Libby Callaway's unique mix of talents breathe life into The Callaway
The Callaway staff gathers regularly around a six-chair dining room table deep in the heart of East Nashville, where they plot strategies to make their name and those of their clients nationally known. They only fill three of the chairs.
“It sounds like a country club or something,” founder and principal Libby Callaway says of the name she gave her as-yet intimate but flourishing operation, headquartered in her home filled with vintage clothing, energy, and shoes.
In reality, The Callaway is more a fashion/lifestyle/thought factory, filled with creative individualists.
Callaway and the company’s two other full-time employees — marketing director Katy Smith and account manager Kori Titzer — specialize in “Content . . . Curation . . . Communication.” It’s part public relations, part content producing (think company blogs and bios), and part fashion and personal style, with clients ranging from boutique Nashville hotel Noelle to Paramore singer Hayley Williams’ “hair makeup” and accessories brand Good Dye Young.
“We meet here, but work wherever,” Callaway says, perched at home. “If they want to go to California and work for two weeks, I’m fine with that.”
Leaving town can have its inspirational qualities. Ultimately, Callaway’s vision for the company was birthed, or at least spurred, by her own fairly long tenure in New York City. The East Tennessee native initially headed north to pursue her master’s in journalism at New York University, after earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Tennessee.
“I wanted to write about music,” she says. “But I became interested in the cultures around New York. I wrote for indie mags about personalities. You know, take some rock star shopping. That was what I always was thinking about.”
Callaway’s education, along with her experience living in the Big Apple, put her on the path for a full-time dive into journalism. In 1997, opportunity knocked in the form of what is perhaps the gaudiest of New York City’s tabloids, New York Post. With its Fourth Estate aim of informing and entertaining what, in good, old-fashioned newspaper semantics, is called “the lowest common denominator,” the Post would prove to be fertile ground in which to develop her skills.
“I moved to New York knowing very little about tabloid journalism,” Callaway says. “Got to see a lot of different things happen.”
She joined a corps of journalism “superstars” in the Post’s bustling newsroom.
“You gotta be smart to write dumb,” she explains. “They were great journalists and knew their beats well.”
Callaway got her start as an assistant on the “Women’s Page,” a sexist, now-retired moniker for what dailies currently call “Features” or “Lifestyles” pages.
“I hate the ghettoization of women,” she says, “. . . But that was a different day.”
She eventually started covering fashion for the Post full-time, enjoying perks like front-row seats at runway shows, covering Fashion Week in New York and the Oscars in L.A., flying to Paris and Milan. She launched a fashion supplement and worked alongside supermodels. She was dazzled and awed by the exotic world.
“But it didn’t make me happy,” she says.
She noticed her high-profile role led to her being treated differently — “you are somebody” — and tried to at least embrace the access she had. It wasn’t always healthy.
“I knew I drank too much,” she says. “Pressure getting the best of me. Those were dark days in New York. I was still doing good work, but I was miserable. It’s hard to be miserable in a position people tell you you’re very lucky to have, to not feel grateful for that. But I just didn’t feel it.”
Callaway gave New York the better part of seven years, but realized it wasn’t the “what” and the “where” she saw for her future. “It suddenly occurred to me that I could leave,” Callaway says. “I knew I was coming to Nashville.”
Scanning journalismjobs.com, she saw that The Tennessean was looking for an assistant features editor, and “immediately applied.” She was hired in 2004 to visualize, write, and edit stories about Music City’s burgeoning fashion scene for the city’s daily newspaper.
But by then, Callaway had been shaped by her tenure at the Post.
“In New York, I had this glamorous job, but the drinking followed me [to Nashville],” she says. “I didn’t drink less, I drank more.”
A clinical facility that specialized in multiple diagnoses helped Callaway get healthy, and clear.
“My personal mix was anxiety and depression, which I was medicating with alcohol,” she says. Sober, she briefly returned to The Tennessean, but realized she still wasn’t happy, and set off on her own.
Using connections from New York, Callaway started working as a wardrobe stylist, and tapped her love of vintage clothing as another income source, selling stylish pieces she hunted down. She also wrote a fashion column for Glamour magazine, brought on by an editor who “liked the idea of someone not being in New York writing about fashion.”
That mix of skills — fashion sense and storytelling — opened a new door for her in 2011, when she went to work for imogene + willie, the custom jeans company then-housed in an abandoned 12 South gas station, as media director.
“I did concept creations,” she says. “The most interesting thing that sells jeans is the story behind the brand. And I saw these guys as a really good story.”
Instead of focusing completely on the product, she went to work creating “The Brand” through storytelling — not only about imogene + willie, but “about the awesome people who wore the jeans,” including singer-songwriter Jessie Baylin and actress Mary Steenburgen.
“That’s when everything changed. I realized what I was doing,” she says. “PR and marketing are like journalism when you do the storytelling.”
Her handiwork became her calling card as the hipster population grew in the Athens of the South.
“[Around 2011], there were a lot of interesting places in Nashville that were coming up,” Callaway says. “I started writing for small, independent things that had a good story.”
It also caught the attention of Billy Reid, a fashion company based in Florence, Ala., that initially called Callaway for marketing help.
She spent two years consulting, then joined the Billy Reid team as VP of marketing. When the company opened New York offices in early 2014, Callaway left Nashville, setting up in a company-owned apartment and returning to the New York fashion world.
But “I missed Nashville,” Callaway says, “and kind of realized I made a mistake.”
Billy Reid closed the New York offices the next year, something Callaway saw as a “godsend.”
“It was good for everybody,” she says. “I moved back to Nashville . . . and took the time to realize what to do next. That’s when I decided I’d like to have my own company.”
From that dream she began fashioning what became The Callaway, “by doing long-form interviews in the East Nashville community.”
“That brought me the attention of people, got me some new clients,” including, eventually, the group behind Noelle — a historic former bank and office building that last year was recast as an art deco hotel, at Fourth and Church.
Callaway figures her team now spends about 55 percent of their time with Noelle, in a role that’s three-fold, and then some. She curates Keep Shop, a luxury retail store in the hotel’s lobby, serves as editorial director of The Line, its custom in-house newspaper, and the Callaway team does PR for Noelle and its amenities.
It’s a role that requires a unique mix of skills — the particular one Callaway happens to be working with — and a collaborative mindset.
“I am part of a team of local creatives,” she says, noting the wide range of people working on Noelle-related projects and expectations, including architect Nick Dryden, who brought The Callaway into the fold, and who assembled the “creative partners” helping parent company Rockbridge “shape the offerings of the hotel in a way that we feel will appeal to Nashville residents as well as those visiting town.”
Her reputation and the quality of The Callaway’s work continue to open new doors.
“I got a call from someone who wanted me to help do press for a rap festival,” she says. “And I didn’t say, ‘No.’
“I really appreciate that people are able to see a different approach” to marketing The Callaway way.
And she figures her timing was spot on, if lucky. “The growth that’s happened in Nashville in the last five years has been tremendous. Out-of-town clients see that wonderful things can be done in Nashville.”
Promoting Nashville as a creative fountainhead got her involved with others in the fashion industry here, and helped spring the Nashville Fashion Alliance, a trade collective working toward supporting and promoting the regional fashion industry.
And by keeping in touch with her New York friends and colleagues, she helped get the word out about what she now refers to as “the community” that is the local fashion industry.
The community that is East Nashville has Callaway’s devotion, too, tracing back to a visit to the Tomato Art Fest in 2007. “I was with my sister,” Callaway says. “I told her, ‘Oh, this is it. I think I need to move to East Nashville.’ ”
She has dreams for her house here — a historic place in Eastwood, which she loves. (“I’m trying to make a big renovation, make it a dream fortress.”) But she has bigger ones for her company, her brand.
“I’d love it if The Callaway took over the world.”