Gabrielle Korn at Northwest Arkansas fashion Week's Opening Night Stephanie Smittle

“Folks in New York, folks in Milan, folks in Paris better see what’s happening in Arkansas, because this is how you do it.” That was emcee Tony Waller at opening night for last weekend’s Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week. The runway show, held in an airplane hangar at Fayetteville’s Drake Field, featured seven Arkansas-based designers: Rosie Rose, Ethwes, Herron Hats (whose work we featured in our June issue), Hope & Faith, Basana Chhetri, Robbie’s Era and Big Sister.

Designer Brandy Lee’s Big Sister Studio ended up as the evening’s winner, garnering the studio a micro-batch production of one of the winning designs at Arkansas Arts & Fashion Forum’s headquarters in Springdale.

A dual show from painter Kellie Lehr and textile artist Suzannah Schreckhise — titled “Layered” and curated by Wallis-Atkinson — served as the backdrop for the runway show, along with the occasional plane repositioning itself on the airfield outside the hangar.

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Gabrielle Korn, former editor-in-chief at Nylon magazine, was in attendance — both on the runway and on the video screen, where she appeared in pre-recorded video montages with each of the designers as a mentor, offering advice on each collection. Fashion’s history, she said, has thrived “on being exclusive,” she told Thursday night’s crowd, “on being accessible to just about no one.” As an activist-turned-editor, Korn said, she has focused on implementing change in “a pretty problematic industry.”

“At NYC Fashion Week, only 25 percent of the models were women of color … . It was a mess,” Korn said. “So I made it my mission to make fashion something that actually serves people.” Korn went on to describe how she’d met AAFF’s CEO and Creative Director Robin Wallis-Atkinson through “a friend of a friend” and, Korn said, “Like many people, after talking to [Robin] for about 45 seconds, I was ready to do whatever she asked.”

Wallis-Atkinson told the Times that AAFF’s goals extend far beyond the garments sent down the runway at its spring and fall shows.

We’re growing beyond a fashion show,” Wallis-Atkinson said. “We’re trying to really think about embedding the apparel industry in Northwest Arkansas, creating opportunities for production, creating opportunities for growth. So it’s about so much more [than] the surface level of, ‘What’s hot and what’s not.’ ” 

AAFF’s making good on that mission, too, by finding ways to welcome new voices into the fashion world; the nonprofit offers sewing workshops to women in the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, and Ethwes’ roster of models was entirely comprised of women who had suffered a heart attack or stroke — a symbol of the designer’s affiliation with the American Heart Association. 

The growth of the fashion industry in Arkansas was a theme throughout the night. Jack Avery, board chair of AAFF, told the crowd, “Imagine if we could do in Northwest Arkansas with fashion what Denver, Colo., has done with craft beer.”

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Wallis-Atkinson said Arkansas’s designers are part of a larger story about “fashion between the coasts,” adding that “it’s not just us — it’s anywhere that’s not New York, it’s anywhere that’s not [Los Angeles].”

What sets these designers apart — “the thing that is so remarkable about fashion in the heartland and fashion in Arkansas,” according to the creative director — is that since most of the designers’ brands are not “self-sustaining financially,” it means their work is more of a “passion project” than a business. 

I think of designers based in Arkansas as much more of creative producers than necessarily industry professionals. Now, we love to grow them into industry professionals, but we’re not there yet,” Wallis-Atkinson said. “So for me, when I’m working with these designers, I really think of it as working one on one with an artist. The creativity and the dedication and the drive to create one-off garments that may never be purchased is huge. The work that goes into a 20-look collection is such a huge gamble for them — they’re gonna buy all the fabric, they’re gonna spend hours and hours making these things, and then they may or may not ever hit a sale rack. They may never even go for sale. So [the] motivation is so different.” 

Because the designers are largely focused on the craft itself, and less so on the “marketability” of their pieces, Wallis-Atkinson said they’re free to think outside of current trends, “which … actually puts them ahead of the curve, style-wise.” 

They’re in their own realm,” Wallis-Atkinson said. “One of the designers, Basana Chhetri, her entire collection is inspired by Nepalese royalty. And where else are you going to find that? That’s for sure not going to be on the New York runway. It’s so individual to her story.” 

The collections presented Thursday evening were refreshingly inclusive. Korn told the audience that representation of people of color, size inclusivity and an emphasis on sustainability were already emerging as elements in the Arkansas designers’ collections, a welcome departure from the hegemony still largely present in many elements of New York Fashion Week. 

“Sometimes fashion can be so aspirational it stops being grounded in reality … That’s not the case with what’s happening here,” Korn said. “Designers here are recreating what it means to make beautiful clothes for real people.”

Wallis-Atkinson said this representation was intentional, especially with respect to size inclusivity.

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“We’ve been very adamant to say [size] 8 is not plus size, 14 isn’t plus size; that’s just human size. You need to go above and beyond a 20 if you’re talking about inclusivity,” Wallis-Atkinson said. “So that’s something that we’ve been really trying to drive home, is this idea [that] we’re not starting plus size at 8, and we’re certainly not stopping it at [size] 12.” 

On the runway, the garments were as wildly varied as the bodies wearing them, from Chhetri’s regal embroidery and structured velveteen collars to Herron’s classic, muted silhouettes to Big Sister’s strappy, sheer studies in black and white. The variety of the clothing and the models conveyed the designers’ understanding of what Wallis-Atkinson described as an important goal for the week: helping attendees of all kinds feel seen.

“[Size-inclusive] options are so limited, so if you’re talking about creating a product that sells, sell to the audience that’s not currently being spoken to, and not in a pandering kind of way, but in an acknowledgement of the existence of it,” Wallis-Atkinson said. “Your body is totally great, and [it] definitely has to have clothes on it. You shouldn’t just have to have a potato sack. You should be able to get weird.”