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.