The CFDA/Lexus Eco-Fashion Challenge is created to celebrate designers who are also industry leaders in sustainable design. Competing designers are judged on their commitment to sustainability and responsible production, ethical sourcing of materials, transparent practices, as well as style. At the 2013 ceremony, held at New York’s ABC Kitchen, Natalie is awarded the $75,000 grand prize, while runners-up Mark Davis and SVILU’s Britt Cosgrove and Marina Polo are each awarded $5,000.
Judges for the challenge include Carmen Artigas, Julie Gilhart, Scott Mackinlay Hahn, Melissa Joy Manning, Lisa Smilor (entry below), Lindsay Talbot, and Amber Valletta.
Lisa Smilor is the Executive Vice President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and plays an integral role in the organization’s programs. From uplifting and awarding new designers, to supporting sustainability and social responsibility, for 25 years Lisa has strengthened the ecosystem within the fashion industry and cultivated opportunities for growth and excellence. Lisa and Natalie meet during her first run in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2005.
Kimry and Lisa’s conversation below took place via email—Lisa writing from New Jersey, and Kimry from New York City—on May 17th, 2021.
Kimry Blackwelder: What is your earliest memory of Natalie and/or Alabama Chanin?
Lisa Smilor: I remember when Alabama Chanin came onto the fashion scene – back then, it was called Project Alabama - and Natalie first applied for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. My initial visit to Florence, Alabama, was 16 years ago. Natalie and her team were working out of a small house at the time. I got a full immersion into the work-flow process of this very special company, which was steeped in Natalie’s apparent love of community, craftsmanship, storytelling and care for the planet. It felt like I had taken a step back in time, but the business model was absolutely revolutionary! In addition to a noteworthy tour of the county, from the cotton fields to the closed clothing factories, I had my first Alabama pulled pork sandwich, made with a unique white barbeque sauce…and I was hooked on this remarkable woman and her world.
KB: How do you think Alabama Chanin has impacted and/or influenced sustainability in the industry over the past 21 years?
LS: Natalie is a pioneer, and a respected leader in responsible business practices – from the method by which her team of “sewists” work, to her supply chain. I remember the year that Alabama Chanin won the CFDA/Lexus Eco-Challenge (2013), and Natalie shared that she would be using the prize money to buy seeds, as she had been speaking to a farmer in Texas about growing her own organic cotton.
KB: Do you have a favorite Alabama Chanin piece, collection, or collaboration? If so, why does this stand out to you?
LS: Each season is beautiful – the collections are wearable art. Many years ago, Natalie had a very memorable runway show during New York Fashion Week. She brought Alabama to the tents in Bryant Park and the models walked to a live musical performance by talented fiddlers. Regarding collaborations, the Reclaimed Down Scarves with longtime partner Patagonia are perfection!
KB: Do you have any fond memories or experiences during which you recall wearing Alabama Chanin?
LS: I have a (well-worn) Alabama Chanin x Billy Reid cut-out, hand-stitched “lobster” t-shirt that signals summertime. : )
KB: What do you feel is Alabama Chanin’s most enduring quality? We want to know what comes to mind first and what resonates with you.
LS: There is a story in each piece of Alabama Chanin. Natalie and her team keep a detailed log of every “hand” that contributes to the end result of each item. But this is not surprising, because Natalie is a natural born storyteller – she cherishes history and memories.
KB: As our industry evolves, what do you hope to see for the future? Where do you see Alabama Chanin in this vision?
LS: It is so good to see that responsibility in fashion is becoming an imperative – for brands and consumers. I believe that people are investing in fewer pieces that are made “better.” Alabama Chanin paved the way for this shift by offering timeless, long-lasting silhouettes.
KB: Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to Natalie or the Alabama Chanin team?
LS: Congratulations on reaching this milestone anniversary, Sister. You and your team should be so proud – you have been nothing but authentic and passionate every step of the way of your 21-year journey. Alabama Chanin is the best of true American fashion!
Learn more about the CFDA’s impact, initiatives, and programs here.
Slide 1: CFDA/Lexus Eco-Fashion Challenge booklet featuring Alabama Chanin, 2013, photograph by Robert Rausch
Slide 2: CFDA/Lexus Eco-Fashion Challenge overview, 2013, photograph by Robert Rausch
Slide 3: CFDA/Lexus Eco-Fashion Challenge selection committee, 2013, photograph by Robert Rausch