Who: Founder and creative director of Alabama Chanin
What: Sustainable, ethical fashion, lifestyle & DIY
When: Founded in 2000
Where: 462 Lane Drive in Florence, Ala. and alabamachanin.com
With its handmade applique corsets, patchwork skirts and swishy black dresses featuring details like exposed stitching and hook-and-eye closures, Alabama Chanin is equally parts country-quaint and urban badass. And it makes sense, given the label's dual roots in New York and Alabama.
Founder Natalie Chanin, originally from Florence, Ala., conceived the idea for the brand while living in Manhattan in the late '90s, and she took the concept home, where she built her award-winning collections for men and women.
Beyond the clever looks, there's an even bigger story. Alabama Chanin is central to the growing slow-fashion movement. The entire line is manufactured in the U.S. (as well as sourced domestically whenever possible), including a plethora of pieces handmade in Florence. The emphasis is on conscious production and heirloom-quality clothing. "We create our products using sustainable, responsible methods, organic and ethical materials, local labor, and artisans who are paid a fair wage," Chanin said.
The brand also offers DIY kits that include fabrics, patterns and thread, as well as a "Resources" section on its website for creating Alabama Chanin-inspired garments. "We believe in open sourcing our materials to encourage collaboration and further sustainable growth among artists," Chanin said.
And there's more to come. "Look for new designs in both our Alabama Chanin handmade collection and our machine-made line, A. Chanin," hinted the designer, who eschews mainstream fashion seasons for a more intuitive approach. "We [also] have a growing family of businesses that includes [A. Chanin] and our Factory Cafe. We are working hard to nourish those endeavors. [In addition], we have a division called Building 14 that provides sustainable design and manufacturing services to others who want to manufacture responsibly. It is our goal to continue growing that aspect of our business as well our collections."
Chanin recently took time to discuss her childhood passion for apparel, her go-to outfits, and why organic is imperative.
Did you always know that you would have a career in fashion?
My family can confirm that I’ve loved clothing and fashion since I was a child, scavenging through closets at my grandmother’s house. Everyone eats breakfast in an old prom dress and a tiara, right? I fell in love with design in college and I have worked steadily within the industry ever since.
How did the idea for Alabama Chanin come about?
In 1999, I took what was meant to be a sabbatical from my work as a stylist in Austria. I moved to New York City and stayed longer than I’d planned. I was making clothing for myself in a way that people really responded to. There was no such thing as Etsy back then and I was basically selling the shirts off my back …I had an idea to create 200 one-of-a-kind shirts to sell during New York Fashion Week. I realized that what I was doing was mimicking stitches I’d seen my grandmothers make while quilting. This idea brought me back to Alabama and to my community, where I knew I could find skilled seamstresses.
Why has it been important to you to keep your apparel organic and U.S.-made?
The more I learn about how our work impacts my community and the planet at large, the more important it becomes to produce in a responsible way …Organic is important for a number of reasons. For instance, traditional cotton is produced using a staggering amount of chemical pesticides, many derived from WWII nerve gases. It takes approximately one pound of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to grow one pound of traditional cotton. Some believe that much of those residues are absorbed by your skin -- which is the largest organ of the human body. From a health aspect alone, organic is important. We want to produce our garments and create the smallest possible footprint. This means that we have to be thoughtful about the amount of waste we create, the people and companies we hire to create our products, and how those pieces are ultimately marketed and sold.
Are more consumers becoming interested in the above aspects of fashion?
I think that people are generally more interested in knowing how things are made, and by whom. The slow food movement established the idea that we should be aware of where our food comes from and we should seek out what is good, fair, and clean. It is not such a large shift to transfer those ideas into other areas of your life. Events like the Rana Plaza collapse last year make it difficult for people to claim they aren’t aware of the consequences of their consumption. I often think of something Maya Angelou once said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I truly believe that people want to do better.
What's your personal style like?
I have always preferred dresses and skirts to pants. Dresses equate to femininity and ease of movement... I enjoy mixing simple and elaborate pieces and using layers to add depth and texture. You will often find me in one of our long skirts or tiered dresses.
What's your favorite thing about living and working in Alabama?
Alabama holds the workforce that understands how to make the things that I want to make –- and to make them well… Our community is our strongest resource. It has been rewarding to see how Alabama and our home in The Shoals has flourished in recent years. There are so many talented artists, craftspeople, and musicians who are making our home a truly beautiful place to live.
What's your best advice for women striving to build a sustainable, ethical wardrobe?
Evaluate your closet honestly. Think about your real life and your real needs. Come to terms with the fact that you may never wear that one pair of jeans again. Clean out the clutter and donate what you don’t need. It can be difficult to identify responsible designers and stores, but there are online databases that can help you determine which brands are ethical, sustainable, and sweatshop-free. My best advice is to buy less. Buy higher quality items that will last for many years. And, finally, try to make something for yourself. I promise that you will wear anything you’ve made with your own hands quite proudly.
Intrigued? Click here for a few of Natalie's favorite things.