“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.”
– Natalie Chanin
One item near the top of my getaway list, is planning a trip to Florence, Alabama to visit the Alabama Chanin studio and café. Several years ago, I was introduced to Alabama Chanin through Colleen Duffley’s Studio B. Since the introduction, I’ve been an avid follower of their work and designs. My excitement intensified with the creation of A. Chanin, their basics collection. These closet staples are an introduction into the extraordinary and thoughtful craftsmanship of the line. With a stunning array of fabrics, colors, and hand embroidered designs, these pieces are treasures that will be enjoyed for years to come.
It’s an honor to feature an interview with the founder and creative director, Natalie Chanin. Her work has been featured in Vogue, The New York Times, Time, Town & Country, Garden and Gun, and CBS News – to name a few. Natalie is an author and member of the CFDA.
N/S: What lead to the development of Alabama Chanin? Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
NC: I really began to discover my love of design in college. I studied as part of a Bauhaus-based design program at North Carolina State University. I have worked steadily in design since then. But, I did not have intentions of building my own brand until it happened. I always say that the creation of Alabama Chanin was a happy accident – the perfect combination of people, places, and ideas meeting at just the right time.
N/S: What are your favorite places and things in Florence, AL? Why did you choose this as your home base?
NC: Florence, Alabama, is a place rich with history and full of talented artists. I’m honored to work with and among this community of creatives. When I have visitors, I often take them to a place known as “The Wall,” a mile-long rock wall near my home built by family friend, Tom Hendrix, in honor of his great-great-grandmother, a Yuchi Indian woman. It’s a sacred place for our community and for me, personally. Florence also has a home designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright that you can tour. More and more, visitors are interested in our region’s recording history, so I like to take them to FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio where people like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and the Rolling Stones recorded. Of course, a barbecue sandwich (with hot slaw) from Bunyan’s Bar-B-Q is also a must.
Florence is my hometown – where I grew up. I came back to Alabama for a simple reason: because they have the workforce that understands how to make the things that I want to make – and to make them well. Those skills and the idea of building a strong community are central to Alabama Chanin at its core. Our community has embraced us and I believe them to be one of our strongest resources.
N/S: What inspires new designs and collections from Alabama Chanin?
NC: How does inspiration come to any artist? I’m encouraged by my community, challenged to succeed by my fellow artists, and moved by my love of family. I find great inspiration in books and photographs, as well. Our most recent collection was inspired by Maxine Payne’s upcoming book titled, Making Pictures: Three For A Dime. It catalogues the work of the Massengill family, who worked in the late 30’s and early 40’s as itinerant photographers in rural Arkansas. The photos of farmers, young couples, babies, and the Massengills themselves really capture a specific time and spirit. I wanted to translate that into our work.
N/S: What makes Alabama Chanin designs different from others? They are a higher price point, but how did you know there’d be a need & desire for quality design and embroidery – a return to craft?
NC: 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.
N/S: What lead to the development of the restaurant? How would you explain the café? Who visits it?
NC: I have always loved cooking and I believe it is important to know where my food comes from, who is growing it, and how it is made. The café is an extension of our mission as a company. We approach our ingredients and recipes from a Slow Food ideology. Our intention is to use locally sourced and organic ingredients, whenever possible. I want our customers to feel that they can trust us to source responsibly in the café, just as we do in our collections.
We have been supported and embraced by our community. We post a weekly menu online and there are many customers who visit regularly. But, we also meet new people every day. And those who attend our in-house workshops eat food catered from The Factory café, as well.
N/S: What lead to the development of the basics line? How did it come to be?
NC: We have offered basic versions of our garments since we produced our first collections, years ago. It became evident as we were producing unembellished samples that handmade basic garments would make excellent, versatile wardrobe staples.
Our machine-made line of basics, A.Chanin, was launched last year. It has been part of my vision to produce sustainable, ethical machine-made clothing for quite some time. After years of research and building relationships, we felt that we had a good supply chain that would support this effort. But, there are also plans to incorporate our machine-made garments with our hand embroidery techniques. We are excited about the possibilities.
N/S: What will you be wearing this summer? Any trips planned?
NC: I love wearing skirts and dresses year-round. So, no matter where I go, I will pack our A-Line Dresses, a tunic or two, and my Long Skirts. This summer we have several workshops and events planned, so I will be quite busy. I always try to pencil in a beach trip with my daughter Maggie, so you might catch me sporting an Alabama Chanin sarong with my bathing suit.
N/S: What are a few must-have pieces from Alabama Chanin?
NC: At Alabama Chanin, we want to make pieces that fit into your life, no matter what that life might include. My philosophy is that each person’s “must-have” piece is the one that makes her feel most beautiful.
N/S: Where is Alabama Chanin currently available?
NC: Because Alabama Chanin is a sustainable design company with a goal of zero waste, our collection pieces are available from our online store and a small selection of specialty stores around the world. However, they are made-to-order, whether that order is placed in our Factory store in Florence, online, or at one of our trunk shows across the country.
Our full Alabama Chanin line, including A. Chanin and our DIY kits, can always be purchased from our online store.
N/S: What’s to come this fall from Alabama Chanin?
NC: We have a few sewing workshops on the calendar this fall, as well as a second MAKESHIFT event in New York this October. I’m also busy working on a new collection, collaborations, (and a new book). There is never a dull moment at The Factory.
What’s on the N/S list? The must-have is definitely the Polka Dot Sarong – on sale too!