Some people, mostly from outside the South, honestly believe that while Nashville is now acknowledged as one of the nation’s fashion-forward cities, all that is due to coastal imports. We natives, meanwhile, probably haven’t much progressed beyond Ellie May Clampett or the cast of Altman’s Nashville with an unfortunate side of Gone With the Wind thrown in.
The reality is that the Mid-South region is producing abundant talents, native to the South, inspired by its aesthetics and influenced by the grander nature of American fashion history. Natalie Chanin, of Florence, Alabama, just across the Tennessee/Alabama border, exemplifies the best of all of it – Southern or otherwise.
About seven years ago, maybe closer to eight, at the time I’d kind of shifted my life priorities and started trying to make a living with this writing thing, I had the chance to make the short drive from Nashville down to Florence at the invitation of the incomparable Mr. Billy Reid.
I’d already been to Reid’s gorgeous atelier in Florence (worth the drive generally – go downtown, have a drink and take in some music at Nick Franks’ terrific On the Rocks or dinner at Ricatoni’s Italian Grill), and he’d invited me down for one of the early Alabama Adventure Weekends he sponsors with Chanin.
I didn’t know Natalie Chanin – “Alabama” as she’s known to friends – but round about sunset, this amazing woman, with a pair of the best vintage boots, a fantastic cotton coat, and a broad smile beneath a shiny mass of silver hair walked into the yard and the crowd was mesmerized. I got to speak with her briefly about sewing technique, and was simply blown away. I’m fairly sure we also talked about her husband and small daughter, her time as a stylist in Europe, but all I could think about was the sewing.
At the time Chanin was half of Project Alabama (a name since sold and no longer the same) and she’d turned a family member’s modest 1940s brick home nearby into her studio, employing a group of women who’d lost their jobs in the textile industry as it moved out of the Alabama (and the U.S.), retraining them to master the art of cutting and couture sewing to produce her exquisite garments. Hand couched, appliqued and embroidered, they were like nothing produced in the country anywhere.
I have a background in theatre costuming, and still sew prolifically; Chanin became a local heroine for me. I followed her career, watching as she split with her partner, reformed as Alabama Chanin, moved her workshop to a vast warehouse that became the most comfortable and homey of settings.
She set an example with her eco-conscious approach to fashion, repurposing and redyeing fabrics made in the U.S. of organic cottons, sometimes pairing with my incredible friends Ali and Sarah Bellos to experiment with natural dye techniques.
She reimagined how the creation of couture clothing could happen, working with independent stitchers from the area around Florence, and sending them off with packets of materials and patterns to create couture garments, and paying them for their work.
In the process of building her original business model, she started publishing books on her style and how to get it. Those of us who already had the know-how took her ideas and ran with them, turning a previous year’s spring linen coat from Banana Republic into an appliqued wonderland (or at least, that’s what I’m trying to do right now).
Chanin also started doing workshops, bringing her designs and patterns directly to anyone, beginner or experienced, who wanted to learn how to do it themselves.
This weekend, right here at The Hermitage Hotel downtown (231 Sixth Avenue N.) from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, you have the opportunity to discover exactly what I’m talking about. A fee of $475 (less than you’d pay for a couture garment by a long shot) gets you into the workshop, pays for materials, a catered lunch from the amazing Capitol Grill, and the chance to create a project of your choice based on Chanin’s original designs and patterns. That’s anything from a flowing skirt or flirty corset to kid’s clothes.
If you have the remotest interest in fashion, if you can hold a needle, do this. Chanin is a joy to speak with on any occasion. The chance to learn her techniques, from her, is outstanding.
Reservations may be made by contacting Alabama Chanin or the Hermitage Hotel, and at that time, you can choose patterns and materials. Email Alabama Chanin, firstname.lastname@example.org or contact the studio by phone (256) 760-1090. To get more info, call The Hermitage Hotel at (615) 244-3121. And you may download a pdf with more information.