Project Alabama: The New South

Project Alabama, a homegrown collection rooted in recycled T-shirts, is putting the unlikely venue of Florence, Ala., on the fashion map.

ATLANTA — One of the hottest designer lines at Barneys New York, Jeffrey or Brown’s in London is not from Paris, Milan or even New York. Project Alabama, a homegrown collection rooted in recycled T-shirts, is putting the unlikely venue of Florence, Ala., on the fashion map.

This story first appeared in the May 21, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“It has everything going for it,” said Julie Gilhart, vice president, fashion director, Barneys New York, who fell in love with the line, which made its debut at the Chelsea Hotel two years ago. The collection is in Barney’s Co-op, and selling briskly, she said. “Customers respond to it on many levels: the quality, sense of style, the feeling of custom and intrinsic value.”

Of course, she adds, they love the story. Everybody does.

It’s literally a heartwarming tale, especially in these times when Southern textile mills that once supported entire communities are virtually extinct. Project Alabama employs about 120 women as “stitchers” across Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, who use skills passed down through generations of ladies’ sewing and quilting circles. A few are unemployed textile workers and many have taken on the work full-time.

Natalie Chanin, a native of Florence, worked as a stylist in the film industry in New York and Europe before coming up with her design idea — a collection made of recycled T-shirts — in 2001.

“I couldn’t find any way to manufacture it in New York that wasn’t too expensive,” said the platinum blonde, who also answers to the name “Alabama.”

She came back to the South, made a documentary film, “Stitch,” about rural seamstresses and craftspeople, and decided to establish her business there. Her business partner, Enrico Marone-Cinzano, an Italian with a finance background, believed in the product and encouraged Chanin to develop a viable business plan.

“This was not to be just a two-month sojourn to the South,” said Chanin. “We were serious and knew it would be long term.”

Setting up shop in a modest three-bedroom brick house in the country near Florence, she organized group leaders to contract women to make the labor-intensive garments. The original T-shirts, double-layered with cutaways, patchwork and reverse appliqués, have evolved into a 250-piece collection that includes coats, custom pieces and even a wedding gown.

A sexy corset of T-shirt fabrics with elaborate stitching is a bestseller, retailing at $280. The line now offers new fabrics, including wovens, along with basic pieces to mix with the fancy ones, which often include motifs such as animals and florals inspired by the region.

The line retails from $100 to $2,000, because of the laborious stitching and craftsmanship. But that authenticity has touched a nerve in customers looking for something real in a mass-produced, often unapproachable world of fashion.

“The world is very greedy, and women are sick and tired of being told what to wear and how to be,” said Marone-Cinzano. “After 9/11, people were vulnerable and looking for something cozy and comfortable, something real.”

At Jeffrey, Atlanta, Stephen Tancibok, manager of women’s apparel, describes customer response as “amazing.” In addition to strong in-store sales, a recent trunk show sold 60 pieces in a two-day period. A T-shirt embroidered with an Emily Dickinson poem sold out immediately.

“Everybody loves it. Southerners love the Alabama story, earthy types love the recycled angle and everybody loves the handmade, unique quality,” said Tancibok. “The pieces are starting to become collectibles.”

During New York Fashion Week in February, Project Alabama won the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation’s Award, a $20,000 prize given to emerging designers. The line shows in New York and Paris, and Chanin collaborated with designers Lola Schnabel and Fernado Sanchez for limited-edition pieces earlier this year.

Sales in 2002 reached $1 million, with 52 international accounts, including Fred Segal in Los Angeles, Barneys and Jeffrey.

New categories are planned, including the launch of quilts and baby blankets for fall.

“With the economy and retail the way it is now, this is not the time to overgrow,” said Marone-Cinzano. “We’re solidifying our accounts now and waiting for maybe six months from now, when the economy improves.”