INTERVIEW: Natalie Chanin On Paying Close Attention To Details

Natalie Chanin -Alabama ChaninPhoto Peter Stanglmayr copy

Ask any sustainable fashion writer, designer or conscious clothing afficionado, “who do you think are the real pioneers in the sustainable fashion world?” and you will probably get 3 answers:

1. Alabama Chanin

2. Patagonia

3, EILEEN FISHER

How did a hand sewn garment business like Alabama Chanin that started in 2000 with cotton jersey fabric, become an empire and a name that falls so easily off the lips of many? Lots of hard work and perseverance, not to mention a whole town that loves you.

While Natalie Chanin, the founder of Alabama Chanin has worked to preserve heritage and crafting techniques in Florence, Alabama that are becoming lost in the shuffle of a fast-paced fashion industry, she’s also been very smart about her brand’s direction. Basing her company’s strong foundation in community employing local workers to hand stitch garments, publishing three books that combine her love of making food and fashion, launching a Factory Cafe, hosting making workshops all over the U.S., and collaborating with key responsible fashion players like Patagonia and Billy Reid has made her brand accessible from a number of angles.

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Not every designer is as entrepreneurially explorative as the CFDA Eco-Fashion Challenge winning Chanin, but when a designer has been successful, just listen to their experience and gain some wisdom.

We caught up with Natalie this past week to ask her some questions about her success as a pioneer in business. Here’s what she had to say:

You are a designer that has worked hard and explored many perspectives-obviously some have worked but maybe others have not. What keeps you motivated and inspired to explore?

I have said many times that I am inspired and motivated by my community, the artisans we work with, our customer base, and my family. I come from a region with a deep textile manufacturing history. The knowledge and experience that we have available to us at Alabama Chanin could write a hundred books. We see that there are still ways to innovate, communities to enrich, neighbors to work alongside, and many things we have yet to learn.

I am constantly amazed by the impeccable work of our stitchers and artisans who challenge me to be a better designer.

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Alabama Chanin has an essential relationship and healthy dialogue with our customers, who are excited by new techniques and designs – and we don’t want to disappoint them. And, as a human being, I know how important it is to create healthy products that do as little harm as possible. We are always pushing to innovate better, more sustainable ways to produce our garments. So, you can see that I have no shortage of inspirational sources.

How important is creating your own supply chain? Your work with Billy Reid to grow organic cotton seems a big first step.

Growing our own cotton was a learning experience, but may not necessarily be the ultimate solution to supply chain issues… yet. We are not in a place that allows us to produce the volume of organic cotton needed to support our demand. But, it is important that we show others that such a thing can be done. And we can act as a support team and knowledge base for others who want to move forward with organic cotton production.

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At this particular moment, it is more important that we know where our materials originate than it is to make them ourselves. Part of our company’s mission is to be responsible as a maker. That means knowing the origins of our source materials. We have always tried to make informed choices and we now have long-standing, personal relationships with our suppliers.

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How long have you used natural dyes and is your Indigo Collection your first collection showcasing them?

In 2008, we began collaborating with an organization called Goods of Conscience, a non-profit that was based in The Bronx at that time. This was our first foray into the world of natural dyes. We expanded our natural dye selection in 2012, when we started working with Artisan Natural Dyeworks in Nashville, Tennessee. When that dye house made the decision to close, Ali, the owner of Artisan Natural Dyeworks, suggested that we learn the natural dyeing techniques and take over that whole process. We have offered multiple denim/indigo collections over the years.

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Now that we have established our indigo dye house here at The Factory usingBotanical Colors’ dyes, we are introducing a new indigo collection to showcase that work. You can read more about that decision and process here.

Years ago, “eco textiles” were the big draw when it came to sustainability but now it seems Made in the U.S. is taking center stage. Do you agree?

I certainly think that Made in the USA has become more important and more visible in the marketplace than it has been in many years, and we support that growth. But, I don’t see it overtaking the sustainable/organic/eco-textile aspects, at the moment. Most manufacturers just don’t have the means to produce completely within the United States. However, there is a growing artisanal movement that is focused on traditional methods and materials and making within the United States. I think this movement, along with the growing cost of manufacturing overseas, will eventually inspire (and move) larger manufacturers.

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The mantra that guides you?

I’ve always said that “life is in the details.” That pretty well summarizes my approach to life and Alabama Chanin’s approach to designing and producing.

Every choice you make will impact the final product. Every step is meaningful, in your life and your business.

Images: Alabama Chanin