My wardrobe is a simple one, especially for a New Yorker. I work for myself, and none of my clients expect me to show up for meetings in anything more formal than pants that aren’t jeans. I spend my summers and weekends barefoot in a dusty old house that, given the chance, will eat anything too delicate for its breakfast. Still, I have always been drawn to the idea of couture and custom made clothing. The fascination is, I think, less about fancy and more about feel. My grandmother, a debutante in her day, wore clothing that was made for her throughout much of her life, and even though I’m taller than she was we had the same proportions and I could get away with wearing a few of her old formal gowns to proms and dances when I was young. I still wear her dirndl on New Years Eve, though these days it’s laces are so tight that when I wear it my hearing and sight are affected slightly. Even with the difference in our height, though, my grandmother’s dresses have always fit me in a way that other clothing didn’t. We both have longer than standard torsos, and in many Ready To Wear dresses and blouses I find myself hunching over to make up for their lack of length, as though I can bring a waistline down by scrunching myself up. More often than not I spend an evening in discomfort, twisting and turning my body unconsciously. Of course I’d sewn for myself and learned to adjust simple things, such as extending a bodice’s length, but in her dresses I always stood tall, barely aware of what I wore because it followed the lines of my body in way that did not constrict or discomfort, and I felt flattered, rather than awkward, and much more myself. This is the thing about wearing clothing that really fits you: It makes you feel good.
I have met other women who lived in a time when customized clothing was the norm for some. One of my most favorite women in the world, the one who has given me such sage advice as “there are only two things a woman will never regret in her life. A swim, and a baby.” and “there are really a few things a woman really needs in life. A man who adores her and a terrific pair of ***s.”, also told me this about custom made clothing: “There is nothing that feels better than wearing a dress that has been made for your body without anything on underneath”. Those first two statements I can attest to. Ive tested them, and found them to be truer than stone. As for the last, until this week I could not have said. Apart from the dirndl, which does not require a bra thanks to it’s suffocating structure, I had never tested that one.
Fifteen years ago, when I was still living in California and traveling to New York regularly for work, I wandered into Barney’s and found a hand embellished corset style tank from Natalie Chanin’s original label, Project Alabama. Even though it’s five figure price tag represented about four months rent, and I couldn’t have bought it as much as I admired and appreciated the story behind that number, I just needed to see what it felt like on my body. It felt good. Really, really good. I felt my back straighten and my shoulder blades relax almost immediately. Even though it hadn’t been made for me exactly, Nathalie’s method of hand-embellishment gave a perfect weight to the soft, stretchy fabrics that she works with, and she clearly had a terrific instinct for what works on women's bodies. It felt like a beautiful second skin that, I could see in the mirror, smoothed things out nicely. I didn’t buy that piece, but I’ll admit that I went back a few years later armed with a fresh credit card and every intention of buying something from her line. Sadly, I walked out empty handed again. The label had disappeared, because Natalie’s business had gone through some changes, if not a complete metamorphosis.
It was maybe another eight years after that, I was living in New York City and had just signed my first book deal with Abrams, where I would be working for the first time with Melanie Falick that I came across Natalie’s work again. I walked into Melanie’s office in Chelsea and there it was: a print out of a sewing book by Natalie Chanin. No longer selling finished garments to stores like Barneys, she was fast becoming a pioneer in the slow fashion movement, and a true force of nature in the world of handmade. That book led to this book review, to meeting Natalie herself, and to becoming an admirer of her company and her character in addition to her immeasurable talents. I had even accepted an invitation to come to one of her workshops, where a couture dress would be designed just for me, but something came up (a tenuous pregnancy, actually), and I had to cancel, and I was certain that my chances of ever owning one of Natalie’s couture pieces seemed as though they would never materialize.
Then, a few months ago, Natalie’s studio contacted me to say that they would like to make a dress for me. FOR ME. That I, along with some other handmakers and artists, were being invited to submit specifications for their very own dresses, pulled from the pages of Natalie’s new book, Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns, which is really a thorough guide to making customized garments based on Natalie’s designs. And, in a few short weeks, I would receive a dress in the post. A Couture. Customized. Handmade. Natalie Chanin. Dress. There were a lot of decisions to be made. We went with a mermaid theme, of course, and worked together to plan a long shaped dress with scallops, in dark ocean blues. And then I waited. And when the box came, delivered to me by my husband, I tore it open with a kitchen knife and took off all (yes, all.) of my clothes in the middle of my living room, even though my friend Maggie was sitting right there on my sofa and there had not been time for an any explanation, and pulled the heavy, stretchy, beautifully embellished dress over my head. It’s hem dropped perfectly to the floor, and I could feel it instantly and simultaneously covering every part of my body with a perfectly equal, comforting pressure. I felt my back straighten and my shoulders relax. It seemed, somehow, to make me smile without deciding to. Before I could even look in a mirror I decided that I would be living in this dress for the next six months, dust and summer be damned. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that it It felt good. It felt really, really good. And, like everything I own that has been made by hand for me, it feels like it belongs in my life.
All of Natalie’s books are incredible, but this one is one that every handmaker should own. It’s a thorough and insightful guide to making clothing that fits and flatters in a way that few garments you will ever own will. It includes Natalie’s actual patterns (including the skirt and bodice styles that once commanded thousands of dollars at places like Barney’s) and detailed instructions on altering, plus pages and pages of instructions - with templates - on the hand embellishment techniques that she is known and admired for. Kits, fabrics and other notions can be purchased on Natalie’s website. The pieces in this book are staples, tee shirts and skirts, dresses and wraps, but more than one maker has used them to make their own wedding dress, or used Natalie’s beading designs to create one of a kind formal pieces, all of it made to last and to be worn for a lifetime.