Natalie “Alabama” Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin. Her designs for hand-sewn garments constructed using quilting and stitching techniques from the rural south have been lauded for both their beauty and sustainability. Natalie has a degree in environmental design from North Carolina State University and travels the world to lecture on slow design, sustainability, and cultural preservation. You can hear more from Natalie about connecting your business to your community at the Hello Etsy conference in Berlin this coming weekend!
I’ve often described my creative journey as “falling off a cliff,” yet thinking about it recently, I’ve realized— to my great surprise — that my journey has actually been quite linear. I went from design school, to working in the fashion industry, to styling, and then back to fashion with Alabama Chanin. It is unlikely that I would have appreciated how direct my path has been if I hadn’t been asked to reflect upon my journey. Thanks to a few flight delays, day-long drives, and long afternoons spent gardening, I’ve been able to spend some quality time reflecting upon the events of my past. Sometimes it takes a little time to gain perspective.
I am incredibly proud of my company, my amazing team, and everything we’ve accomplished in the past decade. When things are running smoothly in our studio (as has happened once or twice in the ten years since we opened our doors), I feel an unrivaled sense of calm and satisfaction. However, it is the creative chaos, the phones that ring (but cannot be found), the revolving cast of friends and clients, and the unwavering support of my family that are much more invigorating and make me understand that my path has been the right one — for me.
However organized I am in our daily workings, recognizing my original lack of planning (and business understanding) for Alabama Chanin makes me an unlikely candidate to suggest a plan to someone else. And honestly, I would be the last to recommend that you follow any path that is not of your very own design. Instead I would prefer to share a few truths that I have found to be nearly indisputable:
Always, always follow your heart. Even if things don’t turn out exactly as you had planned, you will have far less regret if you do what you feel is right. (And sometimes you will find that the result is much better than your original plan.)
Run towards fear. Deal with things that intimidate you. Confronting challenges is essential and beneficial, and becomes easier with practice.
Do what is right – not just what is easy. Alabama Chanin’s commitment to organic materials and environmentally sound practices often results in painstaking searches and higher overhead. But our values are important and well worth the extra time, energy, and money. We have found that our clients feel the same.
Take time to recharge — creativity must be nurtured. We are not machines, nor are we capable of producing without rest or reward; besides, who would want to? If you push yourself too hard, you are more than likely to be met with diminishing returns.
Cutting corners rarely saves time in the long run. Anyone who has ever sewn a seam that didn’t survive the wash, ruined dinner because there wasn’t time to pre-heat the oven, or has painted a wall six times because they skipped the primer knows this already. Often, omitting what seems like an “unnecessary” step results in the addition of three more. Do it right the first time.
Quality is its own testament. Quality takes time. Quality is not disposable. Clients who value beauty and craftsmanship will become your loyal supporters.
Create what you think is beautiful, not what you think will sell. Take pride in your work and celebrate your unique point of view. That is the difference between art and consumerism.
Produce locally and spread the love. Others in your community will follow suit. Building relationships within your community is one of the most beneficial and rewarding steps you can take.
Love your thread. Understand your materials and everything about them. The greater your knowledge of the tools you use, the more effective your efforts will be. Explore new approaches, and listen to suggestions.
Stop, look, and listen. There will come a time in any designer or entrepreneurs’ life when you just don’t know what to do. In a situation like this, stop, look, and listen.
Get a good accountant (and an understanding of QuickBooks). Although this is not a particularly romantic notion, it is a very necessary one. At the end of the day, cash flow matters and your time has value.
Share and play well with others. All of the techniques and information necessary to recreate Alabama Chanin garments are contained in our Alabama Chanin Design Series. My decision to open source our techniques was thought to be a folly by many industry insiders. Three books later, our collection is still in demand and the demand for our DIY kits, fabric, and notions has been incredible.
Keep calm and carry on. Every business will have trying times. These are words to live by.
Can't make it to the Hello Etsy conference in Berlin this weekend? Be sure to check out satellite events happening across the U.S. as well as DIY summits all over the world, and of course, the universal gathering of our Online Labs.