I have known many storytellers in my life. Some have a natural and unrehearsed style that feels captivating and immediate; some present new or unfamiliar points of view; others are quite deliberate and thoughtful in approach; all of them are enthralling to me. As a storyteller born into a family of storytellers, I find master storyteller Gael Towey both compelling and inspiring. She has a distinct perspective and is skilled at many things: crafting a storyline, discovering and highlighting the unique qualities of her subjects, eliciting a response from the audience, and designing beautiful visual elements. Her work has informed contemporary visual language in a way we can barely imagine.
I was lucky to be among Gael’s subjects as part of her series of short films about artists called “Portraits in Creativity” www.portraitsincreativity.com (and I especially love her piece on friend and heroine Maira Kalman). Each of her portraits uncover the unique qualities of her subjects and reveal Towey’s fascination with the creative process. For over two years, we have been speaking with Gael about her past, her present, and the creative processes, media, and methods she uses to propel her ideas forward.
Gael was raised in New Jersey and was the oldest of six children. She revealed that, as a child, she was mildly dyslexic and almost flunked the second and third grade because she couldn’t spell; she reversed all her consonants and vowel combinations. She was drawn to art and studied it enthusiastically through college. “I loved printmaking and accidentally signed up for a class in typography, and I fell in love with it from the first lecture,” Towey says. “I’d never looked at the design of a letter and had not noticed how beautiful they are.” She switched her major to graphic design and graduated from Boston University, College of Fine Arts. Gael said, “I was extraordinarily lucky. I have met so many young people who don’t know what they want to do, but I always knew. I struggled academically and art was the only thing I was good at… And it’s funny that I wound up working in the publishing business since I had no confidence in my ability to write properly.”
Gael worked on the book, In the Russian Style, with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
We often speak about our home, our state, and our community that provides an incredible amount of inspiration for our work. We are not alone: friend and occasional collaborator, Billy Reid, also headquarters in the same community. It has been mentioned (and is remarkable) that Alabama has the third largest membership in the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), numbering at two; we rank just behind New York and California. And just as there is a rich history of textile production in our community, there is a somewhat unknown or unrecognized group of designers that have emerged from our home state.
We at Alabama Chanin have long been obsessed with and inspired by Maira Kalman. She has a rich and singular voice – as a visual artist, author, illustrator, and storyteller – that imbues people, objects, and words with knowing wit and humanity.
Maira has written and illustrated 18 children’s books, all of which have been popular nighttime reading with my daughter Maggie. Maira’s illustrated version of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style resides, beautiful and dog-eared, on my desk each day—as it has become part of our company style guide. And for years, I have traded and passed on copies of and links to her columns from the New York Times, The Principles of Uncertainty and The Pursuit of Happiness (both of which are now published exquisitely in book form).
Today, in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. week, we turn the spotlight to one of the unsung heroes (or heroines, rather) of the Civil Rights Movement: Georgia Gilmore.
Georgia (whom we have written about before) lived and worked in Montgomery, Alabama, and was a true servant to the cause of the movement. Georgia was a big lady with a big personality—frankly put, she didn’t take any bull from anybody. She worked as a midwife, as well as a cook at the National Lunch Company. After Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to leave her seat on a bus in December of 1955, a group of black ministers and community leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA)—and initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the Association often held secret meetings around the city. As soon as Georgia heard of Rosa Parks’ arrest on the radio, she joined the MIA, determined to aid the effort in any way she could.
Outspoken and feisty, Georgia let her disapproval of the discriminatory bus drivers be known—an action that got her fired from her job at the cafeteria. When that happened, Dr. King and other leaders helped her set up a restaurant in her home kitchen. Georgia was well-known around town for her fried chicken, pork chops, and stuffed bell peppers and often served these and other dishes to Dr. King and fellow supporters of the boycott. She even hosted secret MIA meetings there in her kitchen.
Georgia’s love (and talent) for cooking and her passion for equality and change led her to start a club with a few of her friends, named “The Club from Nowhere.” The ladies in the club, most of them maids and cooks, sold homemade pies and cakes (and even Georgia’s chicken dinners) to supporters of the movement in order to raise money for the boycott. The Club from Nowhere often set up shop in beauty parlors, Laundromats, and on street corners in downtown Montgomery. Both black and white supporters of the boycott were able to contribute anonymously. The Club from Nowhere used the money they collected to buy gas and station wagons, which were used to transport people to and from work during the boycott. Georgia always said that the money came “from nowhere.”
Alabama Chanin friend and inspiration, Rosanne Cash, has lived in New York for over 20 years, but her link to the South remains deep and undeniable. Her mother, Vivian Liberto, was born in Texas and her father, Johnny Cash, was an Arkansas native. Rosanne was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised for much of her life in California. As a young woman, she also spent time living in Los Angeles, Nashville, London, among other stops on the road. Though she did not grow up in the South, her connection to the region is profound, largely because of what the South meant to her family and how that shaped her growth. It is this connection to the South and the region’s physical, musical, and emotional landscape that she explores in her newest record, The River and the Thread.
Rosanne found herself traveling southward frequently when Arkansas State University began restoring her father’s childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. Knowing how much her father would have loved the project, Rosanne agreed to participate – which initiated a series of visits. As she traveled, she began to reconnect with the Southern sense of place, so essential to her family identity. She, along with husband and longtime collaborator, John Leventhal, began to shape and create an entire series of songs, all about the South. Rosanne said, “I started going back to where I was born and these songs started arriving in me. My heart got expanded to the South, to the people I had known, to the people I met… We started finding these stories, these great stories, and melodies that went with these experiences.”
Friend (and heroine) Makalé Faber-Cullen is a storyteller and anthropologist who has worked with the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Festival of American Folklife, for which we collaborated on some t-shirts with Makalé a few years ago. She served as the first U.S. Director of Programs for Slow Food, where she co-launched and directed Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT), a coalition of seven of the most prominent non-profit food, agriculture, conservation, and education organizations dedicated to rescuing America’s diverse foods and food traditions. She also served on the Board of Directors for the Southern Foodways Alliance, where she helped produce The Global South and The Cultivated South symposiums. Her current project, Wilderness of Wish, gives context to unusual and out-of-place objects in the course of our daily lives. In Makalé’s words:
“I founded the Wilderness of Wish in 2010 to excite an interest in the artful presentation of contemporary ethnography and material culture. With carefully chosen client-partners we showcase the people, places and goods that give our lives meaning and our communities value. I enjoy merging anthropology, commerce and art for the public good. I’m particularly interested in occupational culture and the role of objects in our relationships — to ourselves and with each other, hence my company’s retail arm.”
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.
Last October, we held a One-Day Workshop in Atlanta, Georgia. DIY Kits for the workshop had been cut, packaged, and shipped days before the event, but they never arrived in Atlanta, lost in transit. This was a workshop crisis. However, this particular workshop turned out to be one of our best to date. In a beautiful expression of communal crafting, twelve people collaborated to create two Alabama Chanin Swing Skirts from the only kits I happened to carry with me. While we were initially disappointed over the lost box, we soon learned of the people in the Northeast who lost lives and homes as Hurricane Sandy beat down on the New Jersey and New York shores. We didn’t know how lucky we were.
Here is a bit of information that may surprise you: not all cotton is white cotton. If you are like me, you may not have always known that natural cotton comes in plenty of hues. In fact, there were originally shades of cotton that ranged from many tones of brown, to dark green, to brown, black, red, and blue. These varieties of cotton were widely used by Native American peoples and, occasionally, slaves were allowed to grow small plots of colored cotton because plantation owners considered it worthless. Colored cotton became obscure because farmers and manufacturers believed it too difficult to work with due to its short staple length, which makes the cotton problematic to spin. As a result, the varieties of colored cotton have dwindled. The Central Institute for Cotton Research in India has cultivated 6,000 varieties of cotton, only 40 of which are colored.
The white cotton we primarily see now was created by planting mono-crop, or only one variety of cotton. This type of cotton requires more pesticides than other varieties and the dyeing of this cotton is a massive cause of land and water pollution (not to mention its human impact). According to the ECO360 Trust, nearly 20% of all industrial water pollution results from textile dyeing and production methods. They have discovered at least 72 toxic chemicals that are present in our water system purely due to textile dyeing.
Cows were born to roam and graze. Hogs were born to root and wallow. Chickens were born to scratch and peck. According to Will Harris and White Oak Pastures, these are the natural behaviors of animals, making them commonsense tenets of how to raise healthy livestock. “Nature abhors a monoculture,” is one of Will’s favorite sayings.
Five generations of Harrises have farmed a tract of land in Georgia that now raises livestock using traditional, multi-species grazing rotation, no hormones and no antibiotics. But, business was not always done this way. Post WWII, the Harris family farm moved away from the traditional ways of doing things and began raising livestock using more chemicals and fertilizers and blending into the industrialized complex of food production. In the mid-90’s, Will Harris, the current head of White Oak Pastures, made what some called a foolish decision to bring the family farm full circle: moving back to the traditional ways of natural grazing, healthy animals, and respectful butchering.