It’s hard not to come across Natalie Chanin’s name in the sustainable design world. Founder of American couture line Alabama Chanin, the designer is noted for her clothing as much as home décor designs and entrepreneurial joie de vivre.
Huge fans, us.
Blame it on her pioneering ways as a designer and CEO of a sustainable American design house. From her home in Florence, Alabama, Chanin works with local artisans to hand quilt, stitch and sew garments into award-winning designs. As a finalist for the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Fashion (in 2005), and as a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2009, Chanin continues to make the world know she’s here to leave her mark in the world of sustainability.
Now, with her second, recently released book Alabama Studio Style, Chanin gives us more ideas to bring forth from the pages of her carefully curated world.
(You can try winning your own copy of her book by leaving a comment here by noon on March 22, 2010.)
I caught up with Natalie over the weekend and she was kind enough to answer some questions.
What drives inspiration for you?
I believe that we all find inspiration in our lives each and every moment of every single day. I once based an entire collection on a scrap of paper that I found lying on a street corner. Inspiration is all around when we open our eyes. I tend to have the opposite problem – sometimes it is hard to turn the distraction of inspiration off and to focus on what is before me.
I was reading an article where a writer said, “Foreseeing that the elevated cost of a couture garment could potentially isolate customers, Chanin produced her first book, Alabama Stitch Book, which made her techniques, instructions and patterns available to the public.” Are these books an outreach to those women who can’t afford to buy your clothing?
In one way, yes, but the answer to this is more complex and traverses a bit of ground.
The only complaint we have ever received as a company is about the cost of our garments. Everything that we make is completely made by hand and within about an hour-and-a-half radius from my studio in Florence, Alabama. So, not only is it made in America but hand-built – each and every stitch, seam and embellishment (and these embellishments can be very rich and detailed).
At the same time, early in my journey I realized that sewing traditions (and I would go so far as to say survival traditions – everything around food, clothing and shelter) were dying in my community – and communities all over. Very soon after coming home to begin my work with hand sewing, it became clear that it was important to begin to collect stories and techniques about these traditions and to work towards not only incorporating them in my work but using my work as a means towards cultural preservation.
Furthermore, I had just moved home from Europe where – at the time – there was a much greater respect for recycling, taking care of your environment, quality of food and quality of life. I was very surprised to come home to Alabama and find that our food and environmental systems were substantially remiss in looking at the details of our community and our relationship as a community to the greater world.
However, the most important revelation was the realization that making something with my own two hands added substantially to the value of that object in my life. It had been so long since I had made – and taken care of – the objects that filled my life. In essence, I re-learned that making brings added meaning.
All of these complex factors combined made me embrace this notion of open-sourcing and supported the idea to write the first book (Alabama Stitch Book).
As you mention, our garments are hand-sewn in America and are very expensive. In fact, many of our garments wind up in museums and private collections. If people cannot afford to purchase our garments, we offer our best-selling patterns in our books so they can make the garments themselves – or pay someone in their own communities to make them. We openly sell the fabrics and the supplies to make those garments – the same resources that we use for our collections. And if a client wants to shorten the steps, we offer DIY
Kits that simplify the process.
This philosophy is unheard of in the global fashion industry.
I am proud that Alabama Chanin has chosen to take this route. And honestly, it was a very difficult (and scary) decision to make and was not met with positive feedback from my industry colleagues.
What is interesting is that after the publication of the two books and embracing this open-source philosophy, many people finally understood why our garments are worth so much. In the end, I am very happy to have trusted my instincts and have made that decision. Of course, since that time (6 years ago) the notion of open-sourcing has become very important and I am proud that Alabama Chanin is a part of that.
Did your mother craft with you?
There was always a project at both of my grandmother’s tables and one in the basket to come next. Both of my grandmothers raised three girls and I know from hearing it that they “sewed every dress those girls ever wore.” The next generation – my mother and aunts – did some crafting and sewing back then but are really much more respectful of these traditions today. That time – the 60s and 70s – was really the beginning of consumerism in America. I remember my mother talking about how she did not want to wear a “homemade” dress to school. She and her sisters saved their money from picking cotton in the summer or working at the 5 & Dime so that they had the money for a “store bought dress” to wear to school.
Your involvement with the Bureau of Friends involves modern day sewing circles with people not usually found doing that. These meetings are hugely successful. What is it that crafting does for our psyche and ability to communicate?
I mentioned above that my most important revelation was the realization that making something with my own two hands added substantially to the value of that object in my life. The concept that “making brings added meaning” is at the core of these meetings with the Bureau of Friends. It is uncanny how deep and rich conversation becomes when men and women sit around a table together and “make” in unison.
What’s different in this book from Alabama Stitch Book?
Alabama Studio Style is a development from Alabama Stitch Book. When I look at the two books together, I can see the process of “growing up.” And while the books are thought of as individual books, they are also companions. The inclusion of more recipes excites me and I love how these recipes mix and mingle with the way-of-life aspect of the book.
There’s a current trend of going back to things being done properly. Do you feel like your book is a small portal into reconnecting with what we wear or adorn our homes with?
This has certainly been an underlying theme in my work since the beginning. If you sense that in the books, then I am happy and feel proud.