Three Perfect Days in Florence with Natalie “Alabama” Chanin & Billy Reid
Fashion legends Natalie “Alabama” Chanin and Billy Reid both claim familial roots in Alabama; it was a convergence of time and place that lured them back home.
For Chanin, it was a fruitless hunt for a NYC embroidery company willing to work on her designer T-shirt projects. Frustrated with an endless thanks-but-no-thanks litany, it suddenly dawned on her that her network of crafter/quilter friends in Alabama would be ideally suited to work on the projects. And this is what spurred her to move back to her hometown of Florence, Alabama, in 2000.
In June 2001, Reid won the CFDA’s Best New Menswear Designer award, followed by his breakout New York Fashion Week show on September 10th. Twenty-four hours later, he would be heading into a world forever changed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Hitting the reset button, he made the contrarian decision to move back to his wife’s hometown of Florence, Alabama, and set himself apart from the herd by crafting a distinctive marketing plan – creating “a unique sense of place” for his fashion endeavors – centered in the heart of downtown Florence.
Natalie “Alabama” Chanin & Billy Reid’s Itinerary: Must-See-And-Do Stops in Florence, Alabama
The Shoals (a.k.a. the birthplace of America’s soundtrack):
FAME Recording Studios is hunkered in the rural community of Muscle Shoals on the outskirts of Florence. World-renowned musicians like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, The Chicks (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks), Wilson Pickett and many more have made pilgrimages to Muscle Shoals since the early 1960s to record their hits. In nearby Sheffield, the equally legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio opened in 1969 and was quickly dominating the charts with Number One hits by the likes of The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Sir Rod Stewart, and Paul Simon.To understand the profound impact that Alabama’s seminal music town has had on the American music scene, Chanin and Reid highly recommend watching the award-winning documentary Muscle Shoals.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House showcases Wright’s relatively modest and affordable residential designs in a single-story layout with minimal interior walls.
Located in the heart of Florence, the W.C. Handy Birthplace, Museum & Library serves as a repository of the brilliant composer’s memorabilia, sheet music, instruments, and much more. Handy, revered as the Father of the Blues, crafted the genre’s definitive statements in the early 1900s.
Ivy Green, Helen Keller’s birthplace and childhood home, is on 640 acres in Tuscumbia, Alabama. A walk through the circa-1820 house is like stepping back in time to the 1880s where docents share fascinating tales of Keller’s life.
Both Chanin and Reid say that Odette is their all-time favorite for its superb Southern cuisine in an unpretentious environment where you can relax.
Reid notes that “whether it’s for breakfast or lunch,” Rivertown Coffee Co. has “probably some of the best food in town.”
Long known for their pulled pork, slaw dogs, and rib sandwiches, Bunyan’s Bar-B-Q is also a must-try.
Trowbridge’s is an ice-cream bar (and sandwich shop) that remains virtually unchanged since it opened in 1918. Reid shares, “You have to get the chicken sandwich off the butter wheel,” while Chanin says, “The décor at Trowbridge’s is a classic ice-cream parlor with well-kept vintage mint-green booths, chairs, and stools – and it has looked this way for as long as anyone can remember.”
Big Bad Breakfast is another Reid favorite, famous for their fried eggs, crispy Southern-fried chicken, steel-cut oatmeal, and Grit Girl grits.
Out and about:
Chanin’s to-do list includes a mandatory task: a visit to the Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall, known as Tom’s Wall. Located in the countryside, Tom Hendrix’s hand-built wall is a memorial for his great-great-grandmother, Te-lah-nay, a Yuchi Indian who was displaced during the infamous Trail of Tears. Hendrix spent a quarter-century stacking eight million pounds of sandstone and limestone to honor her. As it is the largest unmortared rock wall in the United States and the largest memorial to a Native-American woman, there are stones from more than 120 countries in the wall, and each one represents a step of Te-lah-nay’s journey, and the shape, height, and width of the wall represent the different obstacles she encountered.
The TVA trails are ideal for biking and hiking along the shores of Wilson Dam, as well as the Tennessee River. Reid recommends kayaking on Cypress Creek at Wildwood Park. Located just minutes from downtown Florence, the park has five miles of mountain-bike trails.
Places to stay:
Chanin loves the historic Vrbo homes in town, and the riverfront Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. “Even though it’s in Florence, it’s really a resort, and it’s definitely our very favorite mother-daughter getaway spot,” she says.
Reid highly recommends The Stricklin Hotel, whose ground floor houses Big Bad Breakfast. They have a vintage bowling alley in the basement, as well. Reid also mentions the equally alluring GunRunner Hotel & Spa just down the street, where you can enjoy their bar and spa facilities.
(Fun fact: At press time, you could make up to $10,000 to move to the Shoals, including the cities of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia. To apply, you need to be 18 or older, make more than $52,000 a year, be self-employed or able to work remotely, and be able to relocate within six months.)
For more details, visit: @visittheshoalsal – www.visitflorenceal.com
You can listen to the rest of the interviews with Natalie "Alabama" Chanin and Billy Reid on Journeys of Discovery with Tom Wilmer: www.npr.org/podcasts/487364788/journeys-of-discovery-with-tom-wilmer
Writer: Thomas Wilmer
Photographers: Moore & Giles, Billy Reid & Rinne Allen