Going Back Down South with the Fontenots

Story by Brooke Hutchins

It’s a typical Southern scene: a sweltering hot summer afternoon down on Main Street in the city of Jasper, nestled in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains. I walk into the restaurant early and sit expectantly, noticing the beautiful exposed brick and artwork adorning the walls — undoubtedly the most stylish lunch place in this small town and Caroline’s suggestion, of course. “Is it noon yet? Let’s check out the drink menu,” she says excitedly.

She orders a glass of white wine because it’s too early for a cocktail, but wine, “well it’s always time for wine.” Mark doesn’t hesitate to ask our waiter for a list of what’s on draft, and quickly settles on the Freckle Belly IPA from Gadsden, Ala. because it’s one that he actually hasn’t tried yet — a rarity since one of he and Caroline’s favorite hobbies is traveling around to little-known Southern breweries. Caroline is already inspecting his beer from across the table and making a note of its name in her iPhone. And I settle in with a Sweetwater 420. I have a good feeling about this interview already.

Photo of the Fontenots by Cinzia Bruschini (http://www.cinziabruschini.it/)
Photo of the Fontenots by Cinzia Bruschini (http://www.cinziabruschini.it/)

We jump right into one of Caroline’s favorite topics and the reason that I originally became fascinated with this unique couple: a blog called Back Down South. It all started back in 2011, when Caroline’s interest in street style photography, fashion blogs and all things Southern merged together into an idea for a blog. With her photography business steadily growing and the desire to finally publicly share her love of Southern prep style with the world, “It just seemed to us like a good thing to start at the time,” says Mark. And as Caroline’s blog started to take shape, Mark became an important part of it — dressing up in his favorite classic suits and relaxed flannels for Caroline’s photos and traveling around to the South’s best breweries and most charming small towns to share with their readers.

“It’s really her thing,” he says, “But I like being there to help her make decisions with it and encourage her to just be herself and have fun with it.” And of course, the products from Southern companies wanting to be featured on the blog, having a reason to take fun road trips with his wife, and meeting tons of creative, passionate people all over the South is always a plus.

With one-photo posts and just a few words, readers get a memorable snapshot of the life behind the stylish, confident men and women in front of the camera. Underneath each strikingly polished, yet effortlessly relaxed photo are a few simple questions: ‘Raised In?’ and ‘Live In?’ followed by inquiries about their favorite spot to frequent during leisurely strolls through the city, what they believe to be the best part about living in the South, their favorite Southern designer … essentially anything related to the perks of living below the Mason-Dixon line. The last part of each post is the cleverly named ‘Now Would Ya Look at That’ section, which introduces each person photographed with a quick look at their passions (“Meet Jon-Mark, Chief Customer Service God and Team High-Fiver at Chubbies”), followed by a list of what they’re wearing and where they found it. The personality and charm that you see in the details of each person’s style is then reinforced as you read about just why he loves wearing that shirt so much (he found it in his dad’s closet a few years back and it reminds him of his father).

Photo of Rainer Castillo by Caroline Fontenot (www.carolinefontenot.com)
Photo of Rainer Castillo by Caroline Fontenot (www.carolinefontenot.com)

Each post becomes more than photos of nameless faces that know how to dress well. You feel like you know them because maybe you, too, are crazy about the mint julep at that famous Charleston restaurant. “It’s a simple way to make the South feel smaller,” Caroline explains.

“That’s been one of my favorite parts of the blog and living in the South in general — just getting to hear about the passions and traditions woven into the personal stories of the people we come across,” Mark chimes in. Whether it’s making handcrafted sandals or overseeing Southern-based companies such as the popular men’s apparel shops Onward Reserve or the aforementioned Chubbies shorts, everyone featured on the blog is excited to share the source of their joy and confidence with the world. And when great style and even better stories meet in such a simple, relatable way, “people really dig that kind of realness and accessibility,” says Caroline.

And it’s that same realness that I immediately recognized in Caroline and Mark from the second we met.

I mention that the blog must have been a big part of their lives over the past four years, asking if she’s ever felt the pressure to keep up an image to impress her followers.

After a little hesitation, Caroline pauses and says, “I used to when I was starting out. But I’ve found that the posts that are less staged and more just me doing my own thing, doing what I love, are the ones that end up getting the most traffic and buzz.” Admitting that she would still much rather talk about other interesting people than herself on the blog, Caroline has learned that the personal posts with Mark, family and friends are important to have, too. “The people that regularly read the blog have told us that they love feeling like they know us,” she explains. And they do so through posts about glamping with friends, road trips to visit Mark’s family in Louisiana for their annual crawfish boil, the discovery of a new, cool brewery on the way to photograph a wedding, and the occasional photo of the couple when they’re all dressed up for an event and looking fancy.

“If you see me doing something on the blog, like, oh, for instance, having a pontoon boat party on the lake with a bunch of my friends, wearing a t-shirt that says, ‘Don’t Worry B Yoncé,’ then chances are, I would actually be doing that in real life — blog or not. So it’s kind of like, why wouldn’t I let other people in on that fun?” Caroline laughs.

Although she’s not wearing another clever graphic t-shirt today, Caroline’s one-of-a-kind tailored rosy pink button-down blouse with maps on the elbow patches has just as much personality. Just when I start to ask her about how she would define her unique style, Caroline immediately starts laughing as she takes out her iPhone.

“Ok, I’ve got to show you something that you’re not gonna believe,” she says as she flips through her photos.

And there she was — a teenage Caroline in her cut-off cargo army fatigues from the Salvation Army, and another proudly parading around in a pair of infamous hemp pants (a hippy phase she went through and the source of many laughs for the couple). The next few minutes are spent swapping the terrifically horrible fashion choices of our past and cracking up as Mark shakes his head in disbelief. “Did you really just show her those photos?” he chuckles.

“So if I could describe my style in one sentence,” Caroline continues, “It would probably be a recovering hippy who will never let my tomboy roots too far out of reach, but has welcomed jewels and heels to the party.” And looking at her from across the table, that’s exactly who she is — someone who embraces classic Southern prep and the traditions that go along with this timeless style, yet remains unapologetically down-to-earth and no-fuss when it comes to how she carries herself. That child-like tomboy is still very much a part of Caroline’s style, but just in a more mature and refined way.

Photo of Mint Julep by Caroline Fontenot (www.carolinefontenot.com)
Photo of Mint Julep by Caroline Fontenot (www.carolinefontenot.com)

Mark, on the other hand, feels that his personal style has really been influenced by his Texas roots. Describing his look as “Casual Americana,” Mark feels most like himself in a great pair of jeans and a classic button-down. “We lived a pretty simple lifestyle growing up in Texas,” he explains. “And while I love a good suit and dressing up every now and then, I think I’ll always go back to the easy and comfortable style of my Texas upbringing.”

But when they’re not celebrating the good looks of the South, the couple enjoys adding posts to the blog’s ‘Drink This’ section — a compilation of Mark and Caroline’s favorite cocktail finds at local bars, small-batch whiskeys, original and little-known beers, and of course, their own experimentation behind the kitchen counter. Whether it’s a unique blended whiskey from Burnet, Texas, where her parents live, or a recipe for Wassail, Mark’s favorite holiday cider with a twist, it has always been important for the couple to incorporate their shared love for a good drink into the blog. And outside of the blog, too, as they grab a few beers and carve out time every day for what they affectionately call their “porch time” — the best kind of back porch conversation. And, most importantly, inside of this this little Jasper restaurant right now, as the three of us bond over our shared appreciation for Southern culture and a round of drinks.