May 20, 2010

Natalie Chanin's pearls (and appliqués) of wisdom

I'll be the first to admit that Alabama Chanin's aesthetic is, well, the polar opposite of my own. That said, I've long respected Natalie Chanin's innovative business model, and that's what she came to the Cooper-Hewitt last night to talk about. Once a designer for a juniors line, Chanin's life was changed by the horrors she witnessed at her company's factories in India. One factory was simply gushing dye into a river, where children downstream were drinking it.

The fashion industry is the dirtiest industry in the world, she says. But her own company is a shining example of why all the conventional wisdom on how to run a fashion business is wrong, and how by following her own moral compass, she's managed to turn her own company around, and turn a profit.

One example of her obstinacy relates back to yesterday's blog post subject, monetizing DIY. Given that her clothes are all hand-sewn and intricately embellished, her prices are unavoidably high; so she decided to make them more accessible by writing an instructional book, complete with patterns of her two most popular garments. Her friends told her she'd never sell another garment if she gave away her patterns and techniques; but in fact, the patterns led to a demand for fabric, and now a whole new branch of her business sells fabric (the same, South Carolina-produced organic cotton jersey she uses for her line) as well as pre-cut kits to make the clothes.

The kits were an easy leap to make because of her unusual production chain: instead of sewing in a factory, she creates the kits at headquarters to give to her skilled seamstresses, who then assemble them at home in what she calls a "cottage industry" model. After an investigation by the Department of Labor forbade her to pay them by the hour, because it violated existing labor laws, she and the government worked out a new model whereby the women became contractors, which meant they had to take on risk as a condition of possible profit. So Chanin began selling them the kits, and then would buy back the finished garments.

As she explains it, the investigation turned out to be a blessing in disguise: her worst sewers dropped off, leaving only the most skilled and efficient ones, and those made fewer mistakes, because they didn't want their finished products rejected. Consequently, she now produces the same amount of clothing with 30 sewers that she once did with 120.

The manufacturing becomes part of the design, says Chanin, and nowhere is that more visible than in her very handmade clothes, with their visible hand-stitching and dangling thread ends. (Personally, I think sewing machines were a great invention.) Yet the manufacturing is part of the design in other ways, too. Rather than design zero-waste patterns, she uses the fabric to its end, as she puts it, using the scraps left over from the clothes to create another segment of her business: pieces for the home. The even smaller scraps left over from the lifestyle pieces are rolled into bales that she currently uses as a couch in her headquarters, and hopes to use for a fashion show set someday.

In the meantime, her clothes are on view sans scrap bales at the Cooper-Hewitt's National Design Triennial and at the Museum at FIT's Going Green, which opens next week.

Photos via Alabama Chanin

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