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Cutting a New Pattern for Northwest Arkansas’ Fashion Economy

June 21, 2022
Basana Chhetri
Richard Cotto
Following a successful mask-making push, INTERFORM expands into small-batch production

As fashion designers, we are living out our creative dreams in Northwest Arkansas.

As staff members at INTERFORM – a design-led fashion and art nonprofit – we are helping others do the same.

We are immigrants from both Nepal and Puerto Rico with established, successful careers in fashion. Relocating to Northwest Arkansas felt at first like a risk. Instead, what we have found is a creative and inclusive community growing right before our eyes.

Like many arts-centered organizations, COVID-19 threw our regular operations for a loop.

Building a Home-Grown Fashion Economy in Northwest Arkansas
A COVID Relief Fund grant helped INTERFORM supply Northwest Arkansas communities with masks during the early phase of the pandemic. That experience helped the fashion and design nonprofit expand into small-batch production.

But our CEO Robin Atkinson likes to say that during the pandemic, INTERFORM was lucky. After all, fashion is the only art form that can put clothes on people’s backs and masks on their faces.

When the demand for masks soared in 2020, INTERFORM created an easy-to-sew mask pattern and quickly launched a sewing production workshop. We enlisted a makeshift crew of sewists from the local Congolese and Afghan refugee community, Marshallese and Latinx sewing students from our own Learn to Sew classes, and our existing NWA designer community to scale production.

In total, our team sewed and donated 12,500 fabric masks to local health care workers and underserved communities. A COVID Relief Fund grant from the Walton Family Foundation put our ambitious goal of masking the community within reach.

Among the many lessons the pandemic has taught us, we learned there is a pressing need for skilled labor and a reliable supply chain for everyday products.

We discovered that it was not only possible to enlist our sewing students and the design community to distribute a local, quality product - we could be successful doing it.

From left to right, Abwe Abedi, Faida Deborah, Basana Chhetri and Zawadi Lukoko work at INTERFORM'S Northwest Arkansas production facility.

The experience helped our students gain confidence in their abilities. It also enabled INTERFORM to expand its future thinking around how to better meet the needs of the local design community, whose artistic and business goals are constrained by a system not built to support small and aspiring designers.

To better support our region’s budding fashion economy, we have reorganized INTERFORM around three major pillars – LEARN, MAKE and SHOW.

Sikitu Mbuto, originally from the Republic of Congo, sews a pattern at INTERFORM's production facility in Springdale, Arkansas.

At our headquarters in Springdale, all are welcome to sign up for a LEARN sewing course, no matter their skill level or background. Through the course, we teach students the skills to sketch, cut and complete simple garments.

The year-round classes have attracted a diverse swath of Northwest Arkansans, from Marshallese sewists interested in creating island-style clothing to our Teen Bootcamp, which offers a safe and productive place for teens to flex their creativity.

Abwe Abedi, director of sewing operations at INTERFORM, sews masks for distribution to health care workers and communities in need during the first year of the pandemic in 2020.

Once a student completes the LEARN portion of our programming, they move into our MAKE space, a small batch production facility that – once up and running -- will serve designers from across the country.

The facility is built to serve designers left out of the current system – who cannot afford to go overseas for production, and who don’t need 30,000 units of one item, in one color and size.

At INTERFORM, our nonprofit status helps us capture the smallest of orders (think: six jackets), while also helping our local sewists gain the skills and efficiency to serve an unserved market.

Furaha Mbuto is among the aspiring designers honing their sketching, cutting and sewing skills at INTERFORM.

Currently, we have four highly-skilled apprentices who have completed their training and are ready to begin producing garments for clients.

Because apparel production is organized in modules, from cutting to quality and shipping out the door, we are tailoring our growth to fit the needs of potential clients.

Richard Cotto (far right) works with a team of designers at INTERFORM to bring their fashion visions into production and to market.

With support from the foundation, we have purchased a dye sublimation printer and a calendar press. As we grow, we hope to add machinery to the facility that accommodates more steps in the apparel-making process.

Finally, SHOW offers our designers a space to celebrate and share their work with the community, whether through NWA Fashion Week or rolling exhibitions.

Gina Janer, originally from the Marshall Islands, sews a garment at INTERFORM's facility. The space is built to serve small-scale designers who cannot afford to go overseas for production.

When we first started teaching at INTERFORM, the operation was so small that we would buy sewing supplies for our classes piece by piece. Through the support of our community and in spite of a global pandemic, we are growing our education and production initiatives and preparing to launch one of only a few small sewn-good production facilities in the United States.

Our hope? To create a new generation of Arkansas artists that can make a living doing what they love, with a keen eye for great design and the skills to back it up.

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