LAST YEAR, GOLDMAN SACHS RELEASED A REPORT ON WHAT IT DEEMED A CRAFT REVOLUTION. “THE RISE OF CRAFT IS HERE TO STAY,” THE FINANCIER DECLARED. OVER THE NEXT DECADE, COMPANY ANALYST JUDY HONG CONFIRMED, THE REVOLUTION WILL GROW INTO A GLOBAL PHENOMENON, FORCING LARGER BRANDS AND CORPORATIONS TO CREATE OR BUY THEIR OWN CRAFT LINES. THIS EXPONENTIAL GROWTH IS POSSIBLE, SHE CONTINUED, BECAUSE “CRAFT” HAS NO CLEAR-CUT DEFINITION. IT CAN MEAN ARTISINAL, SMALL BATCH, LOCALLY SOURCED, HANDMADE — OR ONE OR NONE OF THE ABOVE. IT CAN SIMPLY SIGNIFY MARKETING TO MEET THE CURRENT CONSUMER MEGA TREND: A DESIRE FOR AUTHENTICITY.
Natalie Chanin would beg to differ. The founder of Alabama Chanin — a Florence, Alabama-based lifestyle company producing well-designed and thoughtfully made goods — proposes and practices a precise definition of craft, one that champions an unwavering dedication to maintaining sustainable practices to create sustainable products. This commitment is evidenced in the 17-year-old company’s heirloom goods, which are fashioned from 100% organic cotton jersey to meet the highest standards of quality and to preserve traditions of community, design, production and living arts.
SHARE YOUR ORIGIN STORY: WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO OPEN ALABAMA CHANIN?
“Origin story” sounds like I’m telling the story of a comic book character or superhero. Alabama Chanin’s beginning is not quite so heroic as that, but it was a reflection of my personal journey. For a while, I lived a sort of itinerant life, where I relied almost exclusively on myself. That can be a fulfilling life, but sometimes a hard one. After years of living and working in Europe, I came back to the U.S. for a sabbatical, of sorts. I started making clothes for myself again, by hand. Because they looked so different from what was hanging in boutiques or department stores, people noticed them and touched them and wanted to know more about them. When I finally decided I wanted to design my own line, no manufacturer wanted to make clothes in the way I wanted to make them; they could not see a profit. So I came back to my home in Alabama because I knew there were people here who could make things the way I envisioned them. I did not have a longterm plan to create a company, but all of the steps I took led me to where I am now.
I think, at the heart of it, I was looking to make something real, something that was tangible and substantial. What I saw as we made our first garments was a type of transformation that I’d not witnessed before. Each item passed through the hands of an individual, who imparted upon it something personal. The product was transformed by the maker.
A SONG THAT'S ON REPEAT IN YOUR STUDIO
A BRAND YOU ADMIRE
WHAT IS YOUR BUSINESS PHILOSOPHY OR ETHOS?
We want to make thoughtful, quality products in a purposeful, responsible way. Alabama Chanin makes beautiful, well-designed things that are meant to enrich your life without doing harm to others or to the environment.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE SUCCESS BEYOND THE BOTTOM LINE?
Success is knowing that there is such a thing as having enough. Otherwise you’re constantly striving for something you can’t define, so you will never get it and you will never be satisfied. Success is deciding that you can be satisfied.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO BASE YOUR BUSINESS IN FLORENCE, ALABAMA?
Initially, I came here because I wanted to make something that could not be mass-produced and required a special skill: hand sewing. Growing up, I saw my grandparents and their peers making things by hand, and so I knew there was a knowledge base here in Alabama that I could mine. On top of that, this community has always been a textile center. There were once many factories here and, though they are gone now, the people are still here. We have been able to marry that knowledge of textiles and manufacturing with Alabama Chanin's sustainable philosophies and design principles. It is a partnership that has helped the company grow and put some people back to work in the process.
WHAT IMPACT DO YOU HOPE YOUR BUSINESS HAS ON LOCAL COMMUNITY?
We have expanded from creating only hand-sewn products to both hand- and machine-sewn items. That has allowed us to employ more people, primarily women. Our goal is to continue that growth and create jobs that can provide financial independence and flexibility to more women, who are still the primary caregivers in this community. We want those women to feel pride in their work and we want to foster pride in our community, which has supported us wholeheartedly.
A SONG THAT REPRESENTS YOUR LOCAL COMMUNITY
WHAT DON'T PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS?
That it is not particularly glamorous. The fashion world may seem romantic, but running a small business takes rigorous planning and financial preparation, among other not-so-exciting things. It can be remarkably un-glamorous.
WHY DO YOU PRODUCE LOCALLY WHEN IT'S MORE ECONOMICAL TO PRODUCE OVERSEAS?
Producing locally allows us more oversight in how we make things, which is essential to our sustainable approach. We need to know every step in our supply chain and we frequently have to tweak and recalibrate things. In the long run, it may seem more profitable to produce in other countries, but our goal is to design thoughtfully and produce sustainably. We are not in the business of making truckloads of inexpensive garments, season after season. Based on our philosophical system of measurement, it is more expensive to create a cheap garment with a huge carbon footprint, made by someone who is not paid a living wage, than it is to produce small, quality items here in our country, in our community.
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BREAK DOWN YOUR SUPPLY CHAIN.
We are proud to say that we have a 100% USA supply chain. Our cotton is grown and ginned in Lubbock, Texas. After that, it travels to North Carolina to a spinning mill, then to Spartanburg, South Carolina, to a facility where it is knit then dyed. Once the fabric is dyed, it is shipped to us, where we use it to create Alabama Chanin products. All of our products are produced locally, either in our machine sewing facility called Building 14, or by our hand-sewing artisans who live in and around the Florence area.
WHAT IS THE BEST BUSINESS ADVICE YOU'VE EVER RECEIVED?
“Stick to your knitting.” It doesn’t mean to really “knit,” but to do the thing you know how to do best. If that is knitting, then knit. If that is making organic cotton clothing, do that. Do the thing that makes your heart sing.
THE LAST GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH YOU DID FOR ALABAMA CHANIN
Anni Albers Weaving
HAVE YOU EVER WANTED TO GIVE UP AND CLOSE YOUR BUSINESS? IF SO, WHY DID YOU PERSEVERE?
I think nearly every business owner has had those thoughts in their darkest moments. Owning a business is hard; it’s the kind of hard that you don’t expect when you are new to it. It can seem daunting and overwhelming and sometimes you want to go work somewhere that you can ask someone else for the answer, where someone else has the final say. But every time I’ve thrown my hands in the air and said ENOUGH!, I take a step back and think: Okay I’ve got just a little more left in me. And you carry on.
Maybe if the company was just me, I’d have given up years ago. But I get to work with an amazing team of people and what we make helps put food on their tables, too. Alabama Chanin is bigger than just one person these days, and I take that responsibility seriously.
WHERE DO YOU HOPE TO SEE ALABAMA CHANIN IN FIVE YEARS?
We wrote a 10-year vision for the business five years ago. We’re working towards that vision every day. It’s really just more of the same, but more content, more people, more profit to share, better infrastructure, and, in the end, more time for me to dream and design.
A MOVIE THAT CORRECTLY CAPTURES YOUR INDUSTRY
A SONG THAT EMBODIES YOUR BRAND