Please meet our next #FREDAGIRL, Natalie Chanin, Founder and Creative Director of Alabama Chanin. We have been fans of Natalie’s line for years, so it was a true pleasure to meet her when she visited our trailer Pop Up last Fall at El Cosmico in Marfa. We love Natalie’s commitment to the “slow fashion” movement and how she has cultivated such an interesting environment at Alabama Chanin’s headquarters in Florence, Alabama. Read on to learn more about why we’re so inspired by her!
Photos by: Rinne Allen
You have quite the diverse background in the fashion industry and have worked for some big brand names. Tell us about your journey to now.
I studied Environmental Design at North Carolina State University, at what is now called the Annie Albers program. This program was based on Bauhaus teaching methods, allowing me to study design theory alongside both hand- and machine-manufacturing methods. After graduation, I worked for a short time in the junior sportswear industry in New York and I spent quite a few years traveling and working – sometimes designing and styling but other times just doing whatever it took to get me to the next place, next experience, or next adventure. Eventually, I wound up spending 10 years working as a stylist based in Europe. Everything that I learned during that time helped form the person and the designer that I am today. I always say that this time was my masters in clothing and textiles.Returning to the U.S. after this experience, I brought with me a better understanding of materials, colors, textures, fit, things that are important when you begin to define yourself as a “designer”. Once I decided to start my own business, I had to teach myself all of the less exciting things about business: logistics, supply, and finance.
What was your inspiration for Alabama Chanin?
I made myself a shirt by cutting apart an existing t-shirt and sewing it back together again by hand. The response was exciting but the act of sewing inspired me to explore more ways of hand-making. I envisioned creating 200 one-of-a-kind shirts to sell during New York Fashion Week. During the process of looking for manufacturers in New York, I realized what I was doing mimicked stitches I’d seen my grandmothers use while quilting. So, this idea brought me back to Alabama and to my community, where I came to find skilled seamstresses. I had no long-term plan to create a clothing design company. I was thinking of this work more along the lines of an art project or experiment. Though it wasn’t my initial goal to start a business at that moment, circumstances led me down this path—including early partners in the business who helped that vision grow.
Fashion as you know is ever changing, what excites you about fashion today?
We enjoy challenging our ways of thinking and exploring new ways to make. Collaborating with other artists is inspiring and also keeps your perspective as a designer fresh. For us, that is the most exciting way to look at change. Also I continue to be encouraged by consumer interest in where their clothing, food, and other products come from. My feeling is that this is not a trend, but an ongoing way of looking at how we live our lives.
We love that your factory also features your flagship store as well as a cafe. What was the motivation behind creating such a well-rounded space?
It was a natural evolution of our philosophy of transparency. Inviting people into The Factory and revealing our behind-the-scenes process shows them that there are real people there, working and making. Because community has always played a vital role in our business model and our approach to growth, it makes sense to us that we create a space that is communal and welcoming – like our café. Because we want to advance the idea of slow fashion and slow making, it also makes sense to introduce an idea that is easy to grasp – slow food. The ideology is the same. Our café uses as many locally sourced and organic ingredients as possible, and customers know they can trust us to provide delicious and quality driven meals. It’s just another way to demonstrate what we stand for as a company, while also creating a warm space to shop, eat, and, more importantly, congregate.
What has been the biggest challenge in creating Alabama Chanin?
Our biggest challenge as a company surrounds our commitment to transparency. As I said before, it is important that our customers are able to trust that we are providing products of the highest quality materials, that are responsibly sourced.
Because we work with so many other small businesses, change is inevitable. We all depend on one another to maintain a degree of stability. The supply chain for our organic cotton fabrics has seen a number of fluctuations over the years. Because part of our mission is to source materials in the USA, that’s meant a number of shortages. We’ve worked tirelessly to build our 100% U.S.-grown organic cotton supply chain and that supply can be impacted by soil, temperature, planting conditions, and a number of other variables, and that is something we will face this year. A couple of years ago, the dye house we worked with in North Carolina closed – meaning we had higher minimum order requirements and had to streamline our fabric color offerings. That was a big shift for us as a company and a big shift for our customers. Our company and customers feel the impact of supply and demand challenges and we all have to find ways to negotiate those challenges.
Words to live by?
My mother once told me, “Life is short; always eat off the good china.” I try to teach my daughter the same.