Robin Atkinson, CEO and Creative Director of Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week, sees clothing as the great arts equalizer.
“I have a background in contemporary art. While the conversation can be progressive and intellectual, it can also feel limited in terms of who can access it. But everyone,” she says, “has to get dressed in the morning.”
Yet as Northwest Arkansas experiences an ongoing renaissance and renewed attention for its natural beauty and diverse cultural attractions, fashion remains a largely untapped artform. The Arkansas Arts & Fashion Forum seeks to change that.
Through a partnership with the Walton Family Foundation, The Forum — the non-profit offshoot of Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week —has launched a year-long Educational Pilot Program featuring student designer showcases, educational and professional development workshops and a public speaker series.
Incubating a fashion ecosystem from scratch is no small task, explains Robin, who serves on The Forum’s board.
Beyond the basics of sketching, pattern-making, cutting and sewing, there also is a need for hair and makeup artists, photographers and models, as well as merchandising and branding experts.
The education and hands-on experience The Forum offers aim to help young creative professionals across these disciplines make their start in a complicated business.
“If we want to cultivate a cohort of designers in Arkansas, first things first we need to find out if people know how to sew,” says Robin.
Through a series of workshops at The Station, a teen creative space in Springdale, Arkansas, that’s just what they did.
Two workshops featured acclaimed Little Rock based designer Richard Cotto. Of Puerto Rican descent, he offered 16 young adults a four-hour primer on how to become a designer.
“He connected with the students, many of whom were Latinx themselves, in a way that was truly phenomenal,” Robin says. “From what a sewing machine is, to how to put a pocket in … to how to set creative boundaries and ideate oneself as a professional. It was fabulous.”
The next day, Richard hosted a second workshop for a very different group — The Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese.
Traditional costume and garment creation is an important aspect of Marshallese culture, but the skill has been waning in the Northwest Arkansas community in recent decades.
“What we found,” Robin says, “is that there were five or six women extremely well trained in the construction of traditional dresses—and an entire generation of younger women who didn’t know the fundamentals of sewing but wanted to learn.”
For this group, Richard focused in granular detail on the use of a sewing machine, fundamental stitch patterns and other essentials, with the ultimate goal of having more Marshallese designers showcase their work at Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week.
“Training both of these groups has been equally exciting to us,” says Robin. “At the end of the day, what it means is that a younger generation will be able to use the skills learned here to think more broadly, push their creative boundaries and pass on these skills.”
As a young woman, Robin left her native Arkansas to pursue a career as a curator in places like the Netherlands, New York and New Orleans.
She returned to a hometown transformed.
“It’s still small-town America, but the cultural leaders here are much more vocal than you see in most places,” she explains.
“My curatorial career always focused on social activism, socially engaged art practice, inclusivity, equity and diversity. These are hard conversations to have, even in places like New York and New Orleans. So, to come home and see a bedrock forming for these conversations was really surprising.”
Robin is excited to leverage these cross-community relationships into the successful cultivation and elevation of more homegrown designers.
Demand is growing with each event they produce, and the challenge now will be to keep up the pace of programming for a community hungry for creative pursuits.
Much like craft beer or farm-to-table restaurants, Robin wants her fellow Arkansans to have the opportunity to “shop local” when it comes to how they get dressed.
“The connections seem to be pretty endless, and I’m excited to see where we can go next.”