Sally Singer and Natalie meet for the first time in 2001, when both are living at the Chelsea Hotel. A decade after their first meeting, Sally gives Natalie the most beloved compliment of her career. During the 2009 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Show at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, Sally leans in and tells Natalie, “You are the American Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons.”
Sally and Kimry Blackwelder share email correspondence on March 28th, 2021 to reflect on Alabama Chanin’s history and 21 years of Natalie’s work in northwest Alabama.
Kimry Blackwelder: What is your earliest memory of Natalie and/or Alabama Chanin?
Sally Singer: I first met Natalie in the early 2000s when I was living at the Chelsea Hotel. She was staying with a fellow named Paul on the 4th floor of the hotel; I think Paul (who may or may not have been her partner in Project Alabama at that time) was buddies with a fellow named Steve (who may or may not have been a permanent resident of the hotel some of the time). Everything at the Chelsea was invariably vague and sketchy.
I think this was during New York Fashion Week, and Natalie was in town to meet buyers with her collection of reworked vintage tee shirts. I found her in the lobby, if I recall. She just had the coolest stack of reverse appliquéd and beaded rocker tops I had ever seen: deliciously worn in, really well cut (slouchy but boyish, very sexy), and with such beautiful handwork. I just wanted everything.
Of course they were insanely expensive.... Because that’s how it is when you pay people fairly and make work meaningful, and do things properly. These were luxurious items made by the women of Florence, Alabama. And Natalie was bringing their work to market with such grace and cool. I fell in love with her that day—she had (and has) a dazzling presence. She was this rock-and-roll mom of a teenager, who’d lived in Berlin, and was now reinventing the southern garment industry. What a privilege to meet such a figure! And in the lobby of my wacky/asinine home!
KB: How would you describe the impact of work on the fashion industry?
I think that Natalie has always stood for the values that the fashion industry is only now beginning to embrace: upcycling, organic textiles, transparent production, handcraft. She has held to her values and shown a way forward with consistency and forbearance.
KB: There is so much work to dissect over the years; but, do you have a favorite piece?
SS: My favorite piece is a chocolate brown and rose tee from that early meeting. My favorite collection was the runway show Natalie staged in 2005 when Project Alabama was a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund prize. She showed all her tried-and-true silhouettes—those fit and flare dresses and tie waist jackets—but everything had such polish, especially in navy and black. It was lovely to see American handcraft on a New York runway and worn so beautifully.
KB: What are your fondest memories or experiences with Natalie?
SS: One of my favorite memories with Natalie was when she hosted a sewing circle at the East Village Standard Hotel during New York fashion week. I remember spending an afternoon sewing with a group of women I had never met before and just letting time pass slowly. It was one of the happiest afternoons I have ever spent in New York.
KB: What would you say is the most enduring quality of this work?
SS: I think Natalie Chanin’s most enduring quality is love—for family, community, women, the planet. She treats everyone and everything properly. That’s so rare.
KB: Where does this go in the future?
SS: I think the fashion industry is finally waking up to the values and practices that Natalie has championed for two decades. I hope they move quickly; we don’t have much time.
KB: Finally, is there anything you'd like to say to Natalie or the Alabama Chanin team in celebration of their 21 years?
SS: Natalie and team, I am so honored to know you and to be part of this celebration of your work. I love the sewing kits, the clothes, the home vision, everything you guys touch and how you touch it. Thank you.
Slide 1: Sally Singer in her home in the Lower East Side of New York City, wearing Natalie’s Pullover, photograph by Peter Stanglmayr (Sally’s lovely wallpaper, "Swan Lake," Nina Campbell for Osborne and Little)
Slide 2: Early hand-sewn “Alabama” t-shirts, 2001, photograph by Natalie Chanin
Slide 3: Alabama collection catalog, featuring a color photocopy of the “Rose Shirt,” 2001, photograph by Robert Rausch
Slide 7: Sally Singer at Makeshift DIY sewing event at The Standard Penthouse, 2012, photograph by Peter Stanglmayr
Thank you to Steve Willis for the brief, but poignant, Alabama collection home in 409 and 411 at the Chelsea Hotel. And hugs to all the Chelsea Hotel team, especially Stanley, who put up with the shenanigans (and deliveries).