Fashion's New Sweet Home ; Project Alabama Is One of a Raft of Clothing Designers Finding Success Far from the Coasts

By Teresa Mendez writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 24, 2006 | Go to article overview

Fashion's New Sweet Home ; Project Alabama Is One of a Raft of Clothing Designers Finding Success Far from the Coasts


Teresa Mendez writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


For a good hour, the drive from Birmingham to Project Alabama's design studio rips down a country highway. Flanked by ribbons of red earth and unharvested puffs of cotton, the road is straight, the speed limit 70. Finally, at hour three, it's a precipitous right turn at County Road 16. Then a left onto County Road 200.

And here you are, in front of a red-brick, ranch-style house, circa 1940 - the home of a label that turns out $15,000 designer dresses. It feels about a million miles away from where you'd expect a fashion headquarters to be - on Seventh Avenue in New York's fashion district. (In real distance: 1,020 miles.)

While there's no question that the coasts dominate American fashion, Project Alabama's Natalie Chanin, and a handful of designers like her, have found success in unexpected places in between.

Away from the din of New York and freer to turn inward for inspiration rather than grasping at the latest trend, these designers say they can hear their inner muses a little better. And by working in her hometown, it's easier for a designer like Ms. Chanin to look backward to her roots.

Chanin's story is one of a return home - to the South and this three-bedroom house that her grandfather built - to make clothes using the old-fashioned quilting techniques she learned from her grandmother and the skills of local seamstresses.

When asked if she thinks other designers are following suit, Chanin says: "I think there's a general trend, or movement, toward smaller cities."

Of course, there is already Billy.

Billy is menswear designer Billy Reid, his studio and flagship store just 12 miles down the road from Project Alabama. (Chanin and Mr. Reid like to say that Florence is a new "fashion mecca.")

Like Chanin, Reid has returned to his Southern roots and embraced an aesthetic as ingrained as his liquid drawl.

"Our collections have something to do with where we're from," he says. "So it was natural for us."

Born in Louisiana, Reid, even when he was working in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, says his clothes - the current line includes denim shirts, three-piece suits, and vintage handkerchiefs - have always been associated with the South.

After a promising career - which included beating out Sean "Diddy" Combs for a prestigious menswear award - was derailed by an industry downturn in the aftermath of Sept. 11, he and his wife moved to Florence, her hometown. Mainly, they wanted to raise their children in a small Southern town. "My wife and I both grew up that way," he says. Relaunching his label (billyreid.com) was secondary.

Chanin, on the other hand, returned home because she knew she could find skilled stitchers there. It was back in 2000 that Chanin designed her first shirt. She was living in New York, low on money, and looking for something to wear to a party. So she tore apart a mauve T-shirt and sewed it back together with a visible quilting stitch, like the one she'd learned from her grandmother, and embellished her creation with white applique and tiny beads from a vintage dress. It was a hit.

In New York, she couldn't find a manufacturer willing to take on such one-of-a-kind pieces, so she returned here.

Six women to make a dress

The Project Alabama house, with its pine floors, pink-tile bathroom, and yellow rotary phone hanging in the kitchen is abuzz with activity. …

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