9 Southern-Made Gifts and the Stories Behind Their Success

AAA GO magazine

From handcrafted boots to bourbon, skincare and belts, these successful Southern brands make great gifts for anyone on your list.

J.T. Spencer Belts (Richmond, Va.)

Putting greens, sail boats, mallard ducks, and martinis: They’re all stitched in the fun, sporty line of J.T. Spencer Belts. Originally founded in New York, and today, owned by Steve DeWalle and Spens Woodruff, the Richmond, Virginia-based company embroiders belts and other items in themes sure to appeal to anyone on the list: hunting, golf, nautical, and, through a partnership with Peter Millar, dozens of colleges, universities, and professional sports teams. Key fobs, golf head covers and more are also options.

Helm Boots (Austin, Tx.)

In 2009, Joshua Bingaman set out to craft the perfect modern boot. Today, his team of 14 master bootmakers walk through more than 153 steps to make one pair. Known for their signature “white line” rubber midsole, for additional support, Helm sneakers and boots are made of Balthazar leather, developed by a family-owned tannery founded in 1940 in the Dominican Republic.

Boardroom Socks (Charlotte, N.C.)

Textiles are woven into the James family fabric. For seven generations, these present-day sock makers have worked in the textile industry, dating to 1837, when the family’s original fabric mill opened in rural North Carolina. In 2010, Mike and Carol James and their son, Nathan, started the small Boardroom Socks operation out of their home.

Lilly Pulitzer (Palm Beach, Fla.)

You know the bold, colorful patterns, but do you know the story behind Lilly Pulitzer? A Palm Beach socialite whose husband, Peter, owned several Florida citrus groves, Lilly Pulitzer started a juice stand using her husband’s produce. The stand was not only a success — people flocked to the juice — but the mess on her dress, from squeezing oranges, lemons, limes and pink grapefruit, spawned the creative clothing concept. Today, the brand boasts over 60 company-operated retail stores, and 70 other signature stores, and is found in department stores nationwide.

Pretentious Glass Co. (Knoxville, Tenn.)

Matthew Cummings got the idea for Pretentious Glass Co. while a member of a drinking club at the Mellwood Arts Center in Louisville, Kentucky. On Fridays, the crew would cut out of work early and catch up over craft beer. Cummings made every member a customized glass and soon noticed the lack of creative craft beer glasses. Today, he makes the custom glasses by hand in his Knoxville, Tennessee, studio using centuries-old techniques.

Woodford Reserve Bourbon (Versailles, Ky.)

A bottle of Woodford Reserve will bring a smile to any bourbon lover on your list. Today, the popular booze is made by master distillers Chris Morris and Elizabeth McCall, but the Woodford Reserve Distillery, Kentucky’s smallest and oldest distillery, and now a National Historic Landmark, was started by Elijah Pepper in 1812.

Shibumi Shade (Emerald Isle, N.C.)

Brothers Dane and Scott Barnes partnered with their pal Alex Slater to make a better beach shade. By 2016, the UNC graduates had come up with a design that worked with the wind, not against it; weighed less than four pounds; and was easy to assemble. Since then, Shibumi Shades, which are sewn in North Carolina or Virginia, have spread in popularity and can be found on beaches from Emerald Isle to Waikiki.

Burt’s Bees (Durham, N.C.)

Originally conceived in Maine, Burt’s Bees has become ubiquitous in skin- and haircare, found everywhere from big-box stores to small boutiques. Today, everyone buzzes about the Durham, N.C.-made, products, which range from shampoo to lip balm and diaper ointment to cuticle cream — great stuffers for any stocking.

Brackish (Charleston, S.C.)

Brackish started with a meaningful present. For Ben Ross’s wedding, in 2007, he handmade turkey-feather bow ties as gifts for his groomsmen. One of those friends, Jeff Plotner, saw the potential in the product and, in 2012, the two launched a company. Now based in Charleston, S.C., the line, whose products have been seen on celebrities from Blake Lively and Jason Mraz to Cam Newton and Don Cheadle, offers earrings, bracelets, bow ties for kids, and more, in unique products that feature elements of nature

The original version of this story ran in AAA Go magazine, November 2021.

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