A growing fashion movement has taken root in the northwestern Alabama town of Florence. Starting in 2006, Natalie Chanin's Alabama Chanin and its hand-sewn garments helped jump-start the slow-fashion movement, which pushes back against its opposite, fast fashion.
Chanin uses organic, Texas-grown cotton spun into yarn in North Carolina, knitted into fabric in South Carolina and dyed again in North Carolina. It's then hand-stitched and often appliqued by a pool of dozens of local Florence seamstresses using Southern rural techniques that leave her designs to dazzle in their simple, clean luxury. There is nothing here made quickly, to be worn briefly and thrown away.
"I give a lot of lectures and always ask, 'Imagine if you had to carry your clothes for the rest of your life and even on into eternity,'" she says. "That puts a whole other perspective of what you want to purchase and what you choose to wear. It's really learning to care about what you choose to put on your body."
With Earth Day coming up on Wednesday, we talked with her about slow fashion.
How do designers and customers slow the pace down?
Opting out of that fast pace of design and production is a very conscious choice. Producing more garments may mean that consumers buy more, but it can also mean clothing is being marked down and discarded in large quantities and put aside by consumers who are ready for the next thing. There's a definite relentless pressure on designers to keep up with the pace.
[Our] goal is to be a zero-waste company; to set high standards for good design, make everything as thoughtfully and responsibly as possible and do as little harm as we can along the way. We aim to be the opposite of fast fashion. Change will only come about when customers demand a more modest approach. We have to educate consumers about what this type of fast-paced consumption is doing to the world at large.
What is fast fashion doing to the world?
The short answer is we are all being harmed. Just look back a couple years ago to the horrifying building [collapse] at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, and we're reminded of the human cost of this type of consumption. Some consumers see this as a big-picture issue [like poverty] and not necessarily one that impacts them directly. But manufacturing processes, supply chain, choice of materials, fair wages, outsourcing labor to other countries — it's all something customers have the ability to change by their purchasing habits.
What steps can someone take to move toward a slower-fashion experience?
The experience of making something with your hands cannot be overestimated. Anyone who tries to make even the most basic garment gains some understanding of what it takes to make a finished product from a raw material. It adds value to every dress in your closet or T-shirt in your drawer. But those who are not inclined to make can begin by reading the tags on the items you own and the ones you plan to buy. When you begin asking those important questions — Where did this come from? Who made it? And how? — that's at least a good start. Once you have that information, it's up to you to make smart choices about what you buy, who you buy from and how often.
How have globalization and the Internet both fed fast fashion yet also helped expand slow fashion?
With the evolution of communication and commerce, it's easier for companies to get their message out and market their products quickly. The faster consumers learn about the newest fashions or developments, the faster they want to get them. And nothing can deliver as quickly as the Internet. It's the closest thing we have to instant gratification.
And on the flip side, this instant ability to gather information has helped slow fashion in that we have more transparency about where and how garments are produced, who we might be harming or helping. We can now also go directly and sell to customers all over the world. We [Alabama Chanin] have customers in Japan, Europe everywhere, though our base is definitely still the U.S.
What do you say to people who simply cannot afford the more expensive clothes that slow-fashion manufacturing creates?
Expense certainly comes into play when you talk about slow design and sustainable goods. It's inevitable. But, it is possible to shop smarter. I believe it's healthy for all of us to take a step back and ask ourselves questions about what we really need and what is really important. Higher-quality goods can be more expensive than goods made with inexpensive materials and methods in the short term; however, if you look at long term price-per-wear of each garment you almost always come out less expensive.
How did you address this price issue?
We try to address it by open sourcing our methods and materials, in hopes that people who cannot afford to buy our products will make them for themselves. It's also a form of education about the time and skill required to produce quality goods. Once you start to purchase investment pieces that last for years vs. a handful of wears, it becomes sensible. I'd suggest taking it one step, one garment, one organic tomato as it were, at a time.
Do you believe slow fashion can truly alter the way the fashion paradigm exists today?
It's really a matter of caring, and I think people do care about one another and about doing the right thing, but it's hard to care about every issue all of the time. Once people are educated about the specifics, they can choose to ignore them. But, the more people become aware, the harder those specifics are to ignore. That knowledge, and the social pressure that comes with it, is the stuff of fundamental change. I believe that consciously living life and making slower choices — whether it's for food, clothing or shelter — can change everything.