American made has been the bedrock of Natalie Chanin’s designs throughout her 17 years in business, and now the Alabama Chanin founder hopes her return to wholesaling will help to bolster her home state’s workforce. The fall launch will coincide with the brand’s new web site.
The designer still relies on local artisans in and around Florence, Ala., to create her hand-sewn designs — just as she did with her first company Project Alabama, which she left in 2006. At that time the birth of her daughter “just changed everything,” so she regrouped, left New York and returned to her home state of Alabama to launch Alabama Chanin.
With the capacity to scale up and its new machine-made collection, Alabama Chanin is returning to wholesale and aims to have 10 to 12 retailers this fall. In September, the company will introduce wovens and a full range of ribbed core pieces that are sewn locally. With a supply chain that is seed-to-shelf, the label’s cotton is sourced from Texas, processed in North Carolina and cut-and-sewn in Alabama. “It’s taken a long time to get there so we’re really proud of it,” Chanin said.
The company has always focused on Made in America and sustainability, with Chanin speaking publicly about both topics regularly, but the reality of helping to revive the textiles industry was more involved than she imagined. “All along I kept saying, ‘All we have to do is turn the lights back on. Our county was the seed of textile manufacturing in America.’ We were once known as the T-shirt capital of the word. I was just very naïve about 20 years later, just plopping the machines down here, turning the electricity back on and being able to make a great product right off the bat,” Chanin said. “We’ve really been working on it for three-and-a-half years.”
Representatives from the nonprofit Nest, which helps women artisans around the globe, helped Alabama Chanin connect with people who are still knowledgeable about manufacturing in the U.S. Unlike the handmade collection, which starts at $300 and goes up to $20,000 for wedding gowns, the machine-made line will start at $75 but there are also some hybrid pieces, hand-embellished but machine constructed. A hand embroidered and constructed skirt would retail from $7,000 to $8,000.
Five thousand of Florence’s 40,000 residents once worked directly in textiles, not including the service industries around that hub of manufacturing. “For me, 17 years in we’ve watched this very slow decline of third-generation knitters, dye houses and other really old family businesses closing, and really deeply affecting our supply chain. We had to work really hard to build that supply chain back up and to commit to incredibly large inventory numbers to be able to secure this seed-to-shelf made in the USA,” Chanin said. “Now we’re starting to see new businesses build back up and younger people looking at the needs to see what’s missing.”
Located in a 120,000-square-foot sheet metal sewing plant in an industrial park, Alabama Chanin is housed in what was one of 21 buildings owned by the Tee Jays Manufacturing Co., which ran three work shifts at its height in the Eighties and early Nineties. When Project Alabama decided to relocate from a three-bedroom brick house outside of town, Tee Jay’s former owner Terry Wylie offered a space in Building 15 and mentoring in 2007, and then suggested adding some machinery in 2013.
When NAFTA was signed in 1995, the area was producing T-shirts for Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Disney and other brands, with the facility’s predominantly female workforce specializing in specific skills with a woman who only ran hems, one who only set sleeves and another who only cut, Chanin said. “It was a very traditional line so that bundles were moved from line to line, and that operator only ran one operation for her entire career,” she said, adding that finding workers that could make a T-shirt from start-to-finish was no easy task. “There was a nearly 20-year gap in not only skills being rusty but also design and fabrications had changed.”
To try to preserve some of the industry’s heritage, Chanin has launched Project Threadways to document the workers who were part of Alabama’s textiles industry at its height. The multiyear project is being put together with the help of professors in the Global Studies Department at New York University, manufacturers and journalists. Somewhat modeled after the Southern Foodways Alliance, the effort will detail what the average textile worker looked like then and now, based on scholarly data regarding race, religion, socioeconomic status and oral histories. “As you know, the textiles industry of the South has a very ugly history and we need to look at the future through the past. In many cases, we have some gaps in knowledge,” said Chanin, noting that Nest is also pitching in.
To keep people coming back, Alabama Chanin offers hand-sewing workshops and a daily afternoon tour of its facility which can pull in anywhere from five to 35 people each day. It also has a flagship attached to the manufacturing facility and a lunch-serving café manned by the designer’s chef son Zach (when they lived at the Hotel Chelsea in New York, his involvement with the company was hauling T-shirts to the laundromat, Chanin said). The company also offers catering services and hosts James Beard Award-winning chefs for six to eight locally sourced dinner events each year that are rooted in sustainability.