September 8, 2005

Alabama country fashion takes to New York runway

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Amid hordes of designers arriving from
around the world for fashion shows in New York this week is a
handful of rural U.S. women, wide-eyed to see their handiwork
appear alongside the industry's top names.

The collection is Project Alabama, stitched in the homes of
country women for designer Natalie Chanin, who tries to provide
jobs to her neighbors in northwestern Alabama.

The clothes are soft, homey and comfortable, with detailed
traditional stitching and beadwork that Chanin says was sewn
with love and care.

"You can feel that when you wear it," she said this week as
she watched models test her clothes ahead of her runway debut
on Saturday.

What sounds like marketing hype is true, said several of
the Project Alabama stitchers who made the trip north, many
seeing New York for the first time, to witness their work
appear in the semi-annual gala event known as Fashion Week.

They say Project Alabama is more rewarding than just a job.

"Each piece is like a new little baby. Each piece has its
own look, its own personality," said Jo Ann Stokes, of Muscle
Shoals, Alabama.

Stitcher Reita Posey, of Belgreen, Alabama, compared the
work to painting. "Every stitch you make is like making a real
pretty picture," she said. "I'm bad addicted."

Quietly sewing in a hotel overlooking Manhattan's Bryant
Park, where more than a hundred runway shows begin on Friday,
the stitchers say Project Alabama provides work in an area
where cotton mills and textile manufacturers have left for
cheaper labor markets outside the United States.

"I couldn't find a job when I moved back home," said Mary
Anderson, of Athens, Alabama. "From the moment I walked into
Project Alabama, it was just something I knew I could do. I've
been excited ever since."


Chanin began Project Alabama five years ago with a line of
her own hand-stitched T-shirts. Unable to find a manufacturer
in New York, she said she thought of the women back home in
Alabama who sewed quilts with her grandmother. Now she
contracts out to some 150 stitchers.

"People are always asking me if I'm a political activist,"
Chanin said. "We're trying really hard to bring more work to
the people in the community."

"We see ourselves as a very American company," she said.

Northwestern Alabama lost some 3,500 jobs in the textile
industry in the last four years, said Florence Mayor Bobby

"We've been hurt. We're losing them to foreign soil," Irons
said. "We're very, very high on Natalie. We're grateful to her
that she loved this area enough to come back and start her
business here. It's very important to our overall economy."

Of course, earnings come nowhere near the cost of the
homespun collection's retail prices.

Sold in 55 stores around the world, including Barney's in
New York and Browns in London, pieces begin at $300 retail for
T-shirts to $20,000 for a wedding dress that took 16 women a
month to complete. Project Alabama has been featured in fashion
magazines Vogue and Elle.

"I said, 'Please don't tell me the price of this,' when I
started," said Stokes. "It made me nervous."

Project Alabama is being sponsored by shipping company UPS,
which is funding 10 new designers at Fashion Week. The show
will be accompanied by live music featuring a 10-year-old
prodigy fiddle player named Ruby Jane.

Project Alabama's clothes can be machine-washed and -dried,
Anderson noted.

"These beads aren't going anywhere, and the seams are not
going to come apart," she said, the pride in her voice