Nicole and Natalie met for the first time in 2002, when Nicole covered new designers at Elle magazine. Nicole goes on to build an illustrious career in fashion, moving from Elle to Style.com and, eventually, to Vogue where she is currently the director of Vogue Runway.
The conversation below was hosted by Kimry Blackwelder via zoom and recorded on March 31st, 2021 during the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic—with both calling in from New York City. We’re grateful to Kimry and Nicole for taking the time to talk about the history of Alabama Chanin and Natalie’s work in her hometown in northwest Alabama.
Kimry Blackwelder: What is, or what was your earliest memory of Natalie and/or Alabama Chanin, Project Alabama?
Nicole Phelps: It must have been one of the very first projects she did. She had a business partner from Italy. They were together in New York showing off these incredible t-shirts that were upcycled and reworked with reverse appliqué. First of all, they were a very striking pair; although, I don't think they were a couple. Even then Natalie must have been very young, she had that striking platinum hair. Fashion was a really different industry at that time. It was very focused on the four fashion capitals. American designers were based in New York so the idea that we were meeting Natalie, and she was from Alabama was quite unique. Add on the fact that she was upcycling 20 years ago; I don't think the term was even in use at that time. She was using found materials to create these one-of-a-kind, collectible, very cool t-shirts, and we were very happy to write about it at Elle.
KB: Because no one was doing it, it's so wild. How do you think Alabama Chanin has impacted or influenced sustainability in the industry over the past 20 years?
NP: My second encounter with Natalie was watching her move through the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund several years later (learn more here). It was 2005 and she was a real outlier—making a kind of crafted fashion that, certainly, very few or none of her peers in that class of finalists was doing. Fashion at the time was really focused on cocktail dressing and making a kind of dress that Michelle Obama would go on to wear. It was very polished and manufactured in a specific way, whereas Natalie's fashion was always much more artisanally made. It was very obvious that many hands touched her garments or if not many hands, the same pair of hands for many hours. She was absolutely a pioneer in opening up a lot of fashion insiders' eyes to the possibility of working more sustainably. But even more than sustainability, what is important, which feels really relevant about her now, is that it feels like a new generation is being turned on to craft—partly because of the pandemic and partly because we're all burnt out from our digital lives. She has always been a designer who championed the artisanal and the work of hand crafters, and, I think, most of them women.
KB: Yes. They’re a majority of women still. Do you have a favorite piece or a favorite collection of hers or a collaboration?
NP: Certainly. The piece I have from my first time meeting her...the fact that I have it 20 years later. It doesn't fit me anymore, but I've always held on to it because it's a symbol of that time….my 20s, in New York, and my early days in fashion. And because it’s not just something you would throw away. It has a certain value to it because of the way it was hand-stitched. I'm only looking at the Vogue runway because there's one collection. I remember the collection that she did when she was in the Fashion Fund.
KB: Was that 2009?
NP: No, I believe it’s Spring 2006, which we have on the site at Vogue. This Spring 2006 collection is the couture elaboration of all of that work that I saw her doing the first time I met her. The workmanship on these pieces could come from Paris. It's so very beautiful. But there's also a sort of a humbleness to it that renders it unique.
NP: Look at how great this dress is.
KB: And do you have any fond memories of when you were wearing your t-shirt, in those young New York days?
NP: I guess associated it a little bit with September 11, for some reason. It's an eagle and a signifier of America. I can't remember exactly when she came to town, if it was before September 11 or after. But whenever I see it in my bottom drawer—where I keep a few other very special shirts from 20 or so years ago—it reminds me of that time. That was the very early 2000s, which is interesting because having looked at the runways recently, a lot of the trends that you saw—less on the runway, but more amongst celebrities—are really starting to come back. There's a bit of a full-circle moment.
KB: Exactly, exactly. It's think that was the year 2002. And, I believe you touched upon this, but what would your most memorable encounter or experience with the brand be?
NP: I really regret never going to one of those “shindig-y” things. Didn't she and Billy Reid once host get togethers? I regret not going down to Florence.
KB: Well, she’s doing more, so you're going to have the opportunity. Especially, post-COVID.
NP: I regret not not going down there. Natalie and I don't see each other that often, but when we do, it always feels really good, because she is such a tender, warm soul. But also, we have that shared memory from 20 years ago. It's nice to tap into those memories from time-to-time and remember your younger, more naive, and optimistic selves.
KB: Exactly. What do you feel is Natalie or Alabama Chanin's most enduring quality? And, or what comes to mind first that really resonates with you about the brand and her?
NP: About Natalie, personally, I think of her as someone with a lot of warmth. I don't know that many southerners, and so I'm always struck by that southern warmth and southern charm when I do encounter someone like that. She's very thoughtful. She's a very soft person. I'm sure she's very hard and very strong in her own ways, but I think of her as a very soft, tender person.
KB: Very endearing, and...
NP: Yes, and in terms of her brand, and the fact that it was called Project Alabama for a while...As she's professionalized and become an employer for a lot of people in Alabama, I still think of her as sort of the “anti.” She's very anti-corporate, and in my mind, and, for someone who’s reporting daily on and absorbing information about the world's biggest brands... to encounter a project like Natalie’s collection, to have a meeting with her, to learn about, what she's doing is to encounter an individual narrative. She's got her own narrative, she's telling her own story and creating her own pathway. She’s intersecting with fashion but not every season and from time to time, and it's always relevant. Well, I guess what I’m trying to get at is that this is the crux of this project that's coming together about the 21 years. A year or two ago, there was an article in The New Yorker, written by this guy named Nathan Heller, who's a contributor to Vogue as well. It was about cars and about the early days of automobiles and how there were two different kinds of cars. There was the combustion engine, and there were electric cars. And Nathan was writing about how, 100 or so years later, we're moving back towards electric cars, because we see the havoc that combustion engines have wrought. They have basically created climate change, along with a couple of other important impacts. And so the idea of the article was, what if the electric car had been the thing that Ford championed, and the world was just full of electric cars for the last 100 years? How different the world would be. And I think, what if you could make that about fashion? What if fashion was less about industry, industrialization, and capital, and we had more Natalies and more businesses that are run like hers? What if workers rights, and compensation, and quality of life, are all considered? What if handwork is championed? You know, the industry could be much different than it is.
KB: Now, that is a great story though. And so true.
NP: Natalie is the electric car of the fashion world. I'm glad she's still around. Too bad we didn't learn more from her along the way. It's taken us 20 years as an industry to absorb some of the lessons that she was trying to teach 20 years ago.
KB: Exactly. And that really leads us to, as the industry evolves, which you were talking about, what do you hope to see for the future? And where do you see Alabama Chanin in that vision?
NP: I've really felt even before the COVID crisis, the COVID pandemic, that the 2020s were going to be that decade of independence, as in, “d-e-n-t-s.” That—no, even before being locked down for a year turned us all into at-home crafters—that the young people were responding to smaller brands with a lot of heart and soul and I realized that this is just one narrative among many in fashion, but it's a narrative that really resonates with me, because I too feel like I want to support the little guy and the little girl or whatever the equivalent is. It just feels better to invest in clothes that you know the person who made it. I like the idea of the end product, or the person who conceived of the product being very close to the end product, like there's not 25 layers in between. It just seems to me that because of our digital lives, we all want more—more heartbeats, more tangibility somehow. And in a lot of ways, I've found fashion to become very corporatized and cold. A lot of high fashion looks like it's come off of an assembly line in a way and so, so again…
KB: So manufactured.
NP: Right, exactly. I feel like she's been around for 20 years, but it could be that the next 10 years are her biggest and best yet, because, I think, culture is catching up to what she's practiced for for a long time.
KB: Exactly, exactly. And is there anything, as we wrap the conversation, that you would like to say to Natalie and her team as they celebrate? 20 years. It’s wild. It’s been 20 years.
NP: Congratulations, for persevering. And for being a pioneer, and I'm very happy to know you.
Read all of Nicole Phelps' articles for Vogue here.
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Read Nicole’s review of the Project Alabama Spring 2006 Ready-To-Wear show at Bryant Park here.
Slide 1: Nicole Phelps’ son, Nik, in her beloved Spring/Summer 2002 Project Alabama “Eagle Shirt,” 2021, New York City, photograph by Nicole Phelps
Slide 2: 21 Years stencil featuring the original Eagle design, 2021, photograph by Robert Rausch
Slide 3: Re-release Eagle Shirts by Alabama Chanin, 2021, photograph by Robert Rausch
Slide 4: Eagle Shirt, Spring/Summer 2010, Lily Rausch and Zach Chanin at the Reservation Homes, Florence, Alabama, photograph by Robert Rausch; Eagle Shirt, Fall/Winter 2002, L’Hotel, Paris, 2002, photograph by Gili Chen
Slide 5: Eagle Shirt, Fall/Winter 2002, worn by Maximilian Rave at L’Hotel, Paris, 2002, photograph Gili Chen; Early Alabama collection shirt with appliqué beaded Eagle, 2001, photograph by Natalie Chanin
Slide 6: Alabama catalog cover featuring a color photocopy of the “Eagle Shirt,” photograph by Robert Rausch