Rue Magazine February 2016
Alabama Chanin: Coming Home to Start Something New
Alabama Chanin was born out of necessity. Founder Natalie Chanin faced that common challenge – an industry party and nothing to wear. Only Natalie was a fashion veteran, with years of styling and costume design experience, and the shirt she whipped up using thifted tees and simple hand-stitches was the hit of the night. Orders for the shirt poured in faster than she could replicate it, necessitating a cadre of seamstresses. Luckily, Natalie knew exactly where to find skilled textile workers – in her hometown of Florence, Alabama. The result? Alabama Chanin has released its 29th collection of women’s clothing, offers DIY patterns and sewing classes, collaborated with Heath Ceramics, and opened a cafe and event space. Now approaching its tenth anniversary, everything Natalie and her company do is focused around preserving the art of hand-sewing and bringing people together to celebrate family and friendship.
Alabama Chanin started from a single dress shirt made for a party but the concept behind it has grown into the philosophy of your brand. How has the understanding of slow fashion changed over since your founding, both the public’s understanding and your own?
We practice slow design, which is the opposite of “fast fashion.” The “slow” philosophy is a direct response to the instant gratification mindset often seen in fashion. We are not interested in creating garments that are cheaply made and meant to last for a season. To the Alabama Chanin standard, a quality garment is designed and constructed to fit into a person’s wardrobe for years, if not decades. We focus on style over trend. Our fabrics are organic and healthy for the wearer. Our artisans and factory employees are paid a fair wage. We have found that quality garments can be created when you combine beautiful, durable materials with good design and ethical practices.
I think that people are generally more interested in knowing how things are made, and by whom. The Slow Food movement established the idea that we should be aware of where our food comes from and we should seek out what is good, fair, and clean. It is not such a large shift to transfer those ideas into other areas of your life. Plus, there is a growth in interest in artisanal crafts and skills. People are now more interested in making connections and creating with their hands than in decades. I hope it is not a trend – but instead is a mindset that is here to stay.
What inspired you to expand your factory into “The Factory Store + Cafe”?
Community is at the core of our mission, and in 2013, we opened what we simply refer to as “The Factory” to provide a place for our community and staff. The Factory acts in service to our business as a whole and was also created to be in service to our workshops. In addition to daily lunch service, it is an event space with the ability to cater small lunches, host art exhibits, film screenings, sewing groups, and other exciting happenings.
We approach our ingredients and recipes from a Slow Food ideology. Our intention is to use locally sourced and organic ingredients, whenever possible. We host our Friends of the Café Dinner Series, now in its third year. For this series, we invite award-winning chefs into our kitchen to prepare regionally-inspired cuisine for our guests. Past chefs include Chris Hastings, Vivian Howard, Ashley Christensen, Rob McDaniel, and Anne Quatrano. The Factory also houses our flagship store with the newest Alabama Chanin collection, home goods, dinnerware, kitchenwares from local artisans, as well as a selection of fabrics, sewing notions, and tools. We offer daily tours that share a behind-the-scenes look at our sustainable ways of manufacturing. We have been supported and embraced by our community and want to give back, whether that be a good meal or simply a place to feel inspired.
How does the design of the physical space fit your vision for The Factory?
In 2008, we moved operations from a three-bedroom house on the outskirts of Florence, Alabama, to The Factory, which is a former textile manufacturing facility, built in 1982. Our operations are housed in the local industrial park that is apparent as you make the drive in. We’ve kept much of the space the same, making minor updates, like adding skylights, a fresh coat of paint, and the build out of our café and kitchen. We want the space to retain its original character that speaks to the years of hard work women and men in our community put in to making textiles. Twenty-plus years later, we are doing the same, albeit it on a much smaller scale.