Faces of the South: Natalie Chanin

Photo by Steven Stanglmayr

Natalie Chanin is somewhat of an evangelist in her belief that “Made in the USA” really matters. She put her homespun fashion on the map with her first collection of one-of-a-kind t-shirts under the Project Alabama label in 2000. Not only were her t-shirts snapped up by a buyer at Barney’s, her entire line continues to be recognized in by the most ardent fashion critics.

She preaches the credo of the relevance of a “start to finish” manufacturing process, where each step of crafting a garment is linked – from the sourcing of cotton in Texas to the numbering of each garment by the artisan who constructed it. Her commitment to slow, local design was popular long before sustainability became a buzzword.

Her new venture, Alabama Chanin, continues to pay homage to her hometown, Florence, Alabama, and the local quilters and sewers who comprise her workforce.

It is with great pleasure that StyleBlueprint introduces Natalie Chanin.

What was it like growing up in Florence?

Florence was very different because it was a rural town, very rural. However, it had an interesting music component that made it different than most Southern towns its size. There were two studios: FAME Studio and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, which produced a trail of notable musicians from the 70’s and 80’s.

Can you name a few?

The Allman Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Gentry, Percy Sledge and there were many more. Even Sam Phillips of Sun Studios lived in Florence and his sons now live here. Having recording artists coming through town raised our awareness of the importance of Florence as a music town, especially since most artists were not from here.

As an incredible clothing designer, did you play with paper dolls when you were young?

Actually I didn’t even know what the word designer meant until I graduated from high school. I will say that I grew up in a home where both of my grandmothers sewed, and they made most of their daughters’ clothes. We knew that we could make things whether it be food, crafts or clothing.

What did you do after you left high school?

I took a year or two off, had a baby when I was 20, then went to the North Carolina State School of Design. This changed my life. After graduating, I looked for a job as a designer in the Southeast – Florence, Chattanooga, and other Southern towns, only to find nothing. I decided I needed to go to New York and sent out 60 resumes and planned a one week stay in New York. I interviewed two times a day and finally was hired at Jou-Jou Jeans as a t-shirt designer. Jou-Jou jeans were sold on the 3rd floor of Macy’s; it was a typical NYC manufacturing company located on 7th Ave. What was ironic was that I was employed as a t-shirt designer and was from the t-shirt capital of the US, Florence, Alabama. It wasn’t until the 90’s that I realized what a big deal Florence was in the the t-shirt world.  What’s interesting is that when I was figuring this out, the industry was in a downfall, with people losing their jobs and plants shutting down.

Do you think those types of jobs will ever come back to Florence?

Actually, I am quite hopeful for the future of jobs like this. With the price of oil increasing and production prices rising, it’s much more economical to make things closer to home. When you manufacture overseas, you need long lead times and have less flexibility. By committing to manufacture in the US, companies can be more agile and produce smaller quantities. I see this as a shifting trend and a positive one.

How did you start Project Alabama?

After returning to to the States after a 22-year sabbatical in Europe, I had a vision of wanting to make 200 one-of-a-kind t-shirts. I wanted to use a quilting stitch that I remembered from my childhood. After visiting a number of manufacturers, I realized I needed to go back home to Florence, Alabama, to get it done the way I wanted it. No one else had the means to produce the intricacies of the garment I wanted.
I began the project first by creating a 22-minute documentary called Stitch about the old-time quilting circles. We made the 200 t-shirts as part of the film and sent it out to the fashion industry accompanied by a hand-made catalog.
I am proud my new venture, Alabama Chanin, embodies my original commitment to a community-based industry.

Is it my imagination, or is it easier to be discovered as a clothing designer now?

Designers have access to so much more. When I started, the infrastructure was so important that you had no choice but to go to New York. Now designers have many different options. And it’s much easier to choose where you want to live and what you want to do.

Do you have a mentor in the business or someone who has influenced you?

Actually I take many of my cues from the food business. They have many of the challenges the textile industry does with importing versus local sourcing. People like Alice Waters and Joel Salatin continue to impress me with their commitment to holistic eating. Even my father loves to go to the farmer’s market, so the trend of farm-to-table is real.

What challenges have you found in your vision of “made in America”?

What I am doing, creating a handmade product in the 21st century, goes against the grain. It is an expensive process and an expensive product. It isn’t for everyone. I have worked hard to make it affordable to everyone through my workshops. In these workshops, I show you how to create the garments, and you can do it yourself. I have been labeled an “elitist” because my prices are high, though, in fact, I am the antithesis: I use common materials and employ laborers from the rural South. Most people don’t know how incredibly difficult it is to make a commitment to “made in America” products. It’s even challenging to find common items like buttons and thread. I am excited to say that we’re in the process of working with Billy Reed to grow organic cotton in Florence.

I am curious about your method of manufacturing: you sell to women, then buy it back? Why did you adopt this way of bringing your goods to market?

We sell to 60 stores in the US and Europe employing 120 artisans in a cottage industry. Once, when we were experiencing some labor issues, we just shut the plant down and asked everyone to come with their social security card and driver’s license to apply for a job. Do you know how many showed up? 11 workers. I could categorize my experiment as a lesson in social studies. Bottom line, the women who sew for this business are caregivers – they are single moms with small children, they take care of elderly parents and live in rural areas with limited transportation. The work from Alabama Chanin allows them to choose when they work and at what pace. If they have a sick child at home for a week, they can still be productive. If working on a lunch break makes sense, then they can work then. I offer tons of flexibility with marginal “embroidery guidelines.”

What do you do to relax?

Well, I love to cook, garden and read. And, travel gives me great pleasure.

Name 3 things you can’t live without:

Cooking
Gardening
Reading

Thank you, Natalie! For more information about Alabama Chanin, visit the website at www.alabamachanin.com.

Join Natalie at her pop up show at the Copper Fox in Leiper’s Fork (4136 Old Hillsboro Road). A reception will be held at the store on November 17th from 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. at The Copper Fox.

For more information call 615.861.6769 or visit the website: thecopperfoxgallery.com

The Copper Fox Gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 – 5 p.m.

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