How a road trip through the rural South created deeper connections.
With spring rituals now officially underway, there is no debating that we are eager to shed the last winter layers for the fresh green shoots of the new season. Every day life is also alarmingly unsettling with recent natural and political events hanging heavy in the atmosphere. It is at times like these that we need to feel the soil beneath our feet as we reach out to help others in the rebuilding process. Feeling grounded goes hand in hand with an ability to effectively observe our surroundings in order to cultivate genuine solutions and deeper connection.
No one understands the spirit of authentic presence better than designer Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin and her hard-working team of Alabama-based fashion talent. This last weekend of March was the annual Doo-Nanny festival in rural Seale, Alabama, and in the spirit of bootleg craft spliced with regional outsider art, this Southern-style Burning Man gathering might just be the tonic that many of us are thirsting for.
I first started writing about the work of Alabama Chanin in March of 2008 and more than three years later this homegrown American label seems timelier than ever. As a bright testament to slow fashion resolve, the appliqué appeal of Chanin’s hand-embroidered garments, rural chic home collection, and community-based crafting workshops continue to thrive because of the staying power of organic materials and local talent.
The Doo-Nanny’s temporary weekend campground is a spin-off of this concept with an art-music-crafting event which takes place on Butch Anthony’s rural compound in Seale. Having made a road trip through the region this past Sunday, I can vouch for the fact that folks had arrived in droves to celebrate the spirit of Natalie and Butch and the unfussy aesthetic that they both have helped to cultivate. The cast-off and the abandoned gain new life in their uniquely recycled creations, and the opportunity to wrangle the impossible into the possible is contagious.
Anthony practices what he colloquially refers to as ‘intertwangleism.’ His outsider-like art, ad-hoc bicycle sculptures (as well as sparkly chandeliers with bleached cow bones), and even his natural twang, defy the conventions of urban design polish and self-conscious design-speak.
Museum of Wonder in Seale, Alabama
I was struck while driving the back roads of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia by the deep chasm that exists between the pure local aesthetic and the “fast fashion fix” of the highway and the shopping malls along its flanks. The Doo-Nanny cannot be accessed via a quick turn off on the interstate, and consequently runs counter to modern life and what we have come to expect as part of our entertainment and fashion consumption.
Not everyone at the Doo-Nanny is an artist per se, but for one weekend anyone might freely demonstrate just how clever she or he can be with discarded doodads and pickled ideas from the domestic sphere. Southern couture has a lot to teach us not only about slowing down but also taking stock in what we typically deem to be irreparable. This includes our communities and local businesses. After six months in Europe, it is apparent to me that poverty is on the rise in America, and folks are scratching the soil (and the highway pavement outside of McDonald’s), to piece together scraps of meaning in order to stave off personal humiliation. Natalie Chanin often speaks of “loving one’s thread,” and perhaps it is time for us to acknowledge that our collective thread is frayed, not only because of a weak economy but because of our inability to take stock and invest in the junk out back and the laborers whom we have thrown out like a bucket of rain water.
What amazed me about getting to and from the Doo-Nanny was not the energy of the gathering, which is surely worth the road trip, but the eye-opening sights and truck stop voices that you are privy to along the way. One of the most poignant images for me was an elderly woman in a shopping mall café who was obviously installed there for the entire day with her satchels full of possessions, medications and pills laid out on a table, recycled tea bags, and a huge crocheted blanket that she was working on obsessively as if to preserve her sanity.
The scene made me feel elitist for scrutinizing things like sustainable fabrics and fashion, as I was completely paralyzed to even mutter a word to a woman who obviously loved fiber as much as I do. The difference between the two of us was nonexistent in this moment of loving one’s thread. She was authentic, proud, and probably even someone’s mother. But as an American citizen, I was shocked at her overall predicament and had to look away. How might we mend these torn moments and injustices that seem to be silently slipping away? I can only think about fashion in the context of the “other” now, and what some one else might be toiling over or enduring in an effort to simply stay afloat and maintain a thread of dignity in the face of displacement.
lead image: Alabama Chanin; Robert Rausch for The New York Times; City Profile/Seale