Natalie Chanin
Credit: Rinne Allen; Hair and Makeup Styling: Rachel Holder

Twenty years ago, designer Natalie Chanin moved from New York back to her hometown of Florence, Alabama. "When I returned, I found that a lot of people were no longer doing these hand sewing techniques that had been ubiquitous in our region and my community in particular," says the founder of Alabama Chanin. "It felt like a dying art." Fixed on preserving her hometown's textile traditions, she placed an ad in the paper calling for area sewers and quilters to work on a project featuring hand-sewn T-shirts. "It wasn't really even planned for it to be a collection. I thought it would be a onetime thing," Chanin says of what she then called Project Alabama. "Two decades later, we're still here."

Like the cotton that's used in her locally made garments, the growth of Alabama Chanin has been organic. The sustainable-fashion line she founded in 2000 is now a family of businesses that includes The Factory, which is open for tours and houses the flagship store and a cafe; The School of Making, an educational arm that offers workshops and DIY sewing kits; and as of last year, Project Threadways, a nonprofit that explores the South's complicated textile history.

While it may seem obvious that the designer's all-encompassing approach is the driving force behind Alabama Chanin's thoughtful growth, she says the company's longevity still sometimes surprises her. "You don't notice huge accomplishments in the everyday, but when you look back over a period of time, you begin to see it take a different shape," says Chanin. "We showed up every day, we did good work, we stuck to our mission, and we've carried on." Here, the designer shares her hopes for the future.

A Lesson I Learned from My Grandmothers

"I grew up with the sense that anything could be made. There were very few store-bought items in my grandparents' closets. The ones that were purchased were kept for a really long time. They updated and altered things. I got a sense from them of my ability to shape the world around me."

What I'm Teaching My Teenage Daughter about Sustainability

"I'm trying to help my own daughter understand the concept of price per wear: How many times are you going to use a piece? And if it's only once, what's the cost of it? If you're going to wear it 100 times, what's the price for each use? You know, the overall investment goes down substantially when you commit to wearing something more."

Why I Appreciate Simplicity

"Our clothing is made from cotton jersey, which is essentially a T-shirt material. It's the humblest of all fabrics, in my opinion, but we do beautiful embroidery on top of it. The cuts of our clothes are simple too. We normally don't have super complex patterns on the garments where we apply the design because we believe the embroidery work should be the thing that stands out most. There's a sense of letting each part of the product be strong in and of itself."

My Hope for the Next Two Decades

"Our team keeps talking about how we've been defining sustainability for 20 years, and I love that. We hope not only for sustainability in the products that we make but also to focus on building a business that will carry on into the future."