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Northwest Arkansas ‘Masks Up’ With Help From Local Designers

February 4, 2021
Robin Atkinson
INTERFORM is mobilizing diverse communities to provide for their neighbors through the pandemic

Where do arts and cultural organizations fit in a global pandemic?

When COVID-19 invaded our corner of the world early last year, INTERFORM (formerly Arkansas Arts & Fashion Forum) realized we had one directive – look out for the needs of our community.

In a sense, INTERFORM was lucky. Fashion is an art form that can put clothes on our backs … and masks on our faces.

INTERFORM CEO Robin Atkinson (center) and design team members Abwe Abedi (left) and Basana Chhetri have led production of more than 12,500 masks for distribution in Northwest Arkansas.

On March 12, 2020, we cancelled our upcoming events and began to focus on how we could help our community. I saw an article where a hospital requested hand-sewn fabric masks … we could do that! The supply chain had broken and we knew a lot of folks with sewing machines.

Immediately, we asked Basana Chhetri, a Nepalese fashion designer, to prototype mask patterns. We reached out to hospitals to find out what would be most useful for patients and staff. Our marketing arm called for volunteers and our programming director Rachel Woody Pumford organized mask drop off points, laundry services and delivery.

Robin Atkinson engaged members of the Congolese, Afghan, Marshallese and Latinx communities of Northwest Arkansas to help produce masks for people in need during the coronavirus pandemic.

As need grew, so did the need to scale up.

After securing funding for six weeks of mask production, we reached out to Khalid Ahmadzai, director of economic advancement at Canopy NWA, a local provider of refugee resettlement assistance and employment support.

Early in the year he approached us with a client - Abwe Abedi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo - whose dream was to teach sewing to his community. Abwe served as master tailor in his Kenyan refugee camp for over 20 years, developing an incredible talent without any formal training. We called to ask if they were ready to start today.

Abwe Abedi, director of sewing operations at INTERFORM, was a master tailor in a Kenyan refugee camp for over 20 years before moving to Northwest Arkansas.

Abwe, with local designer Jen Simmons, launched our first sewing production workshop, then booted up paid shifts of between four and six workers each. We staffed the projects with sewists from the local Congolese and Afghan Canopy NWA communities, Marshallese sewing students, Latinx artists and our existing NWA Fashion Week community.

Our efforts resulted in over 12,500 fabric masks donated to local health care workers and underserved communities. The accompanying social media campaign informed over 40,000 individuals about the necessity and best practices in universal masking.

While masks will likely be part of our lives for the foreseeable future, we’ve seen the market respond and mask shortage is no longer a pressing issue.

Our small batch manufacturing idea, once a bit of a pipe dream, proved sustainable and successful in teaching transferable skills, providing job opportunities, expanding local creative production and giving designers options for taking products to market.

Basana Chhetri is director of apparel and textiles at INTERFORM.

Abwe has joined our staff full-time as our director of sewing operations and Basana has transitioned to director of apparel and textiles. Abwe has already taught his first course geared toward Congolese refugees and will host several more in the coming year.

Basana’s work at INTERFORM began with a Marshallese sewing course, reconnecting this community to the cultural traditions of homemade ceremonial and celebratory dresses, a skillset that has been disappearing in younger generations. Perfecting these skills will be useful creatively and professionally as we recruit seamstresses to help with our small batch sewing projects.

With ongoing support from the Walton Family Foundation, we purchased a dye sublimation printer and a calendar press, both crucial – and expensive – items needed for small batch production and fashion design.

This new machinery – paired with the professional finish work of master tailors like Abwe and experienced designers like Basana – will be critical to our work after the pandemic.

Through expanded training and equipment, INTERFORM hopes to soon become one of a few small sewn good production facilities in the United States, helping our aspiring designers produce manageable numbers of garments at a reasonable price point – typically the major impediment to a successful design career.

I am proud of our work in 2020. A crisis was never on the agenda, but in working towards a common goal, we found lightning in a bottle.

From the start, we have always believed that fashion, a creative pursuit that speaks primarily through images, has the potential to expand and change our understanding of ‘who’ we are through both images and representation.

While diverse, equitable and inclusive representation is baked into the spirit of every decision our organization makes – from our staff and board, to our community outreach, to the artists we cultivate - the path towards successfully operationalizing was not always clear.

I am proud to be part of a staff who in the face of crisis never hesitated, and part of a diverse creative network that has risen to meet this moment. Working together across these communities, we are not only cultivating a deeper audience for our homegrown fashion economy, but a common love for sewn trades and fashion design.

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