You may have read recently about dear friend, advisor, and co-worker, Jennifer Rausch. As I recounted then, I have known Jennifer and her husband, Robert, since returning to Alabama. After moving home from New York (and after years abroad), I felt a little shy and out of place in my own hometown. It was a relief when Robert reached out to me, seeking artistic alliances. We were both looking for a relaxed camaraderie—someone to relate to in a somewhat unfamiliar world. After years of friendship and collaboration, we have Southern roots, design, sustainability, and family in common.
In those early days, Robert approached me and asked if I would speak to his university photography class about living and working as a fashion and photography stylist. Shortly thereafter, we became fast friends. It wasn’t long before Robert was helping me with projects for my first company. And since those early days, he has been a part of designing and creating images and photographs for the Alabama Chanin website, catalogs, the Studio Book series, and any number of other materials. We have co-hosted dinners, picnics, and events together over the years. We have raised kids, shared a dog, and talked design.
In 2002, Robert bought and restored a historic building in our community, which is now called GAS Design Center. He shares a deep love of sustainability and healthy living and this was evident in his approach to renovating the space and building the business. Every reusable board was repurposed and natural elements were invited in whenever possible. Natural light is perfectly harnessed in the GAS photography studio, to often-breathtaking effects. In fact, our first Alabama Chanin Workshop was held in Robert’s repurposed space—a comfortable place to launch what was then an intimidating venture for Alabama Chanin.
If you have purchased an Alabama Chanin garment or DIY kit in the last year or so, there is a chance that the fabric in your hands was also touched by Carra-Ellen Russell. Carra-Ellen is our Production Manager and is present at the beginning of most of the things that we make; she starts each garment and kit on its journey by cutting them and passing them along to the next phase. Pieces come back to her once they have been painted, where she helps package them with the proper notions and supplies to be given to one of our stitchers or to be shipped as a DIY kit.
Carra-Ellen came to us about a year-and-a-half ago, through the suggestion of our Director of Design and Special Services, Olivia. As we were growing and looking for well-organized team members, Olivia reached out to her friend, asking her to apply to be part of our production staff. Her transition into our staff happened quite naturally after that; she says that working at The Factory was meant to be.
Each morning, when the rising sun (or my daughter) wakes me and I open my eyes, I begin to go over my plan for the day. This is a treasured time. Some days, I can’t wait to get going and the day’s tasks are joyous and fruitful; other days, work just feels like…work. Last summer, as I was writing a vision plan for Alabama Chanin, it became evident that having a solid team in place – a team that had the talent and the desire to carry out that vision – would be essential. Now, when I look around, I see that our team members are creating strong relationships that are enhancing our work environment and also enriching their personal lives.
History shows that workplace teams spark one another’s creativity and create long-lasting work. Colleagues Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind the fashion label Rodarte, create some of the most original pieces each season. The New Yorker wrote that, though they have their differences, the sisters “act like a single organism,” which speaks to their specific communication skills. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, known by music lovers as “The Swampers”, created such a successful working relationship that they became business partners and founded a storied recording studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Charles and Ray Eames are among the most important American designers of the last century. He studied architecture; she studied painting and sculpting; together they not only influenced the rise of modernism, but developed innovative ways of using materials and were champions of computer technology in design.
Alabama Chanin has always aimed to make products that will last a lifetime – even multiple lifetimes. We create things that are both beautiful and durable and we embrace the ideas of Slow Design. But, once upon a time, Slow Design did not exist as a theory or a process; rather, it was simply how things were made. Those that were fluent in “The Living Arts” knew how to make things – food, clothing, shelter, etc. – and they didn’t want to make them more than once, unless they had to. Durability was necessity. Craftsmen and women were born out of requirement. But, often those craftsmen became so skilled that their products were, quite simply, art. Their creations that remain behind and are passed along—heirlooms—still hold meaning.
For some, the word “heirloom” brings to mind a valuable painting or, perhaps, an antique necklace. Certainly both of those things qualify; but, as part of a new series on the Journal, we want to highlight some of our own personal heirlooms – things that are valuable to us on a personal level, regardless of their financial value. As always, we want to celebrate the things that last, the things that we choose to keep in our lives, the things that we assign meaning to, on a personal level.
The blanket above rested on an upstairs bed at my Grandmother Perkins’s—called Gram Perkins—house for as long as I can remember. In my mind, it belonged to my uncle, but I’m not absolutely sure. The upstairs of my grandparents’ home was completed when my mother was already in high school (although they had lived in the house for many years, starting in the basement and building up as they could afford). In the upstairs, there were rooms for each of the four children. The older children were already in college by the time it was finished, so my uncle, the youngest sibling, spent the most time in the space and, though all of the bedrooms were filled with things, his room felt the least “empty.”
Shortly after my move from New York to Alabama, I was sitting alone at our local Italian restaurant, reading magazines. After a while, a couple who’d been sitting across the room approached and introduced themselves to me. That couple, Jennifer and Robert Rausch, quickly became fixtures in my life; they’ve remained integral members of my Alabama family since that day.
These days, you can find Jennifer overseeing the day-to-day operations of the new flagship store and café at The Factory. She agreed to work with us at just the right time. The company was growing and I needed someone I could trust to help me make decisions that were thoughtful and confident. Growing a company can make one feel vulnerable; having an old friend there for support (especially one with an incredible work ethic) put me a bit more at ease.
She moves effortlessly between tasks and has a real desire to connect with everyone who walks through our door. This genuine approach, coupled with her wicked, infectious laugh, drew me to her initially and continues to make me smile, calm me, and draw me out of my shell when I become too introspective. She is practical and doesn’t hesitate to offer her opinion, even to play devil’s advocate in tough situations.
A former business partner of mine once wrote a press release that stated our company “came from nowhere.” When I read that “came from nowhere” years ago, my stomach began to turn and, honestly I was a little angry and my feelings were a bit hurt. That sentence seemed to imply that our work was effortless and my business was created magically, without the pains of labor. It certainly didn’t feel to me like I came from nowhere.
Who was talking about me working my way through design school with a four-year-old child, on a wish and a prayer? Who talked about years of working day-in-day-out? Who knew that, in the beginning, I often worked alone, in a basement full of cave crickets and the occasional 6-foot snake? Those were important moments in the life of our company. Ignoring those moments makes our accomplishments seem less important. Nothing comes from nowhere.
“We are happy when we are growing.”
- William Butler Yeats
The Factory has been home to the Alabama Chanin design and production studio since 2008 and over the years has hosted workshops, events, and dinners. The space is filled with books, music, and the hum of making. Now, we are expanding The Factory to include a full-service café, serve as Workshop headquarters, and house the Alabama Chanin store.
If you visit our studio here in Alabama, you will arrive to find that we are housed in a sturdy, industrial-style, metal building which we call “The Factory.” Our community was, for generations, home to textile mills that employed an incredible number of area residents. This industrial building where we work and spend hours of our lives has seen thousands of workers pass through the doors over the years; it has heard the hum of machines running and the voices and laughter of employees passing the day away. This building is part of Alabama Chanin’s history, but, more importantly, it is part of our community’s history—a symbol of economic boom, hard times, and community rebuilding.
As the Alabama Chanin team rushes around Manhattan with our new collection during New York Fashion Week, it is impossible not to remember this day twelve years ago. Twelve years of healing is not long enough. For most of us, this day will remain very personal for the rest of our lives. And yet, a dozen years is time enough for a new generation to grow up largely uninformed or dispassionate, if only because our reality has become a story to them, a tale, the way Pearl Harbor has become, to many, a history lesson and a bank holiday.
However, we will always remember those who perished that day, those who lost friends and loved ones, and all of the heroes who saved lives and found the humanity in recovery efforts. We recall the pain, but also the national pride as we joined together in silence and exercised resilience. We take the PeaceBuilders Pledge (again) with the continued hope that there will be an end to war and hate-driven tragedies in America and across the world.
Many of us on the Alabama Chanin team have lived in Manhattan. Some of us watched the towers burn from a few blocks away. Others arrived years later to a changed city skyline. But, no matter where each of us lived on that day, and since, we have watched America change. For so many, New York represents an opportunity for growth and transcendence. This day is a moment to remember compassion, love, and gratitude.
Those of us of a certain age remember the ubiquitous mix tape. We made them for our best girlfriends on their birthdays, for boys and girls we crushed on, and for our younger siblings, bringing them into the fold of “cool.” We received them much in the same way, personally curated with a clear directive: a road trip, an anti-algebra protest (for those of us not good with numbers), a condolence for a loss or break-up. We crafted the paper insert covers in collage cut from magazines or newspapers, or colored them over in crayon and markers. The mix tape might be one of the purest expressions of feeling a person can share. Melody plus lyrics plus artwork (or no artwork) demonstrated time spent consciously collecting something so essential to life: music.
Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, edited by Thurston Moore of the band Sonic Youth, is a look into the practice and craft of the mix tape, with essays from a long list of contributors including photographers, writers, poets, visual artists, designers, and many musicians, each recalling a specific mix tape that held, and still holds, meaning in their post-cassette lives. Today, many of us stream much of the music we listen to. The playlist has replaced the mix tape (or the mix CD). It’s hard to imagine that record companies protested the invention of the recordable cassette, which we bought in droves. They feared revenue loss and called it piracy. It’s amazing how that control has changed in the years since, how the battle to maintain control of the industry has weighed heavily in favor of the consumer (and pirate), and how musicians have taken up the battle to defend their own art, often breaking from traditional paths to establish their own labels or sign with smaller, independent labels, like Florence, Alabama’s Single Lock Records (where we first learned about this book).