When Natalie Chanin left Florence, Ala., at the age of 18, she headed first to New York, then to Europe, working as a costume designer and stylist for the fashion and entertainment industries. Twenty-two years later she returned to Florence to make hand-stitched T-shirts with the help of local seamstresses.
Her small line of shirts met with big success, and eight years after her return, Chanin remains in Florence as her expanded collection takes off. Her clothing sells to high-end stores such as Barneys in New York, but each garment is made from start to finish right at home.
Chanins commitment to using local labor was instigated by necessity. I couldnt find anyone in New York who could do this kind of work! she says of the complex needlework necessary for pieces like a handmade, painted corset with sculpted flowers or a reverse-appliquéd dress.
Her line has expanded to include handmade jewelry, 100% organic textiles, and home furnishings, such as barn chairs refurbished with woven seats and quilts embellished with appliquéd flowers, all with Chanins trademark blend of old and new.
While her handmade T-shirts were capturing the attention of the fashion elite around the world, her hometown was suffering the effects of multiple factory closures and job losses.
We are not solving the economic problems of the region, Chanin concedes. But her company, Alabama Chanin, is based on a cottage industry model in which local sewers essentially own their own businesses and set their own hours.
We do the designs and sales in-house ... and then the sewers choose which designs they want to make, purchase the raw materials from us, and turn around and sell us the finished goods, she explains.
People ask me if Im an activist, and I guess I have become one on a grassroots level, she says. Chanins business model is not accidental. In 2006, she and her former business partner parted ways. Chanin experienced the pain of company closure so common in her community, and came to the conclusion that a big part of design is the product, but another part is the kind of company you have.
Determined to create an environment where everybody in the company has to win, Chanin is as passionate about protecting the environment as she is about local labor, heirloom sewing techniques, and great design.
To make her designs accessible to a wider audience, Chanin co-wrote the Alabama Stitch Book (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2007) with journalist Stacie Stukin. Chock-full of tips and advice, the book includes instructions for 20 projects. If you cant afford to buy a corset from us, Chanin says, hopefully you can afford to buy the book and make it yourself or hire someone in your community to make it for you.
— Annie Buckley
Whats she up to now? Alabama Chanin has really had a banner year in 2009. We finished our upcoming Alabama Studio Style: More Projects, Recipes, & Stories Celebrating Sustainable Fashion & Living which is a follow-up to Alabama Stitch Book and set for release in March 2010. Also, Alabama Chanin was selected as one of the finalists for the CFDA/Vogue 2009 Fashion Fund and that has proven to be a very exciting honor. The honor has come with lots of events, projects, travel and attention for the company and our artisans. An upcoming collaboration with Heath Ceramics, membership in the Bureau of Friends and a slew of additional private and public projects have kept us busy.
We are now working on our Fall/Winter 2010 Collection! Seems that time flies next year will be my 10 year anniversary of returning home and starting this work ... exciting indeed.
Photography by Robert Rauch