SWEET HOMEMADE ALABAMA
Byline: Roxanne Robinson-Escriout
NEW YORK — Perhaps the best way to describe the Alabama T-shirt collection is through the lyrics of the ubiquitous Eighties band The Fixx — “One thing leads to another.”
The T-shirts were certainly an evolution for Alabama Chanin and her partner Paul Graves, who say that they never really intended their homemade, recycled and reconstructed pieces to go this far — they’ve been ordered by such stores as Barneys New York, Fred Segal and Brown’s Focus. As Graves puts it, “It sort of just happened. I don’t plan to be selling T-shirts 10 years from now.”
The story goes something like this: After working for a decade in Europe as a stylist and art and video director, Chanin returned to the U.S. and crossed paths with her old friend Graves, a creative director and film and video director. The two ended up in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, and began working together on various projects, including a Reebok commercial — which is where the idea started. While they were filming, Chanin and Graves couldn’t find the right T-shirt. “We didn’t want to show people working out in pretty, clean workout clothes,” says Graves. “That’s not what real people do.” So they hunted down vintage Reebok clothing and began customizing it. From the beginning, the method they used to reconstruct these garments was based on the handsewing techniques that Chanin had learned from the ladies who sew in quilting circles in her home state of — yes, you guessed it — Alabama.
As the response to the T-shirts grew, Chanin thought about creating a full collection of the one-of-a-kind versions. The pair were planning a road trip back home for the holidays and they decided to make a documentary about the women in quilting circles and the journey south, receiving sponsorship from the Austrian film company “Fish Films” to carry out the idea. On the way to Alabama, they picked up T-shirts in every Salvation Army, church or yard sale and unclaimed baggage center they could find, collecting about 400.
As they began work on the documentary, called “Stitch,” they also set up shop in an old, abandoned property owned by Chanin’s family, and started organizing teams of women to sew the T-shirts. “This is really a project from the heart,” Chanin says. “I wanted to give back to the community that taught me how to sew.” The design team also thought that it was important to bring T-shirt manufacturing back to the South — the business plays a big role in the history of the region, but over the years it has been lost to the cheap labor of Latin American countries.
The labor-intensive process involved in making the Ts starts with boiling them in dye on the stovetop to achieve an overdyed and worn effect. Then they’re cut apart and hand-sewn together again, often using combinations of fabrics and layers, and embellished with beadwork, patches, appliques and fringe. Some garments can take up to 10 to 12 hours to construct, while others require as many as 40.
“This is really a cottage industry in that every piece is made with warmth and love from people who are extremely proud of what they do,” says Chanin, who also notes that she negotiates a payscale with her employees. “I ask them to tell me if they aren’t happy with what I am paying, especially if one piece requires more work than others. I want them to be happy.”
For many of the women, who can work from home, it has provided both a source of income and a sense of camaraderie. “I know a lot about the way they live. For instance, one woman wants to be able to stay home with her daughter. Their lives have gone into the making of these T-shirts.”
Next up: a line of recycled sweaters. The shirts retail for about $340 for the women’s and $240 for the men’s. Will people pay this much for a T? “Our critics probably haven’t taken the time to read what goes into them,” Chanin says. “We’re returning to the roots of fashion. Everything is handmade by people who are very proud of what they are doing. This isn’t mass production.”