Designer: Alabama Chanin
From: Florence, Alabama
After spending years in the fashion industry working as a junior sportswear designer in New York and as a stylist, costume designer, and documentary filmmaker in Europe, Natalie Chanin wanted to design her own line, but struggled to find seamstresses in New York City who understood her aesthetic. She decided to return home to Alabama, and found exactly what she was looking for in the community she left.
Florence was once a Mecca of T-shirt manufacturing, but cheap labor overseas forced the factories to shut down. There were plenty of trained, unemployed seamstresses with the skills needed to assist Chanin with her designs, and tapping into the local talent became a hallmark of her business. Beginning with embellishing those first simple T-shirts, Chanin and her team have grown into a lifestyle brand. They now offer a full fashion collection including bridal and menswear, and even such home items as organic cotton tea towels, table runners, placemats, and quilts.
Independent contractors, or “stitchers,” as Alabama Chanin (the name Chanin gave to her company) calls them, are the worker bees of the brand. A package is sold to the artist, who in turn sews the garment, then sells it back to Chanin when the work is complete.
“Each piece is different,” Chanin explained in an e-mail interview. “All of our garments are cut from our pattern library here in the studio, and then packaged with the necessary notions (thread, beads, etc.). This package is purchased by the artisan with the winning bid. The item is then sold back to Alabama Chanin—in most cases, as a finished product. Should the garment require additional work after it is returned, the process begins again. More often than not, each garment has a single creator.”
The stitching in each garment is sublime. Completely handmade—no sewing machines involved—this is as human as it gets. There is a sense of comfort in Chanin’s collections—the sturdily knotted stitch, the precision of the patterns mesmerizes the eye. Patterns are made using Pennant Felt or Mylar stencils and painted using an airbrush technique. The decorative stitching is done with a simple quilters stitch and is Alabama Chanin’s trademark. Working exclusively with organic cotton, they’ve realized that the product is hard to find, and along with fellow Florence fashion designer Billy Reid, they are now in the process of growing their own raw materials to ensure supply keeps up with increasing demand.
To wear Alabama Chanin feels like a conversation with an old friend. There’s so much to learn and so much to think about. What was the maker doing when she created this piece? Was she sitting on her sofa, watching TV? Talking to her son on the phone? You just don’t get that same sense of community or mystery from picking up a dress in the mall.
The communal reach doesn’t end in Alabama. Recent collaborations include a line with Heath Ceramics and an NYC pop-up shop called Crafting Fashion, curated with Billy Reid among others.
In a fast-fashion climate, where runway looks are copied quicker than design houses can manufacture them, Chanin not only sells DIY kits of her original work to non-stitchers but also offers books and weekend workshops so consumers can create pieces at home.
The most intriguing collaboration, though, is the strength and talent of Alabama Chanin’s community of artists. For this company, fashion isn’t just selling a dress—it’s indulging in a design philosophy that translates to more than another choice on the racks.