- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

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, comes a precipitous right turn at County Road 16. Then a left onto County Road 200.

Then there 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 would expect a fashion headquarters to be, on Seventh Avenue in New York’s fashion district. (In real distance: 1,020 miles.)

Though there’s no question 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. By working in her hometown, Florence, Ms. Chanin says, she finds it easier to look backward to her roots.

Her story is one of a return home — to the South and a three-bedroom house 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, Ms. Chanin says, “I think there’s a general trend, or movement, toward smaller cities.”

Of course, there already is Billy.

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

Like Ms. Chanin, Mr. 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.”

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

He and his wife moved to Florence, her hometown, 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 the September 11 terrorist attacks. Mainly, they wanted to raise their children in a small Southern town.

“My wife and I both grew up that way,” he says.

Restarting his label (billyreid.com) was secondary.

Ms. Chanin, on the other hand, returned home because she knew she could find skilled stitchers there. She designed her first shirt in 2000. She was living in New York, low on money and looking for something to wear to a party. She tore apart a mauve T-shirt and sewed it back together with a visible quilting stitch, like the one she had 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.

The Project Alabama house, with its pine floors, pink-tile bathroom and yellow rotary phone hanging in the kitchen, is abuzz with activity. In every room, women are cutting and stitching recycled T-shirts. The label’s more intricate dresses can take six women up to three weeks to make.

Over a long-sleeve white waffle shirt, Ms. Chanin, many months pregnant, wears a black cotton dress of her own creation that was never meant to be maternity wear — it just stretches well. Her silver hair is pulled back, her smile is easy and warm as she gestures toward Faye Davis, the house’s cutter, who snips every piece of cotton by hand before it’s sewn back together.

The women such as Ms. Davis who make Project Alabama’s clothes are the “heart and soul of the company,” Ms. Chanin says. “Without their skill and craft, the company wouldn’t be here.” Each piece’s label is marked with the initials of the woman who stitched it; many take photos and keep scrapbooks of their work.

Ms. Chanin rents Project Alabama’s house from her aunt for just $500 a month. It’s another perk of working in a small town. She is relishing being back near the family from which she was separated for 22 years, first when she lived in Vienna and then in New York. She plans to plant a garden in the summer.

A similar relaxed lifestyle drew Lisa Kingsley of Fins Denim (finsdenim.net) back to Chicago from Los Angeles. Out her dining room window, which overlooks the Chicago River, she can see her boat and dock. “I have this very Zen, tranquil way to work,” she says. “I feel unencumbered.” She suggests that this freedom is reflected in her clean, sophisticated jeans, favored by Gwyneth Paltrow and Julianne Moore.

From her Midwestern base, Joy Teiken, creator of label Joynoelle (joynoelle.com), feels as if she’s in a cocoon. In Minneapolis, she says, “I can do my own thing the way I like — instead of chasing a trend.”

The unique perspectives that can come from working in the South or the heartland may also resonate in New York.

“I do think people really respond to a fresh point of view,” says Meenal Mistry, fashion news editor at W magazine.

Of course, there are challenges to working outside the industry’s epicenter — from smaller logistical hang-ups such as finding trim on short notice to difficulty attracting the attention of fashion editors and buyers. Project Alabama (projectalabama.com) made a splash last year with a Fashion Week debut. This year, there wasn’t money or time to put on a show.

Ms. Chanin’s business partner, Enrico Marone-Cinzano, is in New York, and she acknowledges that even just 20 years ago, without the Internet, overnight delivery services and affordable airfare, she would have had to be there, too.

Before the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement sent manufacturing jobs south of the border, Florence was a big textile town. The industry’s exodus left behind skilled textile workers — such as Ms. Davis with her 34 years of experience. Part of Project Alabama’s purpose is to help preserve their skills, sewing techniques that have been passed down through generations.

“It’s another step in keeping these traditional arts alive,” Ms. Chanin says.

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