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Stitching an Alabama Chanin garment. Photograph courtesy Alabama Chanin

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T-shirt by Alabama Chanin. Photographer Robert Rausch, photograph courtesy of Alabama Chanin

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Lynda Grose’s strawberry juice-stained dress embroidered by Alabama Chanin. Photograph by Shidume Lozada

Designing Lean

Dr. Timo Rissanen
Parsons The New School for Design

23 April 2013

“Fashion’s most glaring aspect is waste. ...waste is not only regarded as perfectly legitimate but assumes the significance of patriotic duty.”

Bernard Rudofsky in ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ (1947, p. 227)

It is remarkable that Rudofsky stated thus decades before the current mountains of our second-hand clothes (many of which might be organic, recycled, fair-trade or zero-waste), or the mountains of our brand new but out-of-season garments being buried in the ground, or the mountains of our brand new but out-of-season fabrics with exclusive prints being incinerated. These are all expressions – real, concrete expressions – of a system we rarely notice, let alone question. Bernard Rudofsky could have been discussing any industry or business geared towards the pursuit of growth. Growth is the dominant measure of success, and economists, politicians and business owners rarely question growth. Fashion design education for the most part rarely touches on economics in a broader context. Yet any discussion of waste eventually needs to expand to include economics. Design – as an activity and as outcomes – operates and exists within a larger framework of an economy and the kinds of business models that germinate within a particular kind of economy.

Dr. Timo Rissanen

Posted on 23 April 2013 by Dr. Timo Rissanen in:
Design to Minimise Waste

In the first post in this series, I introduced the two main kinds of waste connected with fashion, pre- and post-consumer waste, and I touched on how design can address these. In this second instalment my discussion of design is not limited to designing garments. Often it is systems that require redesigning in order to minimise waste; many of fashion’s existing systems are designed, inadvertently or not, to create waste. Fashion design in the context of pursuit for growth, for the most part, is designing for wastefulness: wastefulness in manufacturing and in use. Good intentions in reducing fibre impacts, improving packaging efficiency or addressing labour conditions can pale when examined in the context of short garment use lives and burgeoning waste mountains.

And yet, solutions exist. Just as it is counterproductive to examine design without examining the larger systems within which it resides, it is counterproductive to examine design and manufacturing separately, for the two are inextricably linked, as well as tied to a larger conversation about economies. In this instalment I focus on fashion design interconnected with lean manufacturing, through a series of questions to Natalie Chanin, the founder of and driving force behind Alabama Chanin, a company located in Florence, Alabama. From this conversation it is clear to me that fashion design need not be at odds with concerns about sustainability, and that sustainability is an opportunity, rather than a hindrance, for rich, beautiful experiences that we are capable of having with clothes. In those experiences, and in designing them, is where parts of the solution to fashion’s waste lie.

1. Is everything that Alabama Chanin does, apart from the DIY kits, made to order direct to customer? There is no wholesale to department stores or boutiques? 

That is true. We use what’s called “lean method” manufacturing, which means that we don’t make a garment or an item until an order is placed. It is important to us that we produce only what’s necessary and use as few natural resources as possible. At the moment we don’t sell to department stores or boutiques. Rather, we visit boutiques or locations around the country, setting up Trunk Shows. These allow customers to see our collections up-close, touch them, and get an idea of what Alabama Chanin does. Customers can place orders at these events, customise their garments, and generally participate in the design process.

Figure 1: Stitching an Alabama Chanin garment. Photograph courtesy Alabama Chanin.

2. In your opinion, could a large corporation replicate any aspect of Alabama Chanin's model, for example the direct-to-consumer approach, the method of customisation in relation to design, etc.? What challenges might exist there? 

Well, it really depends upon the type of business, I suppose. We’ve consolidated our manufacturing process within our one studio, which allows us greater control over processing, product, quality, etc. Keeping everything lean and in one location allows us the benefit of things like faster delivery times, better relationships with suppliers and customers, and flexibility. We can adjust quickly to unexpected developments that pop up every day. I think that large corporations have more opportunities than ever to create relationships with customers much like we do. I also think that, as customers become more aware of how and where their products are produced, corporations have a greater responsibility to produce responsibly, using ethical practices for employment and manufacturing.

3. In many cases an Alabama Chanin design seems to be the result of years of development, reflection and refining. To what extend does the company operate within the frame of fashion seasons, or perhaps more appropriately, how would you define an Alabama Chanin season?

We have taken years to test the products and techniques that we use and the processes that we employ. The amount of time and testing involved in finding just the right thread may seem like a waste of effort to some companies. But, we want to make things that last. That may mean trial and effort: improving the way we dye our fabrics, the way we sew our stitches, design and pattern developments. But, when you are making a garment that is meant to last, each of these elements plays an important role in the beauty and longevity of that product. If a garment is well made and has a classic style, then it can fit easily into any wardrobe, regardless of season. Alabama Chanin products are meant to fit your lifestyle; they are not intended to fit a particular season.

Figure 2: T-shirt by Alabama Chanin. Photographer Robert Rausch, photograph courtesy of Alabama Chanin.

4. Trends are a large part of the language of fashion. Your work seems to transcend trends yet it is firmly of its time, and timeless. How do you achieve this? What are your thoughts on trends and waste?

It is important to me and to Alabama Chanin as a company that we create products that will stand the test of time. This means designing for this season, the next, and the next. Classic styles and designs can be passed down from one generation to the next, while trends fade. Who wants to hold onto a dress for 20 years in the hopes that one day it will be “in style” again? 

I have experienced small-scale and large-scale businesses and I continue to see a surplus of goods on the market. Merchandise stays on the floor longer. Items are marked down and marked down again in larger department stores that – once the prices have reached such low prices – you begin to see the real market value of that garment, understand how much it really cost the retailer to purchase and how much the producer spent to make it. There are designers and companies that practice “planned obsolescence,” where they make the garment just well enough that it will last a season, a few months, then begin to fall apart. What happens then? The buyer needs something new. That process is the perfect example of waste in the fashion industry.

5. Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose in their book describe how Lynda sent a dress with a permanent stain to Alabama Chanin to be embroidered, giving the damaged garment a whole new life. On a related note, a significant part of Alabama Chanin's business involves educating and activating customers as makers. With view to a wasteless future for us, how big a part do you think people's creative abilities to make will play in creating that future? 

Figure 3: Lynda Grose’s strawberry juice-stained dress embroidered by Alabama Chanin. Photograph by Shidume Lozada.

I think that people’s ability and, more importantly, their desire to make will play a huge role in the future of fashion, or art, of any creative process. Each of our customers has something to offer our company. That’s why it is so fascinating to collaborate with a customer at a trunk show – you can see how their mind works, what they like, what meets their needs. Customer creativity is what allows us to offer workshops, both at our Factory and throughout the country. They want to be involved in the process and, in turn, strengthen their connection to Alabama Chanin. These are certainly opportunities to educate consumers about what they buy and give them a little push to learn more about how products are made. As Lynda Grose (who we love) found, an imperfection on a well-made garment doesn’t have to mean that it is useless. Overdyeing, mending, embellishing, all of these things can add value to a garment that may once have seemed imperfect. Who knows? It may become your new favourite piece of clothing. 

Designing Lean (post)