EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of Katrina’s Slow Fashion Citizen column here on Fringe, and I want to express my warmest thanks to her for doing such an amazing job with it all year. Make sure you’re following her on Instagram @katrinarodabaugh to keep up with all the good she’s got going! <praise hands>
BY KATRINA RODABAUGH // For this final installment of Slow Fashion Citizen here on Fringe, I wanted to bring you someone very special, and I’m honored for it to be one of my all-time slow fashion heroes, Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin. Someone who encapsulates the slow fashion movement — from ethics to craftsmanship, to labor practices, to materials, to innovative design, to entrepreneurship, to her overall business approach. To many of you, Natalie Chanin needs no introduction. She’s been forging the way in sustainable fashion for over a decade with her hand-stitched, Alabama-made, design-winning and absolutely stunning garments.
When I first started following Natalie’s work I was so intrigued by the stitched construction — the entire garment made by hand instead of just reserving handwork for embellishment. But as I watched her business expand to include classes, community spaces, yardage of organic cotton, machine stitched garments and so much more, I realized the profoundness of her work is not just her aesthetic, but her willingness to let ethics lead. Watching a designer push beyond the boundaries of conventional design and into the roles of community-builder, collaborator, producer and thought-leader is truly inspiring. Not to mention, it feels like the future. Not just a fashion brand for now, but one that considers people, processes and the planet for generations to come.
For those of you who’ve followed along since our first announcement of Slow Fashion Citizen in January, thank you again and again. I’ve had the tremendous pleasure of interviewing fourteen sustainable fashion leaders and I’m so grateful for your readership, thoughts, questions and community. For my final feature, the warmest welcome to the ever-inspiring and illuminating Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin. Thank you, Natalie for making the time for this exclusive interview on Fringe.
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Can you tell the story of how Alabama Chanin first began — when you shifted gears as a costume designer traveling the world and moved back to your hometown in Alabama?
I never intended to create a company of my own. I cut apart a t-shirt, sewed it back together, and wore it to a party — and the next morning I woke up with a feeling of complete satisfaction. I had forgotten how good it felt to make something with my own two hands. And I wanted to create more, but I found that the techniques that I was using couldn’t be recreated in New York. The quilting stitches I had used I had learned from my grandmother and great-grandmother in Alabama, so that’s where I went to connect to an entire community of sewers and seamstresses. From there I made 200 one-of-a-kind t-shirts, and those t-shirts evolved into the business that has become Alabama Chanin.
I’ve been inspired watching the company’s journey from redesigning secondhand t-shirts to supplying yardage of organic cotton. Was it challenging to take the plunge into supporting organic cotton production and a US-based supply chain, or was it just a natural progression?
Yes and no. The entire evolution of Alabama Chanin has been a very natural progression with quality, sustainability and local production at the core. Many of those secondhand t-shirts that I found in New York were made right here in my community. Creating a supply chain that is 100% seed-to-shelf Made in the USA is challenging every day (but even more rewarding). We constantly deal with fabric shortages, events out of our control, and balancing supply and demand …
Your work has truly been revolutionary in paying artisans fair wages and keeping labor local. You contract with local artists and buy the work back from them when it’s complete. It’s true innovation. Did this model feel risky when you started the company? It still feels very bold more than a decade later.
Thank you. Every big business decision you make comes with it doubts. We come up against that each day. The artisan business model laid the foundation of the work in our community and has impacted so many, providing a way for our artisans to be their own small-business owners. The process is set up such that we don’t have as much risk — the artisans purchase the raw materials from us, and their finished garment must meet our quality standards (and deadline) in order for us to purchase the finished piece at a prearranged bid price. It the beginning, everything felt risky, but it has worked remarkably well and inspired many to follow this model in their own community. Our business could not survive without our dedicated and extremely skilled artisans.
I love the story about why you open-sourced your first pattern designs — in reaction to a journalist suggesting your work was too expensive, if I’m not mistaken. By publishing your patterns you also tiered your offerings so folks could either buy the finished garment at a higher price, or buy your books and make the garment at home. Either requires an investment — time or money — but the wearer chooses. Was this insistence on value intentional?
The value of our products goes deeper than simply a price. We take great care in sourcing our materials to get the best quality, and all our labor is local. So much time, skill and love goes into the making of a sewn garment. Once someone tries the work themselves, they begin to understand the value of the garments. Value means so much more than just a price.
Years ago I read one of your blog posts about slow design. It really impacted my thinking about fashion, and it has stayed with me. It felt so courageous and yet somehow so practical too. Does it still feel courageous to advocate for slow fashion from within the fashion industry?
While the number of companies incorporating sustainability and ethical practices into their mission is increasing, there is A LOT that needs to happen for it to be the industry standard. We’re happy to have created conversations that have changed some minds and practices; at the same time, we’re sad that some of those conversations were started because of the cost of lives. We are proud to celebrate the beauty that comes with making slowly and mindfully.
On your website you write, “Our experiences showed us that face-to-face and hand-to-hand contact helped our customers better understand the what, why, and how of our making processes and the importance of an organic supply chain.” We’re programmed to consider “industry secrets” as something to protect, lest we bankrupt our own business by giving too much information away. Yet, you continue to publish patterns and sewing techniques, and teach classes that offer intimate insight into your design process. It seems sharing your expertise has actually strengthened your business, not threatened it, and become a priority that supports the larger community. Would you agree?
Absolutely. The School of Making is our educational initiative that preserves this way of making. The initial decision to open source our techniques and materials (and ultimately to create The School of Making) grew from our commitment to sustainability. Doing so allows us to make living arts accessible to all consumers. The global community of makers is engaged and dedicated and inspires us to keep making and doing good work.
Your work straddles urban and rural design influences — the sophisticated silhouettes meet soulful and often nature-based embellishments in embroidery and surface design. Do you see your work as intentionally bridging the divide between urban and rural cultures — drawing from the Alabama landscape while maintaining conversation with an urban design sensibility?
Our community is in a rural setting. I grew up here, but I’ve also lived in New York, Europe, South America for a short time, and had the great fortune to have traveled the world. There is a distinct relationship between rural and urban aesthetic. Through contemporary design, we seek to lend modernity to age-old techniques. We also see this form of handwork as a way to bridge socio-economic divides. Get a group of people around a sewing table and they will find commonalities — even if it is simply a love of making.
In Alabama Chanin’s Hierarchy of Systems that supports the mission of your company you write, “7. Community (to be a benefit for the larger community in our region and around the globe).” Between 2013-2014 you opened The Factory Café and flagship store, launched the School of Making, started your machine-sewn clothing line, and opened Bldg. 14 Design + Manufacturing Series. That’s incredible. Was all of this in the name of better supporting the community in one sense or another?
Yes. We wanted to create a space for our community to shop, eat, hold meetings and gatherings. A place to interact with one another — under circumstances that they might not normally. With an emphasis on sustainable culture, education and quality goods, we create a community of sharing and idea exchange and a love of things that last. Each of these parts of our business is deeply connected to local community — guests from near (and far) can visit the store and café and see the garments and goods firsthand, and enjoy a locally sourced lunch. They can then take a tour of our facility and see our design and production studios in operation. The Factory is in service to our community, not only providing a space and programs to gather, learn and enrich lives, but all facets of our company look to provide jobs and economic development in our community.
I admire how your company aims to “complete sustainability at every stage of the manufacturing process – from materials and processes, to cultural sustainability in the form of preserving hand-sewing skills.” Was the preservation of sewing skills part of your vision of slow fashion from the beginning?
It was the moment I realized that the hand-embroidered shirts I’d been making were really little more than a quilting stitch. In that moment, I realized that this was something I learned in my childhood and, in the same moment, I understood that I wanted to go back to the community of my childhood in North Alabama. It was clear to me that I wanted to talk to my grandmother and the other ladies like her who had quilted their whole lives; I wanted to make a film about why people made quilts, and I wanted to make a small collection of hand-quilted t-shirts.
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The rest, as they say, is history! Thanks so much, Natalie and Katrina. Everyone, make sure you’re following @alabamachanin and @theschoolofmaking on Instagram. And I also want to mention Natalie’s latest book, The Geometry of Hand-Sewing, which I’m eager to get my hands on! —kt
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion Citizen: Jerome Sevilla (Gridjunky)
All photos provided by Alabama Chanin; photo of Natalie by Rinne Allen