The evening of May 19th capped off a three-day residency at the Cooper-Hewitt for Natalie Chanin, founder and designer of the design studio Alabama Chanin. Chanin, one of the founders of the burgeoning “slow fashion” movement, followed up her two-day Design Directions workshop for teenagers with an hour-long public lecture and book signing. “Lecture” might be too rigid a term, as the soft-spoken Chanin spoke candidly and informally about her past design experiences, the studio’s design and manufacturing processes, and even Department of Labor regulations which affected her business model.
Natalie Chanin’s life trajectory has been one of “happy accidents,” each of which has colored her life view and design sensibility. She graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in Environmental Design in 1987, focusing on both industrial textiles and design theory. North Carolina, an area long associated with the textile industry and the Bauhaus Movement (Josef and Anni Albers taught at Black Mountain College) figures strongly as an influence in Chanin’s current work. After graduation she took a job in junior sportswear, creating “unnecessary fashion” and “a lot of it” that “filled the third floor of Macy’s.” Soon after she began working for a New York-based Indian company, an experience that affected her significantly. While in India managing production, she daily saw “atrocities” such as children drinking dye effluent that was spilling from a dye facility into a nearby river. Unhappy in her job, she left New York in 1990 to become a stylist in Europe. She credits her time as a stylist “playing with colors and textures” and her exposure to Viennese hand-crafting as focusing and developing her current design vocabulary.
After ten years in Vienna, the Southern-raised Chanin had enough of the cold, bitter winters. She took a sabbatical back in New York, a move which ultimately led to another happy accident. Living out of a suitcase, one night before a party she cut apart a t-shirt and re-stitched it, exposing the seams and making her handwork an essential design element. She was stunned as people at the party literally came from across the room to touch the shirt and ask about it. Upon waking up the next morning, she realized that she simply needed to create more of them. Chanin decided to create 200 one-of-a-kind t-shirts to sell for New York Fashion Week. After having trouble sourcing the right kind of talented labor from the Fashion District, she realized that her home state of Alabama had plenty of women with a strong quilting tradition who could do the work. As luck would have it, the first person to view (and buy) her collection of 200 t-shirts was Julie Gilhart, the senior VP of fashion at Barney’s New York. Her collection quickly sold out as word spread, and soon she was in business as the head of the design company called Project Alabama.
Over the past ten years, there have been a few challenges for Chanin, including the loss of the trademark “Project Alabama.” To make a long story short, Chanin lost the majority stake of Project Alabama, and severed ties with her business partners after production was moved out of the country to India in 2006. To this day you can find Project Alabama t-shirts in stores like Anthropologie, but if you look at the label closely, you will see that the garments are not USA-made. However, Chanin’s (and her workers’) belief in their work meant that she was able to quickly start anew as the design studio Alabama Chanin using the same business model. A second challenge that Chanin faced in 2003 was an investigation by the Department of Labor over her use of workers who were sewing out of their own homes (apparently it’s illegal to pay people by the hour to sew clothes in their own homes, as well as not give the contractors the possibility for both profit and loss – at only around $30 to start a hand-sewing business, there isn’t much opportunity for loss). However, instead of thinking of this as negative event, Chanin saw this as an opportunity to strengthen her business model, thus making her company even more holistic. Her business now works as follows: Alabama Chanin bids out projects to the sewers; the winning bidder buys a project kit containing the design, thread, fabric and other materials from the studio; she then sews the project at home; once completed, she sells it back to Alabama Chanin at a higher price than what she paid for the kit. This business model, based on the cottage industry models of the past, thus fulfills the two issues that the Department of Labor had – it doesn’t pay workers by the hour to sew in their own home (they are now considered as small business owners), and now these business owners have the opportunity for both profit and loss (since if the garment they sew is below quality standards, Alabama Chanin will not buy it back.)
Since Chanin’s garments are all “built by hand,” they are incredibly expensive. In response to pleas by customers for more accessible products, she decided to add an open-source component to her business model. Her two books, Alabama Studio Style and Alabama Stitch Book, not only tell us how to create her looks for ourselves, but provide us with step-by-step instructions, patterns, and even stencils. She also sells ready-made kits on her website which include all that is needed to create one of her garments including fabric, thread, patterns, and embellishments. The fashion industry at first thought she was crazy for offering up such complete access to all of her designs, but the emerging do-it-yourself (DIY) movement which quickly latched onto her open sourcing proved them wrong. As well, Alabama Chanin has in a way moved into the wholesaling realm, as the organic fabric she uses (which is made specifically for her) is of such high quality that other companies have sought to purchase it in large quantities.
Sustainability is pervasive throughout Alabama Chanin. The cotton for her products is organically grown in Texas, knit in South Carolina (she uses cotton jersey exclusively for all of her products), and then dyed in North Carolina. Her company uses every little scrap and off-cut of fabric, thus bringing her designs into the realm of “zero waste.” All of her stitchers come from the South, including Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. As Chanin puts it, the message is not about Alabama necessarily, it is about rural America. It’s about empowering women and rejuvenating local economies, all the while providing an ethically and ecologically clean product. Chanin’s ultimate goal is to preserve the techniques of the past and encourage a new type of sustainability – cultural sustainability. Sharing and storytelling are just as important as the old needlework and quilting techniques that are used. The act of sewing for Chanin has been elevated to a near religious experience. “Love your thread,” Chanin coaxes the audience. She tells us to run our fingers over the thread before sewing to release the tension, talking to it, asking it to take us through the path of least resistance, and telling it that it will make “the most beautiful garment.” As Chanin says, “You can’t measure the love” put into a garment – but it’s there.