ColumnEditor’s note: This is the first installment of Natalie Chanin’s new bi-weekly fashion column at EcoSalon. Material Witness will offer a seasoned designer’s perspective on the fashion industry, textile history and what happens when love for community trumps all.
As a designer and entrepreneur in the fashion industry, it is a bit uncommon that I am also an author. A few weeks ago I turned in the very last edits to my third book, Alabama Studio Sewing + Design. Truth be told, in my younger, bolder, high school days, I fancied myself an aspiring writer. I imagined traveling the globe with pen in hand, creating change at every turn. I fantasized leisurely lunches at Paris cafés. I subscribed to magazines; I was an avid reader. My only hindrance in achieving my dreams was that I was a rather lazy student and proper usage of English grammar and punctuation escaped me. Even today, the comma splice can present problems. So, it is a bit exciting, humbling, and, frankly, scary that I have been so graciously asked to contribute as a bi-weekly columnist at EcoSalon.
While I have had the opportunity to lunch in places like Paris over the years, I haven’t quite traveled the globe with pen in hand yet, though circumstances always change. These books I have written aren’t the next great American novel, they’re craft books. They’re books that teach the time-honored, hand-sewing techniques that are the basis of my fashion company, Alabama Chanin. The books are simply guides that speak to a sustainable lifestyle that is at the core of my work. I want to make that lifestyle available to all.
The decision to open-source Alabama Chanin for individuals through our books is not common in the fashion world, in an industry that is more accustomed to secrecy. However, you have to look at the whole of the picture to understand why sustainable designers do what we do.
My personal work is expensive because it is organic, custom-dyed cotton jersey that is cut, painted, sewn, and embellished completely by hand in America with skilled artisans who set a fair price for their work. Over the years, I heard rumblings in the media of my work being “elitist,” and “inaccessible” because of its price. And while our collections have been deemed “couture,” we run our business in the most down-to-earth way from a small community in North Alabama. Sustainability – both ecological and cultural – has defined our growth from the very beginning and “elitist” would actually be the antithesis of who we are.
When the thought of sharing our techniques and patterns to individual users arose, I understood that this could both sustain the needlework traditions that our company celebrates while making our work available to many more people. The concept of open-sourcing seemed a way to make our products more accessible.
Timing is everything and to understand my decision it’s important to understand the period in which I was working. As all of this was unfolding in 2003, open-sourcing was a new idea. Wired Magazine wrote about and provided music tracks for sampling that were free reign for anyone who had the desire to use them. The internet was spreading like fire and for the first time, vast amounts of information was, almost literally, at our fingertips. Books like The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson (on my required reading list), about the concept of selling less of more were being heatedly discussed. The world of business was changing and it seemed to me that sharing traditions that I did not invent was not only the right thing to do but the modern way to approach my business.
Of course, there were naysayers who firmly believed that, by openly sharing, I was putting the nails in my own coffin. They thought that once our “trade secrets” were common knowledge, no one would purchase our couture garments. Honestly, I was fearful when Alabama Stitch Book landed on the shelves around February 2008. However, the book sold well and, more importantly, interest in our couture collections continued to grow. My fears proved groundless. But then, isn’t that the way it usually goes?
Readers who work with the techniques described in the books now tell us that they understand not only why our garments cost so much but why they are worth so much. At the same time, a completely new part of our business has burgeoned. We now sell the supplies needed to make our designs (organic cotton jersey, thread, stencils, fabric paint, beads, and project kits) via the internet and host hands-on workshops both in our studio in Florence, Alabama, and around the country.
So, all of this information is the story of how a feeling to do what is right – not perhaps what was right for my industry – changed my business and my life. I am not sitting in too many Paris cafes these days. But then, I have a five year old daughter and I imagine that she and I will have plenty of time for that together. I do write a lot these days – revisiting my younger, bolder, high school dreams – and, it seems that I am traveling the world, pen (or computer and camera) in hand and trying to make a difference. On this journey, I find it inspiring to start conversations about life, living and, of course, fashion.
The thing about fashion is this: I want to OWN my clothing on all levels – just like I want to own my life. I want to cut it up, sew it back, and make it MINE. I want a skirt I buy to make it through the first wash and a hundred more. I want to take the time to make decisions about what I choose to put on my body with the same care that I decide what I put in my body. I’m hopeful that you feel the same way. In fact, I want to know more about you and hope to start a conversation next time by answering ten reader inspired questions – fashion industry or otherwise.
Got a question? Submit it here.
Natalie Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of three books including Alabama Stitch Book (2008), Alabama Studio Style (2010) and the upcoming Alabama Studio Sewing + Design which comes out spring 2012. Look for her bi-weekly column, Material Witness here and follow her on Facebook and her own blog at Alabama Chanin.