The South Is Spreading April 21, 2011, 5:00PM EST By Eric Spitznagel
When members of the Confederate Army declared "the South will rise again," they weren't talking about New York Fashion Week. Yet this February, a gaggle of celebrities and fashion icons filled Lincoln Center to view Chris Benz's new Savannah (Ga.)-inspired collection. The show, which Benz referred to as "Spooky Savannah," featured models in floppy hats and tiered ruffles walking the runway as if they were in a reenactment of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil directed by John Waters. Fashion boutique owner Salama Alabbar already has high hopes for "Spooky Savannah" at her store, Symphony. Benz's "conservative cuts consistently perform very well," she says. "Beading and embellishment will also be very alluring in this part of the world"—by which she means Dubai.
While Brooklyn hipsters have long dressed like sharecroppers, lower- and middle-brow Southern culture is now rising across the globe. Music duo the Bellamy Brothers, marginally famous for their country hit Let Your Love Flow, are currently playing to sold-out crowds in South Africa and Sri Lanka, where, according to their booking agent Judy Seale, they're "treated like Elvis." In the U.K., sales of Kentucky bourbon have risen by 25 percent since 2005, according to London-based market research firm International Wine and Spirits Research. (IWSR also predicts sales will increase an additional 22 percent by 2014.) The independent movie Winter's Bone, which chronicles a teenage girl's travails chopping wood and killing squirrels, is on pace to eclipse its U.S. domestic gross with overseas revenue. Chris Benz isn't the only fashion guru going full Southern. According to agrarian-chic designer Billy Reid, the global customer is now attracted to products that have "Southern roots."
The rise of the Southern brand, though, seems linked to the fall of many other things. "Consumers have been increasingly interested in the South as a result of several trends," explains Savannah Haspel of market research firm IBIS World. (Yes, that's her real name.) Among them, she says, is that "post-Katrina funding and aid turned consumers' attention toward the region." Harvey Jackson, a professor of history at Alabama's Jacksonville State University and an editor of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, believes that in uncertain times, "the South is a calmer, quieter place, and a lot of folks are craving that right now." Kim Holloway, creator of the popular blog Stuff Southern People Like, agrees. "If you're out of work, depressed, and stressed out, caviar and sushi aren't exactly going to stanch the flow of tears," she says. "But fried chicken might!" The export of Southern culture, Holloway emphasizes, is directly linked to its affordability and accessibility. Whether a region is grappling with austerity measures or decreased disposable income, less-pricey Southern diversions redevelop the sheen they've had, says Holloway, "since the Civil War ended and Confederate money was suddenly as useless as tits on a bull."
This Southern diaspora has created a new generation of unlikely profiteers. Atop the list is Paula Deen, the agoraphobe-turned-small-town-cook-turned-celebrity-chef-turned-lifestyle-eminence. Through the popularity of her show Paula's Home Cooking and spinoffs Paula's Party and Paula's Best Dishes—as well as branded lines of cookware and appliances—Deen has become a household name in South Africa, Turkey, and other places where pineapple casserole has yet to catch on.
Deen is the beneficiary of Southern comfort food's own manifest destiny. At New York's chic Blue Smoke restaurant, an order of shrimp and grits costs $26.95. Throughout Lebanon, the Roadster chain of diners has introduced cheese fries and burgers doused in barbecue sauce to people bored by a healthier Mediterranean diet. By the end of last year, 3,200 KFC restaurants were operating across China. Says Yum! Brands public-relations manager Virginia Ferguson: "We expect the Yum! China Division to become our first $1 billion profit business in the near future." According to Deen's son, Bobby, himself the star of numerous Deen spin-offs, "You realize [now] how pervasive the South has become."
Just below Deen is Kathy Patrick, the heavily coiffured, hot-pink clothes enthusiast, and founder of the Jefferson (Tex.)-based book club the Pulpwood Queens. The club, which began a decade ago as a small gathering at a local hair salon-cum-bookstore, now has 412 chapters in 11 countries, from Canada to Thailand, including the all-women Hiland Mountain-Meadow Creek Correctional Facility in Eagle River, Alaska. In early 2011, Random House joined forces with the group to create an Internet talk show hosted by Patrick. The collaboration, says Avideh Bashirrad, Random House's marketing director, was the publisher's way of "kicking it up a notch."
Despite her group's globalization, Patrick insists the Pulpwood Queens retain crucial elements of their Southern roots. All members are encouraged to keep their hair poufy (Patrick's motto: "The higher the hair, the closer to God, so let's jack it up for Jesus!") and their outfits eccentric (she admits a weakness for leopard prints). Every year the group hosts a "Great Big Ball of Hair" event in Jefferson, where visiting members and authors dress up in themed costumes. "I think everyone has a secret fantasy," says Patrick, "of playing the Southern belle like Scarlett O'Hara or the Southern gentleman like Rhett Butler."
Or Elvis. Oklahoma-native singer-songwriter Kareem Salama has become extremely popular in the Middle East, and many of his extra-twangy country songs feature Arabic lyrics. After playing sold-out shows last summer in Morocco, Kuwait, Bahrain, Syria, Jerusalem, and Jordan, Salama says he and his band have been approached in the Middle East by all manner of country fans—from elderly women to young men and, during a recent visit to Cairo, an Arabian princess. "The young people thought we were cool," he says. "The old people thought we were sweet, and the rich people thought we were trustworthy." The multigenerational interest in country music has less to do with the music itself, Salama suspects, than the uniquely Southern attitude. "We talk slow," he says. "For young people, talking slow is cool. It says, 'Hey, I'm too cool to rush.'"
Judy Seale, chief executive officer of the Judy Seale International artist management firm in Nashville, has built a career bringing Southern performers to foreign countries. Business, she claims, has never been better. "[Foreign] audiences don't want pop or rap music," she says. "They want pedal steel guitars and fiddles and really traditional-sounding country music." She's recently taken several country acts—Lonestar, Chuck Mead, the Bellamy Brothers, and others—to locations such as Oslo, Zürich, Untermeitingen, Germany, and other extremely cold places not known for their barbecue. Scandinavia in particular is hot for country, says Seale. "I book more tours and festivals in Norway than any other country in the world," she says. Though she's learned how to satisfy the Southern cravings of other societies. "In Hong Kong and Brazil," says Seale, "they don't care who the artist is, just so long as they get off the plane wearing cowboy boots."
Exactly 150 years after the Civil War began, Southern style may have truly risen. Designer Benz, who was born in Seattle, says that these days the South "can really cross geographic lines and be merchandised into so many wardrobes." As proof, Kelly Stinnett, his executive vice-president of sales, says the designer's look is also becoming popular in Tokyo. "They are desperate to get Chris out there," she says. One may wonder why a city like Tokyo, rattled by a nuclear crisis, would care if its clothing evoked a Georgia plantation. Still, Stinnett is banking on the idea that the calming, laid-back Southern sensibility may be exactly what Japan needs at the moment. "In a sea of a lot of darkness out there," she says, "this is such a breath of fresh air."