If such a thing is possible, fashion designer Natalie Chanin looks like her clothes.
With her thick white hair, stately stature, and knowing little smile, she could step right into a Renaissance painting and feel right at home.
At the same time, she’s a modernist who used recycled materials long before going green meant anything other than changing colors.
Chanin clothing models – known for their intricate hand-sewn beadwork, appliques, and quilt stitches – evoke a rich and similar European charm. Yet they’re made with the simplest fabric – organic jersey, or essentially the material of the t-shirt – which is a testament to Chanin’s green approach and his desire to find beauty in unlikely places.
Chanin, 48, has worked here in this college town in northwest Alabama for a decade, since leaving the fashion world in New York City to try and make a difference in her hometown. Surrounded by rolling hills and farms, near the beautiful Tennessee River, her company, Alabama Chanin, pushes the boundaries of couture fashion, much to the delight of international fashionistas and, yes, the New York fashion industry. .
Last Monday, Chanin was in the audience when actress Nicole Kidman presented the coveted DFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund award in New York City. Although French-born designer and Michelle Obama’s favorite, Sophie Theallet, won the award, Chanin was among the famous Top 10 finalists, featured in this month’s Vogue magazine.
“It’s a big deal,” Chanin said, no bragging, just a fact.
She had one of the busiest years of her career, doing catwalks, organizing hands-on workshops, marketing her latest couture line, finishing a second book (“Alabama Studio Style”, released in March) and running after her 3-year-old daughter, Maggie.
Chanin has also prepared pieces for a Birmingham “pop-up store” which will be open throughout December at the Garage Cafe, 2304 10th Terrace South. Visitors can view his work and purchase selected pieces.
On this day, Chanin wears black – a sample top from her spring collection, a skirt from an anterior line, and scuffed black boots. She sits at a long table inside the unmarked warehouse-like structure that houses her business. It’s another world inside, with white walls, shelving and floating curtains. Art and design books line the shelves, along with Chanin-designed jewelry, quilts, pillows, and even note cards that carry her iconic cutout look. The racks contain samples of its spring line and other parts.
Samples of his stenciled and beaded materials are on display, near the folk art chairs that Chanin made from discarded furniture. In the coffee corner is one of his cleverest pieces – a sofa made entirely of multicolored fabric scraps.
“We try to have zero waste,” Chanin says, and at first glance, she succeeds.
Chanin sketches his creations at one of the tables. A self-described country girl, she is obviously inspired by nature. But ideas come from various places. Her spring 2010 collection (she does two lines a year), in tones of buckskin, blush, ruby and midnight blue, is inspired by the art of the painter Agnès Martin.
His greatest influence? His grandmothers. “Both were accomplished seamstresses,” says Chanin. “Their houses were full of quilts. I don’t remember learning to sew. But I remember the needles and pins were still there.”
A writer once told Chanin, to her delight, that she channeled her grandmothers. A child of the 1960s, Chanin says she was more of a handyman than a serious seamstress. “I was a fan of iron-on applique and small crochet handbags,” she says.
Daughter of Billy Smith and Myra Brown, Chanin believes she is also following in her father’s footsteps. “He was a builder, and so am I. But I work with fabric instead of concrete and steel.”
After earning a textile design degree from North Carolina State University, Chanin hit the road with his family (his oldest, Zach, is now 28 and works in the food industry). She landed in New York City, first working as a fashion designer assistant before settling into a styling career focused on film and print.
Then she started to design a line of T-shirts. There was no business plan. In search of a manufacturer, she experienced a light bulb moment. “I was looking at one of the pieces and I was like, ‘It looks exactly like a quilt stitch. Duh.'”
So she returned home to quilting country, found a business partner, and opened Project Alabama. She hired local women and artisans to sew the clothes, which was an instant hit with Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily and other fashion referees. In 2006, Chanin went solo to create Alabama Chanin, again using local workers. They buy kits from Chanin and sew the parts at home, then resell the finished products with a healthy profit.
“I can’t tell you how many offers we got to take the work overseas and make a lot more money,” Chanin said. “That’s not our goal. I believe in what we’re doing here.”
At a table in the back, Alabama Chanin’s chief seamstress Diane Hall, 59, is working alongside her 33-year-old daughter, Staci Phillips, on a top-secret project that will only make the Alabama name better. Chanin (you will be told about this at a later date).
Hall, who had his own sewing business, has been with Chanin almost from the start. Tired of only machine sewing, she was thrilled with the idea of hand-sewing unique pieces ranging from dresses and skirts to t-shirts and coats.
“Natalie can be a lot of fun,” Hall says. “But we’re not playing here. It’s a lot of hard work.”
The clothes are aesthetically accessible, but also exclusive. Chanin’s skull and hearts t-shirt – with a reverse applique – sells for $ 475, and prices can run into the thousands. Chanin also sells its inexpensive kits to the public, with patterns and other materials to make your own Chanin products. The instructions are easy enough for a non-seamstress. “I made a shirt for my wife,” says Steve Smith, director of Chanin’s office.
Alabama Chanin is sold at Barney’s New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Jeffrey Atlanta, and Red Bird in Berkeley, California. Starting in December, fans can purchase Chanin couture online at www.alabamachanin.com.
Chanin hopes to expand his list of retailers. Last spring, HBO asked him to create a line of shirts adorned with old logos from the HBO gift shop. Chanin will be participating in the next Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum 2010 Global Triennial, a prestigious production that showcases new designs and ideas from around the world. Cooper Hewitt has previously honored Chanin for her clothing line and her dedication to helping her hometown, dressmakers and artisans.
“It’s probably overkill to say that I’ve had an impact on the economy here,” says Chanin. “Before NAFTA, there were tens of thousands of people working in textiles in this region. Now it’s all gone abroad.
She has contributed a lot to the region. One of the first things Chanin did when she returned to Florence was to make a film, “Stitch,” documenting northern Alabama quilts, their stories and traditions. Two years ago, she wrote her first book, “Alabama Stitch Book”, a practical lesson in creating your own Chanin-style clothes and accessories.
“I know what we’re doing here is important,” Chanin says. “I mean, a small group of women in Alabama changed the fashion industry. As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough.”