One day, while standing on a street corner in Vienna in the late summer, designer Natalie Chanin realized suddenly that August should really mean sunshine and fresh tomatoes.
The Alabama native was a successful, Paris-based stylist working on a film set in Austria at the time, living out of a suitcase and wondering if she had packed enough winter clothes.
That realization led to an overhaul and reconfiguration of her life, culminating several years later when she returned to her hometown of Florence, Alabama, to launch her sustainable-clothing label, Project Alabama.
Now in its second evolution as Alabama Chanin, the award-winning line is still based in a warehouse just north of Florence. What about the South pulled her back and continues to do so for others? We flew down to find out.
The South of the northern imagination—that memorialized by William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee and Robert Penn Warren—is afflicted by its past and lost in the present. Ironic, then, that much of this decade’s Southern renaissance is built on the foundations of old traditions: quilting, work clothes, garden kitchens, comfort food. We once mistook this elegant clarity for oversimplification. But in today’s hyper-communicative, superfast, deeply insecure culture, tradition has been reanimated into a new worldly form.
Florence, with a population of 39,000, sits on the Tennessee River in Alabama’s northwestern corner, a two-hour drive from any of the nearest three airports. It calls itself “Alabama’s Renaissance City” and has more clothing labels than restaurants. (Visit one of Alabama Chanin’s monthly retreats and take a tour of the studio.) To fill that void, we flew into Nashville first—an old metropolis of the New South—for the food alone. The longtime music capital has always been home to the creative and the cosmopolitan, but the new two-feet-on-the-ground sophistication of the cooking has attracted the attention of a much wider audience, and the city is having a moment.
Areas outside the city center, like 12th Avenue South and East Nashville, are being reengineered from the inside out. An old gas station has been converted into a store for tailored denim by the label Imogene + Willie; an 18th-century factory building houses City House, one of the best restaurants in town; and an old trailer is the mobile vintage-clothing store High Class Hillbilly.
We crave the locally made finds that have the simplicity of an heirloom tomato. And right now, it’s all about returning to roots—something the South most definitely provides. Here are ten of our favorite things.
More articles from Departures:
- Touring The Southern Blues Trail
- Great BBQ Restaurants Of The South
- Following The Natchez Trail
- Top Golf Courses In Mississippi
- America's Most Charming Inns
Designer Quiltmaking: Alabama Chanin
The Alabama Chanin warehouse is in a historic area of Florence, Alabama—a group of buildings that, back in the ’70s, was the T-shirt-making capital of the United States. Outside it is beige. Inside it is transformed, every surface coming alive with some small act of creativity: a small city of thimbles, a chair reupholstered in scrap fabric, antique quilts embroidered with the oral histories of quiltmakers and stitchers in the region (one clip reads, “It was said that the smell of bread baking in the kitchen brought magical powers to the quilt being sewn.").
The soft cotton jersey used for the clothing lines—the cotton is grown in Texas, spun in North Carolina, knit in South Carolina and dyed outside of Nashville—sits on one set of shelves, and complete pieces hang across a wall, embroidered, beaded and appliquéd as examples to help visitors as they choose designs. Once an order is placed, Chanin and her staff cut the fabric and assemble the materials.
A local seamstress completes the piece and sells it back to Chanin. On our visit, the endlessly generous Chanin gave us lessons in sewing and appliqué, describing the physics of each stitch. It’s as peaceful an experience as you can imagine. Workshops are available to all; materials, knowledge and delicious food is provided.
462 Lane Dr.
Unparalleled Peaches: Marché Artisan Foods
The peaches are more potent below the Mason-Dixon Line. Our first extraordinary fruit experience was at City House (1222 Fourth Ave. N.; 615-736-5838; cityhousenashville.com), considered Nashville’s second-finest dining establishment (more on the first later). Located in Germantown, in an 18th-century brick house that was expanded into a factory, the eatery features a pizza oven, a pared-down bar and several tabletops.
The fish and pizzas are delicious, but the peaches—peppered and served with smoky, house-cured spec—steal the show. For dessert, try the peach shortcake served on a buttery biscuit with buttermilk sherbet. The fruit reappeared at breakfast, this time at the relaxed restaurant/café Marché Artisan Foods (1000 Main St.; 615-262-1111; marcheartisanfoods.com), served simply with honey and ricotta on just-baked bread. The flavor lingers even as you make your way through a superb sweet-potato-and-goat-cheese crêpe with pesto.
Stone-Ground Artisan Chocolate: Olive and Sinclair
Perhaps one of the most delicious local delicacies in Nashville is the deeply flavorful stone-ground Southern artisan chocolate by Olive and Sinclair, which is nothing but a new big hit. Founded three years ago by classically trained chef Scott Witherow, Olive and Sinclair slow roasts its cacao beans and then grinds them with pure brown sugar more for taste than for sweetness.
The flavors are dark and strong, like those of good coffee. The Mexican-style bar with cinnamon is particularly delicious, though the sea-salt version is a close second. Consider stopping by the factory for a tour.
1404 McGavock Pike, Suite C
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