By  on April 26, 2007

Project Alabama, the young designer brand known for its intricate handmade designs, is back in business less than a year after closing.

The label, which shut last September after six years, has resurfaced with secured financial backing and a new production process.

Project Alabama previously relied on a network of sewers in its home state to produce pieces. This became costly and eventually drove the brand out of business. Now it is relaunching for fall under the design direction of Shannon Schmalfeldt, who has been with the company since its inception and worked alongside founding designer Natalie Chanin, who is no longer involved with Project Alabama. Enrico Marone Cinzanno, co-founder of the firm with Chanin, is still with the company as an investor, along with a new backer, C.G. USA, a New York-based investment firm that backs several fashion-related businesses.

Susan Correa, brand director for Project Alabama, was determined to revive the label, which she joined as a sourcing specialist about six months before the shutdown, and stayed to relaunch the business. Correa continues to head Electric Avenue, a sourcing firm she founded that also works with such brands as Vera Wang, Lela Rose and Yigal Azrouël.

"I first saw the product in Barneys and fell in love with it," she said. "But I was really intrigued at how they did their production, if each piece really was handmade in the U.S. It honestly seemed impossible to me that they were in business."

After meeting with Chanin and Cinzanno, Correa began looking for a factory in India to handle intricate work as Project Alabama became known for its fine cotton fabrics, beading and expert tailoring. Correa said she knew she had to find a "soul mate" for the brand. She eventually found a factory in India that became just as intrigued with the product, and now the Project Alabama collection is being made the same way as it always was — only with Indian manufacturing.

"We are using all of the same American-made fabrics, and all of the design is still done in Alabama, where Shannon is based," Correa said. "What we did was set up the same exact system in India as we used to have in Alabama. But since it is now in India, we are able to keep the costs down, which in turn allows us to offer the product to a new set of consumers."For the first season, the color palette is mostly cream and navy. There are beaded dresses that Correa said each take four days to create and go through the hands of 27 different people before completion. There are also signature corset-like tank tops, stenciled coats and even some solid skirts, which is something new for the brand.

"Project Alabama was born to honor and preserve the great traditions and richness of its folk handicrafts and honor the artisans creating it," Schmalfeldt said. "Our vision for the future is to preserve the authenticity and the spirit of these processes, while at the same time to ensure the survival in the economics of today. We had to adapt to the realities of the global market."

The fall line will launch in 20 specialty stores nationwide. Correa said she wants to keep the distribution small at first to make sure there are no kinks in the production process. The line wholesales from $175 for a T-shirt to $350 for a dress. In the past, heavily embroidered evening gowns have retailed for as much as $20,000.

"I've always admired Project Alabama, but it was always too high of a price point for us to carry," said Katy Culmo, owner of the Austin, Tex.-based By George, which carries a large mix of contemporary and designer brands including Chloé and Marni. "With the restructuring and new direction they are taking, I'm very excited to carry the line in the fall. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it's a real winner for us."

Come spring, Correa said the line will add more silhouettes, bold colors and even a separate T-shirt line retailing from $130 to $150. She said the line will be "funky all-American style with signature Project Alabama details."

Correa said she expects first-year wholesale volume to reach about $1 million.

"Our first goal here is to get the product right and on track," she said. "We want to ensure the survival of this brand."

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