The Nashville native knows what Southern women want: ladylike dresses, great jeans, and pretty stationery—and she delivers them in her new store, Draper james. Jenna Bush Hager sits down with the star to talk fashion and family ties.
"I remember lying on a cot in my parents’ bedroom in Texas watching The Man in the Moon with my sister, Barbara. As 10-year-olds, we were transfixed by the blonde star, so close to our age, lighting up the screen with a Southern accent. This summer, on an unseasonably cool Saturday, I had the chance to meet the woman I have admired from afar for 20 years at Riverwood Mansion in East Nashville. I was slightly trepidatious. A colleague said, “I want to hear about the shoot only if you absolutely adore her.” We all want Witherspoon to be the perfect Southern ambassador: Dani from The Man in the Moon who grew up to be Melanie from Sweet Home Alabama. Although she is her own person—even more outspoken and charming than either of those characters and more petite in real life too—to me, she embodies the “new Southern woman.” She’s opinionated with a fiery sense of humor and friendly disposition. When I mentioned the banana pudding from Arnold’s Country Kitchen that I’d eaten on my way to the interview, she said, “Oh, honey, bury me in that pudding and I will die happy.” This spring, the 39-year-old mogul launched lifestyle brand Draper James, inspired by her paternal grandparents, Dorothea Draper and William James Witherspoon. The site went live in May with feminine dresses, casual separates, and monogrammed linens and other hostess gifts—many named after her favorite Southern icons (Lucinda coat, Austin shirt). A 3,000-square-foot store is planned to open this fall in Nashville’s 12South neighborhood, a short drive from Witherspoon’s recently purchased home. So, it seems this Southern gal never forgot her roots and is finally ready to come home." —Jenna Bush Hager
JENNA: You named Draper James after your grandparents. What were they like?
REESE: My grandmother, Dorothea, was so elegant. She didn’t have a lot of dresses or anything, but she always looked put together. She’d say, “If you look good, you feel good.” It’s a tenet I’ve carried all my life—whether I’m doing movies or at home with the kids. My grandfather, William, was incredibly charitable and taught me the importance of giving.
JENNA: Did you look through any of their old letters or pictures for Draper James inspiration?
REESE: Yes, my grandmother was so good at archiving. I have pictures of her in 1941 standing in Cummins Falls State Park in cute little bathing suits and plaid shirts and dressed up at dinner parties.
JENNA: I think we have a renewed interest in the traditions our grandparents grew up with.
REESE: Oh, yeah. I wanted to dig into the question of why Southern women dress the way we do. Why don’t we walk around in sweatpants? Why do we wear makeup everywhere? It’s just how we were raised. My grandmother would always say things like “spruce the goose” and “put your face on.”
JENNA: What did you learn from your grandparents about family?
REESE: They were strict but incredibly loving. We had family dinner every night. That’s a big thing I learned from my grandmother—to spend time with your kids and listen to their dreams.
JENNA: Do your kids write thank-you letters, or is it thank-you texts these days?
REESE: I make them write letters. Every gift gets a note or a drawing. It means so much when kids are appreciative.
JENNA: How do you get your Southern fix?
REESE: I just bought a house in Nashville, so that should cure me for good. Everything is a little bit slower here, and I think I’m ready for that in my life again. When I’m here my brain relaxes.
JENNA: Where do you like to go in Nashville?
REESE: There’s a great bookstore called Parnassus Books, owned by writer Ann Patchett. It’s near my favorite doughnut shop, Fox’s Donut Den, which has been around for, I don’t know, a million years.
JENNA: Are you a country music fan?
REESE: Huge. Huge. Country has great musicians. You know Dolly Parton plays seven instruments? I love Dolly so much I can’t stand it!
JENNA: People love that you’re so real. Has anybody tried to take your “y’alls” away?
REESE: Early on, someone said, “Well, you’re never gonna get a job with an accent like that.” I learned to change it up, but it’s like a pair of slippers that I put on when I’m at home. I start to talk more and more Southern. My kids know when I’m serious. I get really Southern.
JENNA: And you double the names up? “Margaret Laura Hager, ...”
REESE: Yes. “Ava Elizabeth Phillippe, get over here.” They know.
JENNA: There’s a stereotype about Southern women being quiet and demure. Do you think that notion still exists?
REESE: I don’t know a weak Southern woman. My mom says if you want something done, then ask a Southern woman. There are a lot of old ideas about the South, but it’s a different time. I’m excited about the new South.
JENNA: You love to entertain. Tell me a tip for someone who is more of a novice.
REESE: I used to be really intimidated by dinner parties. Then I realized anybody coming to my house loves me anyway. Now I put less emphasis on perfection and more on joy and happiness.
JENNA: What sets apart the Southern hostess?
REESE: There’s this open-door policy that is very quintessentially Southern. My grandmother would make these amazing spreads of fried okra and sweet potatoes, and neighbors were just invited to come in.
JENNA: You’re opening a brick-and-mortar store in Nashville. Why the storefront in an online-obsessed culture?
REESE: People need to touch and feel the clothes—40% are made in the South, 70% in America. People say, “Wait, why is it so expensive?” But it’s important to me that we bring production to the South. We’ve been able to help facilities get the machines they’ve needed for years. And we’re collaborating with Southern designers—like Hanna Seabrook in Kentucky, who helped create our stationery, and silversmith Kaminer Haislip in Charleston, South Carolina, who did our silver bowls. I want to give back to this community because I got so much from it as a young girl.
JENNA: Draper James has been in the works for a while. Why now? I mean, you’re a pretty busy lady.
REESE: I don’t think I ever realized I’d be this busy. I just try to, as my dad says, “Make hay while the sun shines.” There is so much growth in the South. Every time I come back to Nashville, there is a new restaurant or another amazing museum or another music club, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if someone could tap into those traditions that we grew up with?” Southern women are very fashionable. They read Elle and Vogue, but I don’t think anyone’s catering to us in the way we love—grandmother’s pearls with modern clothes.
JENNA: How do you balance things? You have three children and multiple careers. I know there’s no perfect balance, but…
REESE: No, and no one’s really doing it perfectly. I think you love your kids with your whole heart, and you do the best you possibly can. But, you know, right now I’m feeling sad missing my little 2-year-old, and my daughter’s about to finish her freshman year of high school, and my son has a golf tournament this weekend that I hope I don’t miss. There are some sacrifices you make, and it hurts your heart sometimes, but my kids tell me they’re proud of what I’ve accomplished, and that just means everything. I grew up with a working mom, and I have so much respect for the things she did as a nurse and a teacher. I would never begrudge her that.
JENNA: Was it a big deal for you to put your family’s name on a business?
REESE: It was a huge deal for me. I was actually asked by several companies to just put my name on something, and I didn’t feel like that was appropriate. I hope my grandparents know how much I looked up to them. I truly believe that they look down on me and guide me in this life.