“Our closets should change in the same way ecology changes,” suggests Natalie Chanin, her articulate perspective laced with an endearing Southern drawl. “We should develop our wardrobes slowly and mindfully – building upon the timelessness of the colors and patterns that already exist.”
Then, she considers her audience, a captive array gathered in a charming room above the Patagonia store in SoHo to celebrate “slow fashion” – that is, garments that are defined less by fleeting trends, more by enduring ethics.
“But, then again, I guess I’m preaching to the choir. Wait – do y’all say that in New York City?”
Natalie, the environmentally-conscious entrepreneur behind clothing brand Alabama Chanin, returned to New York City one afternoon in late April to share her story as a business owner, artist, and Southern anthropologist with fans and followers. A native of Florence, Alabama, Natalie cultivated her understanding of the textile arena in the Big Apple’s garment district before returning to the northwest corner of her native state to establish the foundation of a fashion empire.
“Alabama Chanin represents the intersection of craft and fashion,” praises Jill Dumain, Director of Environmental Strategy at Patagonia and moderator of the evening’s discussion.
A devoted admirer of Natalie’s commitment to the sustainable style space, Jill described Patagonia’s recent retail collaboration with the soft-spoken craftswoman; for the past two holiday seasons, Natalie and her team of needleworkers have transformed pre-loved and recycled Patagonia outerwear into collections of quilted scarves.
“She’s a source of endless energy and endless ideas,” Jill continues. “In many ways, Natalie is setting the pace of global fashion.”
Natalie’s institution is inspired by a resourceful relationship with the earth, fueled by a community of American farmers, spinners, and artists, and driven by a mission to preserve her region’s culture.
“Our products,” Natalie refers to a vast variety of hand-sewn, embroidered, and crocheted wears and homegoods, “Are 100% seed-to-shelf. Our cotton seeds come from Texas, we dye and spin cloth in North Carolina, and we sew in Alabama.”
Tirelessly dedicated to ensuring all materials she incorporates into her designs are locally and organically sourced requires Natalie to maintain a close-knit connection with representatives from every link in her company’s supply chain.
“We’ve become connected with our farmers, we’ve become connected with our spinners, and we’ve expanded our family in a way we never anticipated,” she says.
With passionate energy, Natalie describes her local team. More than 80 female embroidery experts – some working alongside Natalie in a metal building on the outskirts of rural Florence, some working from their home while simultaneously serving as primary caregiver for members of their family – contribute to the execution of Natalie’s vision.
“One of our most established sewers worked for us to pay her daughter’s way through college,” Natalie recounts, fondly. “Now her daughter runs a portion of our business. I guess you could say we’re a second generation outreach.”
In addition to producing seasonal collections of distinctive garments manifested from hours of meticulous and patient hand-stitching, Natalie explores sewing and design as a published author.
“My grandmother knew how to sew. Her grandmother knew how to sew. Her grandmother knew how to sew,” Natalie explains. “But suddenly, people don’t know how to sew anymore.”
Through her books, which include patterns for her most popular pieces, Natalie aims to teach and preserve elements of cultural sustainability rooted in Southern tradition.
“We believe cultural sustainability is as important as environmental sustainability,” she says.
This unique affinity for the South stimulates Alabama Chanin designs.
“Even while I lived away for so long,” Natalie says, remembering the years of global travel that shaped her innovation as a designer, “I was always fascinated by this Southern sense of place. It draws you in.”
“For that reason,” she continues, “My work has always been influenced by the idea of homecoming.”