The Alabama Chanin Story
This is American fashion podcast. I'm Charles Beckwith your with Kathy Shabbat. Hi everyone and We're in a loft in TRIBECA and it's New York Fashion Week and Some of these in town Natalie. Shannon is here. Hi Hi Natalie. Your call to Alabama Shannon and. It's kind of famous largely because you're a leader in the slow fashion movement. Can you describe what slow fashioned is? How do you think about it? Well you know. We first started talking about slow fashion on of as a derivative of the slow food. Newsman I think you know in many ways that That industry is light years ahead of where fashion so people started really looking at the way things were planted and grown much sooner than we did with textiles also I think a lot of what's being done around. Sustainable sustainable fashion is really taking cues from that movement. What made you start your own act. Actually let's just go back. What's your background in in the fashion business and textiles? Obviously this is a really good question. Well I do. I have a degree in what's called environmental design from North Carolina State University. Which sounds very modern today but really it was Degree that was kind of based on the house education so did a double major that today's called the Anti Albert's programs at a degree in Like design fundamentals and Textile design sort of handmade textiles on. And then I have another degree in industrial textile design so at at North Carolina State University. Water the other degrees other than the environmental design. So if you're doing environmental design where he not doing yes so I think the structure. There's a little bit different now when you were there. When I was there it started out you either. Signed into textile design product design graphic design architecture and landscape so environmental design is really cross disciplinarian. Volvos correct it was sort of modeled after the bow house Wheel of learning You know I think. A lot of people know that when the Bell House designers left Germany some of them settled in the mountains of North Carolina in a place called Black Mountain and that was very influential in the in the school of design which is now called the College of design at NC state income. So so how did you get into the fashion business out after he left school? Well that's a really good question I You know I just imagined when I graduated from. Nc State is that was kind of cradle the textile industry. At that time that I would be have been working in Charlotte or you know somewhere around. North Carolina there quite a few factories In a lot of textiles being made in that area while I was in school and I graduated in eighty seven and it was sort of the beginning of the great migration. Or let's call it the the next migration because excels are pretty migratory It's a pretty migratory industry so when I graduated there really had a really hard time finding a job in North Carolina and I You know I just you know back. In those days you had to go to the library. And there are books that listed all the companies that Were working in textiles in New York. And so a sent-off about sixty letters and you know. I got like five responses and I came up to New York for a week and interviews and at the end of the week I got an offer from a company calls US joint junior sportswear NASC- so third floor with I think that the Tagline was do use use you like a jeans and t shirt company. I started out there just as an assistant designer and went from there. And how did you come to the point where you started your own line? You know. It's kind of a roundabout story. After as you I worked for a company called sub studio. That was doing all the manufacturing and samples and India so spent some time going back and forth between New York and India. And after I Stopped doing that job. I actually sort of changed the focus and became a stylus so working on the other side of the camera you know instead of on the design and manufacturing side. I was Doing costume design and So I did that for a decade and During a sabbatical that I was taking my life as a as a stylist. I wound up. You know cutting apart some t shirts and sewing them back together again by hand and a low down half that eventually became a business very crazy story. And what led you to Florence Alabama to have a headquarters for your business model. Florence is my hometown so You know It took me a while to kind of figure out this when I was sowing the t shirts in the beginning that actually what I was doing looked very much like a quilting stitch and so is living in New York on Twenty Third Street and at the Chelsea Hotel and I started going around the garment. Destroy Looking for. You know embroiderers to help me do this. This vision of having these two hundred. One of a kind t-shirts Buying recycle t shirts from the Salvation Army and goodwill's and You know as the joke. I think some of these places thought of as a bag lady would come in with like these backs of recycled t shirts cut up and I wanted them. To put these elaborate embroideries on them and they're like Oh lady no so I mean I remember very clearly the afternoon I was standing on eight and thirty eight And I looked down at one of the pieces. Just kind of dumbfounded on. Why couldn't figure out of getting these made in New York and you know just sort of hit me like a light. Bulb went off like. Oh these. This is a quilting stretch. And if I want to have these made in this way that him sewing them I need to go home where there is still some ladies who had quoted with my grandmother who had this little quilting circle. That would get together once a way to do this. Quilts and thought will F. I go home I could have this made and so the idea was that it was just going to be a one off project. I was going to have these. T shirts made wanted to make this documentary film about old Tom quilting circles so I went home. And you know the the humor in it. Was that You know the little ladies who'd quilted with my grandmother really weren't interested in New York City fashion or you know doing this work. They were talking about the grandkids and planning collards. And you know all the things that they had to do outside of the They're quilting was kind of community service work and so we just ran added random at a newspaper that said part time. Hand sewing and quilting. We got about Again I think you know there were about fifty sixty responses in about twenty of the ladies stock and started doing the hand sewing and then we presented that first collection of Two hundred t shirts during New York fashion week in February of two thousand and one I had a friend who became a partner and then another partner. So we You know it's gun of history. The first person to come to the door was Julie. Bill Hart from Barneys and it was a big part of history and history. It was It was like recycled couture. Oh they you know. It was just one of the foremost brands to be looking at. I mean there was such a buzz around. It was amazing. Thank you and I. I'm ever grateful to Julie. Ogle heart and sell a singer for going out into the world and telling her story and You Know Julie sending her buyers down to us and then vote also telling the story again. It was a very unusual story to tell someone know everybody sort of took a risk and went out on the limb with us and and so you know the funniest part was that they were kind of intended as one of a kind pieces and so when the buyers. Barney's came back they were like we'll have twelve. There's twelve like this and trump. Might this site wait a minute. These are you know one of them said like Smith. Family Reunion Roanoke Virginia. I was like I get that. I can't you know I can't get twelve. Just like that. And they said Oh just do something similar in a similar color. We had been doing a lot of over dying as well and so I went back home to actually not even living in Florence of his in the little country town right about ten miles outside of Florence so went back to central Well actually I called the ladies from New York and I said you know. What are you guys think would? Do you want to do more of this chess? And so I went back home and set up production and we shipped Barney's within three months. You know he went back and did a little quick turnaround and We ship to Barney's and they called back in about three weeks at the had sold almost all of the t shirts and wears fall. It went from being like a one off project to being a collection and twenty years later. We're still they're still selling. Some of the original ladies are still sewing with. Your brand is still here but Barney's is it strange to combat. The barneys is gone. I hadn't really thought about that. But yes it's true now. Nordstrom can take its place I think I think they are doing a lot of things that are so progressive We'll brands and direct to consumer brands. And they're trying new brands something to keep in mind. I love that you've moved welby on t shirts now. But you still have hand sewing going on in Alabama. What would you say is the core of the current brand of what Alabama channon stance whereas I mean that a hand sewing dot com so commitment to community and economic development is definitely you know at the core of our brand? Amin a hand sewing and quilting stitch you call. It is really what Launched our our brand. And it's still a core part of that Just in the last few years We were very lucky to be able to collaborate with one of the great knickers during the when textiles and North Alabama and across the southern region. Were at its pinnacle and so we put some machines back in this plant. Were our our studio. We called the factory is now And we started making machine made Garments of basics using organic cotton. I guess about five years ago and obscures ago and so now. There's this kind of beautiful conversation between handmade and machine made. We have some things that are really completely handmade and a in the old way of us doing things and then we have. These beautiful completely machine made pieces. And then there's some pieces that Require both and so and those workers kind of ever have the opportunity to work together or are the the hand workers working only out of their home so the hand workers working from their home or their place of business. They're independent contractors. So they do not work on site. these kind of a very beautiful and elaborate bidding system where they bid on particular projects and they take and complete those projects and then turn them back in but we have a Over the years we've had a community picnic every year where people come together and meet one another. But they don't. I'm so bought side-by-side per se and for the hand sours you have A school for them. That are you training them or are they coming to you? With that expertise. They're coming to us with the expertise so we do have a division of the company called the School of making now. But that's more for people who just want to learn how to hand. Sosa and you give them the components to do that right and the school both so our artisans also get the components so they buy the raw materials from us to create a project and then sell us the finished goods and Indus goal of making. Someone might say they want to make a skirt and they could get all the components be able to make the skirt and then just do the hand sewing themselves. We have books that You know we're kind of part of our mission statement as well so you know after I had been home for awhile. It it really was very starkly. Clear that some of these You know hand sewing techniques were being lost and so we started talking about not only sustainability in terms of using recycled and organic materials but in terms of cultural sustainability as well like Allieu reserve craft. How you preserve techniques. How you're sure that You know you could even go so far as to call it. Survival skills passed from one generation to the next. And so the books that we wrote about this Sewing methods kind of came out of this idea of trying to preserve some of the things that were very You know ubiquitous when I was growing up but maybe less so by the time I came back to to do this work. I was thinking about but a while ago. I couldn't get anybody to invest in the project but I wanted to get one of the greedy video cameras and just record the hand movements of people here in the garment district Doing handwork because they're in their sixties and Seventies. They're not going to be doing for much longer. And there's nobody young in the shops with them. Yeah so there's techniques that are literally thousands of years old for how you move your hands to make something that will be lost in this generation. It's crazy we've found out even with the machine works. Oh you know in. Our factory was a sewing plant. There were there was a die. Halston there and I think some knitting machines as well but After we brought the sewing machines back in you know you forget that that Nafta began in ninety four. I mean it's been quite a time that most of these factories have been closed down so even just how to sew a t-shirt on a machine in a proper way was there were very few people left to were part of that and Eat a part of that. System at that time was more Production lines so might have been a hammer or they would have set sleeves or just on the callers and said being able to make a t-shirt from beginning to end was Very unusual skull and so we really relied on some elders in the community to come in and teaches like retrain us for how to make a just showing a rate t shirt on a machine and You know one of the things so spurred me on him sorry. This is a long story. But that's what we do. You know we found. There are no videos that showed so when we were having trouble with machines. Renault videos you couldn't. There was no training manual. In some cases the machines didn't even have you couldn't even find an illustration how to thread the machine right so we had to go in and do illustrations and one of our great employees at an iphone and she would film the Mechanic. Doing these little news like to put this one particular piece on. You have to kind of take it and go to make it work and if you didn't do this little newsmen than the machine didn't work so they use these videos to train people on how to get these attachments things on so that they would be able to do the work. So and your education efforts have been beyond local. Your you have people come in for some oaten other things from all over the world really. I guess we've had people from every continent to TUNC. Come to learn with US so yeah. Education has been a really big part of our Our mission statement You know in part just carrying on these Craft that Really flourished in our region We're also looking at and like the history of textiles. I think a lot of that hasn't been documented. You know we started trying to understand what our region looked like when it was a a mentioned. The Pinnacle of the textile industry like what were the. What was the racial balance of the Workers? What did the economics look like? And there's not a lot of data about it and so it's very hard to judge where we are today not knowing what came before and so we started a five. Oh One C. Three not for profit called project thread ways that really Try to look at that time but not only that time. I mean let's face it. We're working cotton in the south and Alabama and you don't have to look back very far to reach a very ugly on a very ugly history and you know their conversation set. I think have been avoided. You know because it's another time and this is today but I don't think that we can work with cotton in the south and not at least try to have this conversation. You no and I said if people all the time I may you're gonNA find my foot in my mouth a lot just you know. Help me figure out a way to get it out of my mouth and know back on the ground and maybe we can walk this walk together to try to. You know at least look at what that history is and you know the really interesting thing about it is are we have a symposium in April so our symposium this year is April Sixteenth Eighteenth. And it's really about the long arc of time because you know textiles in the south didn't start you know at the pinnacle and signing of NAFTA NAFTA didn't start you know with large car. Cotton plantations in the enslaved started. Well before the and so I'm really trying to look at the beginnings the native Americans there. There's evidence to show that there was cotton already been grown in the region and what that looks like up until today and what. The future look like an interview. Dana Thomas with her book your so Danes Coming. Back to help us look at the future. So what is this long arc of textiles mistakes? You know what happened? What mistakes burr made in all they're ugly and beauty in everything that and be understood. And then what does it look like to move into the future with With a sustainable brand and working in a way that is better than it was the past. You had also One in two thousand thirteen lexus. Yeah right yes able for that. So what's the name of that war the CFDA? Lexus Eko Eko fashion challenge. So how did that did that help you? I mean and do they. What kind of support did that give you? Or what kind of awareness did that give you that you didn't have before? Ya It was amazing So yeah we were. That was really wonderful. I was just talking to someone today about it that same year that we won that we also won the Eileen Fisher women in Business Award and was a time when we were You know there's a lot of talk about supply chain around sustainability today and there have been some really bumpy roads. You know there were some years where we had to purchase all of our supply of cotton in advance right a year in advance because you have to connect to what the farmers are growing and like. I was trying to give people a perspective about like imagined Toyota. Any car company had to purchase all of the metal that they need in one lump sum. You know that is a huge commitment and It was very very difficult. And so the ECO. Challenge for example helped us invest in our supply chain which made us in even better sustainable company and once we were able to really invest in that supply chain our suppliers. Also start believing more. Ns and are willing to work with US and so it gives us even more opportunity to grow that so on. It was very critical. Moment in the shaping of the Business Both Island Fisher and writes out that a lot of what they're talking about is you know is is how you speak of yourself being sustainable but you have to have real transparency and understand exactly what's going on in every aspect of your supply chain and then we're really vigilant you know about. We know our farmers. We work with our converters. You know we're we're very hands on and even sometimes things fall through the cracks. So just really takes a lot of vigilance and at the same time. We were also talking about this earlier today. I think that there's never been a time. When as an end user you have more opportunity to really dig in and find out if a company really is being true to their mission bright. So it's ever more important for a company like ours that really wants to commit to this mission the commitment to sustainability. I mean I think it's important that you say to what degree you are getting there and maybe not position yourself as an answer ascent yeah and one hundred percent sustainable because even talk about zero waste and what does that. What does that mean to you? And how how is that? How is that accomplished? And is that scalable? I mean zero base is very difficult as as you know. These are conversations. We we have all the time. And I think you're right you know you have to. It's not enough to look at just material supply or You know is the company sustainable in that. You're building jobs that people you know our staff twenty years from now can count on having that job. That's another way to look at sustainability. So at is their economic sustainability in the business that we're building is their cultural sustainability and that we're contributing to our community into the culture of our community. Is there you know zero away? So what does that look like so for us? It looks like You know there's a lot of wastage when you cut tuck styles We practice lean methods manufacturing. Which is very unusual in our industry and that we don't make anything besides samples in a very small amount of store stock until an orders place. So that helps of course reduced the amount of waste that gets US closer to zero waste but then as anyone who works in textiles knows. There's a you know they're definitely offcuts cuts that come out of the fabric because humans aren't rectangular and we don't make only rectangle or clothing. You know they're offcuts so we try to find ways to use off cuts to You know bring them back into the product chain so You know and then after that. There's winging like on our website at the school making. We sell bags of scraps. You now in these are like the leftover pieces that ant go anyplace else and so we hope that other makers can use them to bring them into some other forms so no. It's something that we're always trying to find our way. Then you go like. Our building is not wind powered our solar power to know. So how you know. There's always something more you can do. How many people actually work at the studio We're always I think we're about twenty three right now in our twenties. It's always kind of fluctuates. You know sometimes we have college students that swing in and work with us for a while or so but right. Now we're around twenty and I think our artisan counts are independent. Contractors or about the same in fluctuates anywhere between twenty and thirty any given time so we ranged from or dht sixty five at any given moment and the artisans that you are hiring. Are they all different ages? Also yes they are There's a wider age range. Now I think than there ever has been before you know. Some of the youngest ones are in their twenties and some of the oldest are in their eighties. There's a pretty wide range and reasons that people so you know there's you know they're they're independent contractors who that is their only job they so for us and so for others that it's what they do and then they're you know mothers who have jobs and so two for some added income. I mean it's fascinating as a small independent industry. Do you see that growing in other states around this kind of I mean. We're not a true cottage industry method. But I guess you're talking about this cottage in this idea of cottage industry. I mean I definitely think it is. I think with the you know like just since I started. Of course it's hard to remember that you know Oetzi didn't really exist at that time when I started. So there's this rise of You know people be in power being empowered by being connected to other tha marketplaces and people across the marketplace. So they're able to create Income for their families and themselves through Created activity right and said this is definitely something new and growing and you know I would venture to say. It's not probably in. Its most perfect form right. Now it's still an evolving conversation. But Yeah I think you find a lot of more people today than twenty years ago. Who are you know finding a niche for themselves like you guys and building this beautiful work from from your own creative imagination? Mostly we just ask questions talks. I walked by the UN the other day and it and it's they they are now saying there's no single use plastic allowed on the UN premise. So I was like. Wow maybe soon it will be no recycled. They're going to bend some wives. Warren but you know also then. No PLASTIC USE IN. The grocery stores is happening March. I like there's going to be this tremendous wakeup call. I think we're going to catapult to a different level of awareness. Do you think that that will carry over onto clothing? I mean yes. I think that you already again. Let's think about belong arc of time like twenty years I mean. I don't think it's happening quickly enough for many of us. That have been involved in sustainability. But when you go back to that long arc of time if you think about twenty years ago when I started to today I mean it's already remarkably different and so on. I think you can't help. But have that have a longer acting fact on the industry even six years ago when we started the show. Nobody was really talking about sustainability outside of small rooms conferences. About it there. There weren't I mean. We were the only fashioned sustainability podcast aware of when we when we launched. And now there's several talk about this topic and get into it more in more depth than we do. It's amazing how quickly things have started to reverse and head toward a more positive and hopefully. I don't know if it's happening fast enough. I wonder I'm in. Antarctica was sixty five degrees this week. So that's dangerous. Yes but I feel like if you put if you just give. Rick put requirements around people but kind of help them with a wakeup call like I am seeing people all of a sudden automatically before March I in grocery stores with their bags ready to not utilize plastic and I think it's kind of exciting. Yeah and then I think about your collection and how long ago that was and how ahead of your time you were really and how perfect it is now. I mean these close. Look as amazing as they did. Then thank you yeah. It's pretty exciting. Natalie how do you approach marketing? How do you reach your customer? How you how your customers This is you know we can do a whole podcast. Just on this You know we have this conversation weekly in our in our studio you know. I think there's not one answer now. I mean I think the landscape is changing every week and every month and so we just in the same way that we're vigilant about. You know our issues of sustainability and keeping on top of our supply chain. We talk about marketing. The same way. you know. Eighty percents of our businesses direct to consumer. So that's pretty unusual. You know we were also. I guess pretty early on that Wagon of reaching out. And so you know we've had a journal and online journal or blog now for Fourteen years so it's been around for you know we've been doing storytelling for a long time and in for our listeners will put links to several of these things that we've talked about on the show into the show notes so you can just click the show notes below what you're listening to and get to the different websites for these things so we we make it easy. Just keep looking at the show notes so definitely that That outreach and that storytelling has been a big part of our marketing You know what's called a strategy but it seemed like kind of important to tell the story so I do think that you know to show end users. Why it's important to use organic cotton right to tell the story behind our farmers to You know I guess you know this. New Term Radical transparency You know I think we've been trying to practice that for a long time. Wouldn't necessarily call it radical about just. We've tried to be very transparent and sharing stories from our independent contractors sharing stories from our staff. You know showing how are pieces are made? I mean even writing books about how they're made and that sort of thing so that is definitely been part of how we communicate with our Guests You know we have a really lovely events programming so we have We have a little cafe and the in the factory and Do all kinds of dinners and invite people in we give tours every day at two o'clock so I mean you can anybody can show up any weekday two o'clock and get a beautiful tour through the factory and see where pieces are being made so You know all these things. Just come together. I guess you would call that. Our marketing plan is that sound like a direct business a combination of maybe they're finding your product and the beauty of your product online. And then they're coming to see it because some of the techniques when you see them in person are far more impactful than when you just see them online. So how do you bridge that? Yes Oh and we do You know like I said we give the tours every day at two o'clock I mean you'll just randomly Sundays have someone who's you know flung from Ireland to New York and headed to California but just wanted to stop by on the way and see what we're doing so Yes we do. Have a lot of people come and you're right. Photography sometimes doesn't Do the handwork justice but You know trying it on and holding it. There's nothing that beats that You know we have a We have great sales team that are really would call them our customer service for some in. Day just they love the company and the product so much so we have people who call and work with them over the phone and they send boxes out and You know they're just we're very hands on with all of our us because we believe that our pieces are made for a lifetime and so we want people to enjoy them for a lifetime so we want them to be thrilled with their purchase. And you know that's worked out for us because we have very very small return rate and You know our team always make it right and they wait they wait. I mean they have no issues with waiting for the product of remain. I mean do you know we we live in an ever? We're all ever more like where's my box. But yes oh some of the especially the handsome pieces can take you know four to six weeks or even more like we do quite a few wedding dresses and things like that and so some of the wedding dresses are very very elaborate and can take quite a long time to make you know. I think it will get used to it. And then they also know that it's custom made for them so in many cases it's the only one like that in the world right and so then you're worth waiting for it's worth waiting for so you know if someone orders even a simple rib t-shirt from our website. They can put in the notes that they want it to inches shorter and it's really fine for us. It's no trouble for us to make it two inches shorter for them. And so that's the kind of service that I think makes is very very different than what you might find and other similar companies. What's next for your company? You're always adding new things off your next. Well we're really working on figuring out how to celebrate our twenty year anniversary and project thread ways definitely become a very beautiful part of the work that we're doing We're we have a new book coming out in Fall of twenty twenty one to Sort of celebrate this twenty years and there was one other thing I wanted to talk. A- Oh this very wonderful thing is happening. That we're collecting our archives together. So twenty years of archives and working with an organization in the State of Alabama Alabama archives to come up with a way to preserve the the work of the company and hopefully You know in the coming years have a beautiful retrospective the work so as are all pretty big. Thanks rhyming wonderful well. I hope have a good fashion week here. And you get lots of sales thank you. It's been great already. And thank you guys for coming up the busy schedules. Thanks thanks for being here. Thank you thank you for listening to American fashion podcast on our website American fashion podcast dot com. You can find our be guest form as well as a sign up page for invitations to our live shows and new feature the archives with roughly two hundred fifty episodes published. The old shows don't fit our feet anymore. So we've made them available for a nominal fee. Please continue conversation online on twitter we're at AFP od and on Instagram. We are at American fashion show and I personally am at fashioned Tech Guru on just about everything for direct comments. Give us a call at six. Four six nine seven nine. Eight seven zero nine. That's our voicemail line or email info at American fashion podcast DOT com American fashion. Podcast is produced by Mouth Media Network which holds the copyright to this and all other episodes. All rights reserved subsist friends. Keep making things beautiful remain in force. I'm Charles Beckwith and we'll talk to you again next week. show. This is mouth media network audio for business.