March 1, 2008
A former New York designer returns home to create a unique partnership with gifted local artisans.
Project Alabama, the couture line hand-stitched by a network of women in that state, ultimately failed for the very reason it had succeeded. “We had artisans working in their own homes, and that’s quite a labor issue,” says Natalie Chanin, who started the business as a way to employ skilled locals when she returned to her hometown of Florence, Alabama, from New York in 2000. Six years into the operation, Chanin discovered that to work legally out of their homes the women had to meet the federal definition of “business owners,” which meant having the possibility of both profit and loss. “It wasn’t a substantial enough investment,” she says. “All they needed was a pair of scissors, needles, and a good light.”
Because the women weren’t interested in working in a centralized facility as employees, the designer was forced to shutter Project Alabama in September 2006, but she opened her latest venture, Alabama Chanin, the next day. Now making housewares and jewelry as well as clothing, she continues to work with 35 artisans by selling the women raw materials and buying their finished products. “They purchase a kit that has everything they need to make a garment for, say, Barneys,” she explains. “They take that package to their home, office, or car—wherever it’s convenient to sew. They set the price for what it costs to make the item.” There’s a bonus to the higher entry threshold: Chanin now deals with each seamstress personally rather than relying on group leaders from surrounding communities. “I’m just as proud of this system as I am of the designs we do.”