to tell that story.
What responsibilities do you have as the co-founder and creative director?
I work with the design team three times a month going through different collections, refining the samples, working on fit and color and trying to make the line cohesive. We look at what’s wearable and what’s selling. A lot of my work is traveling to factories in places like Georgia and North Carolina and encouraging people.
What is special about Southern women and the clothes they wear?
There are rules of dressing. You put your clothes and face on like a suit of armor to start the day. You’re always dressed before 10 a.m. We dress to sit on airplanes and to sit at the theater. Nobody wears sweatpants to go to dinner.
How does that translate into the Draper James style?
We emphasize coordination of different pieces for a pulled together look. Matching items, like matching your shoes to you handbag, is not a bad thing in the South. It’s a return to pretty clothes. We also do a lot with bright colors and patterns. We don’t do black. Our black is navy.
Why no black?
It’s just not done. People wear black to funerals. I didn’t wear black at all when I was young and was only allowed to buy my first pair of black pants when I was 15.
A number of other celebrities from Jessica Alba to the Olsen twins have also tried their hand at direct to consumer fashion startups. Have you gleaned anything from their experiences?
As an actor you work for a large corporation. You are used to being the face of a global brand and accepting the responsibility that comes with that. It’s natural to extend that to your own brand.
How do you like startup life so far?
It’s exciting to be the captain of your own ship, but it’s a lot of hard work.
I like that by connecting with people over social media you know immediately whether they like something or not. The immediacy is very gratifying, but it requires moving products through the pipeline much faster. With movies, the production cycle is so much longer.
As an actress and a mom you already have a busy schedule. How will you balance these additional demands?
There’s a lot of down time on production sets, so I’m always available. But it’s been busy, I’m not going to lie. I also have incredible partnerships.