BY Keith Recker | October 18, 2009
Alabama Chanin has earned its place at the top...
with ten years of high standards, beautiful clothes, and ethical ideas. Founder Natalie Chanin, founder of Alabama Chanin speaks with HAND/EYE about ten years of life and work, and her company’s US-based, handmade methods.
In a characteristically generous way, Natalie Chanin sat down with HAND/EYE Editor Keith Recker for a 90 minute interview…in spite of the fact that she was in the midst of completing her presentation for the 2009 Vogue Fashion Fund, where her company Alabama Chanin is one of ten finalists. She was also preparing for New York Fashion Week in September. And ordering her grandmother’s birthday cake for a family get together later in the day. Charging back and forth across the professional/personal divide is a familiar topic, but few do it so well in the fashion world, not to mention at such a high level of innovation and socio-environmental standards. We tried to distill ten years of fashion achievement and personal conviction into a few hundred words.
H/E: What attracts you to fashion?
NC: I’ve always had a love of clothing. I grew up around two grandmothers who sewed all their daughters’ clothes, and saved it all in big closets. I played dress up all the time, with a strapless blue prom dress of my aunt’s as a real favorite. I didn’t particularly fill out the dress at the time, but I liked coming down to Sunday lunch in lace and a tiara. My grandmothers showed me that making clothes was something you could do.
It’s a very personal thing for me, too. I have curves, and I design ergonomically for women with curves at top, middle and bottom. As a mother and a designer, as someone leading a settled life with a home to maintain and a business to take care of, I have to take the trash out in my clothes. A friend once told me in the driveway as we were headed out with our kids, “That’s much too pretty to wear to a picnic. You better go change.” I had to tell her that I just cut the grass in my dress and that I really was ready to go. Part of the comfort comes from the cotton jersey material that we use – something we’ve become known for.
You have worked in the film industry, too. How did you move from film to fashion?
For many years I lived in Vienna, working as a stylist for the film industry. Film really attracted me and I wanted to learn everything about it. I adore stories and storytelling. The backstory behind things is what gets me going, and documentary film making is about collecting stories. The documentary I made at the same time as founding the company, Stitch, is about old time quilting circles, and ladies who were part of them. At the time, I wanted to have a multi-media company to explore each collection through film and fabric. The fashion part of the vision really took off, so we focused on clothing. Though I hope one day I can make films again.
Just looking at your website shows that storytelling is a real love. The way you put recipes and fashion and home together tells a tender story about your part of the world, and the people who share it with you.
In our 2008 Alabama Stitch Book, we put two recipes in the text, even though we had to turn down one well-known publisher because they said the recipes had to go. But the recipes ended up being so popular that in our upcoming book, Alabama Studio Style (due out in Spring 2010) we have three sections of 6-8 recipes each. I like the juxtaposition of life and style. It builds context, it links back to the slow food movement that has brought a lot of inspiration to my business.
What do we need to sustain ourselves, to nourish our life and art? Food, clothing and shelter. Add beauty, and you have all that you need. A lifestyle-driven company naturally addresses all of this.
The part of your story that involves coming back home to Florence makes me think of Thomas Wolfe’s old adage “you can’t go home again.” Can you?
Things certainly are different when you return home. For me it was better. It was a real solution. We were having no luck at all finding manufacturers for our line in NYC. And the demands of overseas manufacturers were impossible. I remember looking at one of our quilted-looking garments going down Seventh Avenue one day and thinking that all of this work was happening at home in Alabama. I put an ad in the local Florence paper for part time hand sewers and quilters and got 60 responses. 20 of them stuck. 10 years later, about half of those original 20 remain, and we have a total of 40 artisans helping us make our garments.
So I did come home again. In addition to giving me a way to grow a business, it has also given me a beautiful, clean, open, safe place to have a family.
What’s it like negotiating the distance between Seventh Avenue and Florence, Alabama?
It’s easier these days. The difference between 2000 and 2009 is pretty amazing. Our phone used to ring off the hook all day long. But now most things happen easily on email. If a magazine calls at 5pm and wants a garment for a photo shoot the next day, we can make up an overnight package, usually for the same price as a rush messenger might cost us in Manhattan. I came home at just the right time.
As for the mental distance, we close that gap by remembering that, at our core, we design and manufacture beautiful clothing. We may do it a little differently, with some different ideas pulling us forward, but we are in the same business as everyone else in fashion. That puts us on the same playing field.
What sort of different ideas?
First of all, we are striving to become a zero waste industry. Our entire operation creates maybe 55 gallons of garbage a month. Scraps from clothing production make their way into our home furnishings designs, where even strips of cloth can be rag-woven into chair seats. Scraps from the home area are baled and saved for the future.
We also use a cottage industry system where the artisans set up their own businesses, and schedule their work to fit into their lives. If they meet quality and delivery standards, we purchase finished garments from them at prices which have been set in a bidding process beforehand.
We only make to order, so there is not a stream of excess inventory that must be shipped and reshipped and shipped again in a markdown and liquidation scenario.
We also plan a not-for-profit activity that archiving the oral histories of textile workers, from farms to factories, artisans and workers.
Do customers appreciate all the goes into your clothing?
We present newness and creativity that we are very proud of. People see and feel the results of our creative process. Every season, we do very elaborate handmade fabric developments, by combining our library of cotton jersey colors with stenciling, appliqué, and beading. We also use every embroidery technique known to man! About 50 – 80 fabrics are developed with each collection. Each is beautiful in some way, and instead of casting them aside after the collection is done, we keep an archive of every fabric.
This has become a key to our successful couture and trunk show activities. We let every customer sit down with the books and choose the fabrics they want for the silhouettes they like. When one of our customers orders a $9000 handmade, one of a kind, coat, they are really getting something created only for them. The artisan primarily responsible for the garment initials the garment label. There is a line of communication from fiber to maker to wearer.
What about the people who buy your books to make things at home?
We stock 50 colors of solid color organic cotton jersey, as well as stencils and beads and thread and tools. We’ve scoured the world to find the best resources we can, and we keep them in stock. People who are making projects suggested in our books buy the raw materials online, and so do people sewing at home who like our quality. It’s been an amazing way for us to control costs because we can buy in some volume. And we’re making people happy at the same time.
Have you changed your community with the creation and growth of Alabama Chanin?
I don’t know that we have particularly changed the community. The loss of jobs from NAFTA legislation seriously affected the employment base here in North Alabama. In Florence, a town of 40,000 people, we lost approximately 5,000 textile jobs – not to mention the ripple effect in jobs related to the supply chain and the service sector. Our 5 central office employees and our 40 sewers are not moving the needle, regardless of our level of success.
I like to think, though, that there might be a message about not needing to be in New York to succeed in fashion – that we might invite people to reconsider all the usual assumptions about the fashion business. The techniques we use are all alive over the United States, represented in every rural community. If we can draw attention back to the textile hand-skills that have always been a part of American culture, that would be great, too. There’s more potential for beautiful clothing out there.
To know more about Alabama Chanin, visit www.alabamachanin.com. Buy their books from the site. In fact, buy a kit and try your hand at a project. Their FAQ document is very informative. But don’t stop there: browse the entire site to appreciate fully the poetry of their work.