In 2001, on a cold December Friday, Steven Smith shows up at the Project Alabama production office at Lovelace Crossroads. Wearing a suit and tie, Steven tells Natalie fondly about his history in textile plants, first working as a “bundle boy,” later in dye houses, and finally, supervising the sewing floor. Impressed, Natalie asks if he’d like to start work that day. Steven returns on Monday morning at 7:00am, and continues showing up every day for the next 16 years. He learns every aspect of the business, moving seamlessly from Project Alabama to Alabama Chanin, The Factory, and eventually getting his accounting degree to help run the business.
In 2016, Steven left Alabama Chanin to become the assistant football coach and bookkeeper for his high school alma mater.
The following interview with Steven was conducted by Katie Kooper of Alabama Chanin and Project Threadways on August 11th, 2021.
Alabama Chanin: What was your first role at Project Alabama?
Steven Smith: Everything. I was hired to do cutting and inspection, technically. But, at that time, it was just me and Natalie and one other lady who came in two days a week. Natalie would handle office things, but I would answer the phones when she couldn’t. It was just her and me, and we did everything.
When it was Project Alabama, the very beginning, we only used t-shirts, no other materials. Just recycled t-shirts. That was another thing I did—some days, I would load up and go to the Salvation Army in Tennessee, or anywhere else we could find t-shirts. We had a place in New York City that would collect them for us. When they accumulated enough to fill 5 very large boxes, they would send them to us. We’d unpack those boxes, separate the t-shirts by color, wash and dry them, take them upstairs, fold and organize them. After years of working with only recycled t-shirts, a lot of the pieces were getting too long or intricate to cut from the t-shirts alone, so we started using organic cotton.
AC: What brought you to Project Alabama?
SS: Before, I worked at Tee Jays. I worked there for about 5 years and was laid off in 2001. I went to the same church as a lady I had worked with at Tee Jays, and she told me about Project Alabama. She was a contractor who sewed for Natalie. I went and saw Natalie on a Friday evening, and I remember I wore a button up shirt and khakis. We sat and talked for twenty or thirty minutes. After that, she asked if I could start right then. I told her no, I was not dressed for work, but I would be there Monday morning. From that day forward, I worked there for 16 years.
AC: Where was Project Alabama located?
SS: A house in Central, Alabama where Natalie lived. She lived in a room at the back of the house, and we had an office in the front. We had another little bedroom that we called the Shipping Department. The dining room was the cutting room. We turned the back living room into another cutting room. We would pack shipments on the kitchen table. We worked wherever we could find a spot. We eventually rebuilt the carport and used that as a larger cutting room. If we could use a space, we used it.
AC: What is your earliest memory of working with Natalie or Alabama Chanin?
SS: I remember in the back of my mind thinking “Oh my gosh, this is crazy. This ain’t gonna work.” I imagined I would do this for a little while then find something else, because this wasn’t going to work. But, somehow, we managed to make it work. When Project Alabama closed, we started again from scratch. We did not have big investors; it was just me and her in that house. Natalie said, “If you work with me, I will work with you.” It was very slow in the beginning, and we slowly built things back up. We started Alabama Chanin in that same house on Lovelace Crossroads, but then we moved to the factory where Alabama Chanin is today—the same factory where I had worked when I was at Tee Jays.
In my time at Alabama Chanin, I was a production manager. I worked with sewing contractors. I cut the grass. I did everything but kill snakes. Natalie knew I was terrified of them. There was one instance where we were in the basement of the house—and when I say basement, it was like a ¼ of the height of the rest of the house and looked like a dungeon. At that time, it was where we did all of our stenciling and washing. One day we went down to the basement and I stenciled something, and Natalie and I were looking at it together when I saw a snake coming out of the rafters overhead. So, my instinct was to move anything in my way and take off running. In this case that was Natalie, so I pushed her in front of me and took off. Another lady, Diane Hall, who was working there took care of the snake.
AC: What is your favorite project that you worked on during your time with the company?
SS: We did a lot of different things for a lot of different people. Celebrity things. One year, we made the tree skirt for the White House. That was pretty neat. Another year, we did something with Nike. We had a Kobe Bryant replica jersey that we used, and I think it ended up in a museum. It’s funny, because a lot of people would get caught up in the “oh this is for so-and-so” mindset, but of course my approach was “let’s just get it done, best price, best quality, doesn’t matter for who, let’s just get it done.” That was the difference between me and a lot of the people we worked with throughout the years. A lot of people who came to work with us at that time thought it was about rainbows and butterflies. I thought, “No, we have to work. We have to get things done on a timeline and for a fair price.” We had a ton of press in magazines and newspapers, people coming to film. It was funny, we had big names coming in like Vogue, and they’re like, “This is it? Really? You are working out of a brick house...” Yeah, that’s what we are doing. I think it intrigued a lot of people. I think they thought we were in a big building with all of this money and glamour because of what we were making, and who we were making it for. But that wasn’t so. We were just simple, hard working people trying to get it done.
One of the things I admire about Natalie—she’s a fashion designer, but she drove a Taurus, made her dinner, washed her own clothes. She’s just like everyone else. That’s probably why we got along so well. We knew we had to get things done, and we got it done. And we did it together. The whole time I worked with Natalie we had a bond. She was my boss and my teammate. Through the years there were times where she would get so mad at me that she couldn’t see straight. And other times that I would get so mad at her, I couldn’t see straight. But at the end of the day, we knew we had the company’s best interest at heart. We really had each other’s best interest at heart. I don’t think we ever left feeling hateful. Never any hard feelings. We worked so well together. We were always honest with each other.
AC: How did you see Alabama Chanin grow?
SS: When we were Project Alabama it was very small, very low key. Then it grew to the point where we were doing a lot of business and a lot of work.
We started the program with our contracted sewers—they had their own business licenses and would bid on a project, take it home and sew it for the agreed-upon price, and return it for inspection. It was a lot of paperwork and figuring out this new way of running a business. Then we had to rebuild everything. We weren’t Project Alabama anymore, we were Alabama Chanin. Under Alabama Chanin, we started the café, the store, and machine-manufacturing in Building 14. I helped start the machine-sewing program because I had a background in it. I remembered the people who were installing our machines from my time at Tee Jays. At one point, I ran production in Building 14. I helped assist the café guests. I helped oversee the store and inventory. I had a hand in all of it. This whole organization began so small—just needles, thread, and a few recycled t-shirts. And then, just like that, we were also machine-sewing, feeding guests, running a storefront.
AC: What did you enjoy most in working with Natalie and Alabama Chanin?
SS: I enjoyed production more than anything else. I don’t need to be seen or heard—I want to make sure things get done. I don’t have time to have my name in the paper. I was notorious for not wanting to be in pictures. I never imagined it would grow like it did. It was a lot of work and we didn’t have huge investors throwing money at us, but we always found a place to land.
My proudest moments were the hard times we found our way through. Natalie always found some way to do it. I always told her, “Look, if it was easy, everybody would do it.”
AC: What do you hope to see for the future of Alabama Chanin?
SS: I want to see it continue. Periodically, I’ll check the website. I know people who still work there and always ask about them. I want the best for Natalie. We did so much with so few people. Natalie helped keep me on track. Show up, even when you don’t feel like it. Do what you have to do.
AC: Do you miss Alabama Chanin and textile work in general?
SS: I do. I always joked that the only way I would leave is if the University of Alabama called and wanted me to coach football. When Project Alabama closed, I had an opportunity to go back to school. I told Natalie, and she encouraged me to do it. I remember she said, “Go back to school and work for me when you can.” I went to school full-time, worked 40 hours a week for her, and started Alabama Chanin. I was able to finish my degree in accounting because of her.
Years later, I had an opportunity to coach and take a bookkeeping job at the school I attended, close to my home. I’m still here today and, as long as I don’t mess anything up, I won’t leave. The lady before me was here for 25 years. My sons went to school here, and my wife works here. It tore me up to leave, and I cried when I told Natalie, which I never do. I did not want to let her down. But it was the best opportunity for my family, and I always wanted to coach.
When I left, I worked at the school all day and worked at Alabama Chanin all night training the people who would be there after me.
Slide 1: “Be a Steven” pin, circa 2016, photograph by Robert Rausch; “Flair” like this pin would often be passed out in celebration of employee’s hard work and achievements