Taking It Slow

Alabama Chanin Designer Natalie Chanin On Southern Heroes, Cooking and Cocktails

A decade ago, Natalie Chanin found herself in New York with nothing fabulous to wear to a party. Holed up in the Chelsea Hotel, the former stylist decided to whip something up on her own, deconstructing and re-sewing one of her T-shirts for the occasion. The overwhelming response, coupled with the satisfaction she took in the act of creation, became the basis of her company Alabama Chanin, which produces a line of sustainable clothing completely handmade by the designer and seamstresses from her native Florence, Alabama. Over ten years, Alabama Chanin has enjoyed incredible success: selling out at Barneys during its initial run; accolades from Anna Wintour and the CFDA; expansion into a larger collection featuring embroidered dresses (these can take up to eight weeks to make); and the introduction of a new craft arm, Alabama Studio Style, which has released two books of the company’s most popular patterns and stitching techniques to make the looks accessible to everyone. In the process, Chanin has become a pioneer of the “slow clothing” movement by adopting regional, organic suppliers and sustainable practices well before they were fashionable. 

How did you end up back in Florence after ten years in Europe and New York?

I wanted to see 200 T-shirts all sewn up, and I knew it was going to be impossible for me to do them all myself, so I started visiting manufacturers in New York’s Garment District. I realized what I wanted them to do looked exactly like a quilting stitch, and there were all these ladies in my hometown who were quilters. I thought, “If I want to get these shirts sewn the way I want, I have to go home.”

Why is sustainability so important to you?

When we talk about sustainability, the thing that always gets me is that most people are only talking about the materials they use to make a product. Twenty years ago, sustaining life was about food, clothing and shelter. This separation from being able to sustain our lives—whether by growing a vegetable or sewing a dress or building a house for ourselves—has had consequences on our sense of self-worth and value as human beings. 

What’s the best thing about living in the South?

Mother Nature is always right beside you. If you leave a house for two years, it will be overtaken by vegetation. There’s so much life and so much earth close to you. 

Who are some of your Southern heroes?

I love Dorothea Lange and all the photographers with the WPA. Zora Neale Hurston, one of my favorite writers, was able to capture a slice of time that came before mine, which I cherish. There’s a great organization called the Southern Foodways Alliance, whose mission is to preserve and document Southern food traditions. They’ve been so inspiring to the work that I’ve done. 

Wasn’t it risky for your livelihood to make your patterns available to the public?

The complaint about the collection was that the pieces were just too expensive. And they are expensive! But I got tired of people saying how elitist we were—we were in this little brick house you might find anywhere on the side of the road in rural America, working day and night to make these things possible. Open-sourcing became a way to make the product accessible to everybody. If you can’t afford to buy it, you can make it yourself. 

What’s your favorite room in your house?

The kitchen, of course! I’m very happy when I’m cooking. 

Cocktail of choice?

There’s a great restaurant in Birmingham, AL, called Hot and Hot—I had one of the best meals of my life there last week. They have this drink and I can’t get the recipe out of them, so I’ve been experimenting with that. It’s vodka with fresh peach puree and a splash of prosecco or any kind of sparkly wine. So refreshing. 

Conversations (1)

  • Diane
    Hey Natalie...thanks for talking about sustainability in another sense other than "organic materials." I've always looked a sustainability as the desire and the need to take care of oneself through one's own creativity and ingenuity using what materials and resources you have access to. It is more than just using earth friendly materials although that is a desirable part of it. It is taking care of one's self and others using common sense and thoughtfulness in regard to available resources, time and money. Thanks!
    • Posted By Diane
    • September 12, 2010 at 8:37PM
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