Beyond the Runway

From sewing classes to manufacturing to fashion shows, INTERFORM drives creative expression in Northwest Arkansas

By Adena White

What began as Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week and the Arkansas Arts and Fashion Forum, has evolved into a multifaceted nonprofit organization that operates at the intersection of art, fashion, and community. INTERFORM transcends the conventional boundaries of fashion recognizing it as a vehicle to connect people across cultures, make the industry more attainable, and empower artists and designers to realize their creative potential.

With a background in contemporary art, INTERFORM founder and CEO Robin Atkinson has worked in the nonprofit creative space her entire career. It wasn’t until she took the helm of NWA Fashion Week in 2016 that she began to understand the transformative potential of fashion.

Robin Atkinson, CEO, and Daymara Baker, COO, rely on NWA Fashion Week as their primary fundraiser. The event takes fashion and apparel as an art form, giving the local creative community an opportunity to get involved with the burgeoning fashion industry in Northwest Arkansas.

“People connect to fashion in a way they simply do not connect to art,” she said. “Fashion is a way for people to self-identify and self-represent while also engaging with one another.”

A Three-Part Model of Creative Expression

INTERFORM programs are categorized into three areas that Atkinson likens to the three evolutionary stages of a creative’s educational path: learn, make and show.

LEARN INTERFORM offers free classes and workshops that teach sewing and apparel skills at a variety of levels. Courses range from a beginner sewing course that introduces fundamentals such as threading needles and making basic patterns to a clothing design course that dives deeper into elements of fashion design.

Daymara Baker, chief operating officer at INTERFORM, said the majority of the students participating in the courses are immigrants and refugees, most of whom are non-native English speakers or don’t speak English at all. Because apparel education and fashion design primarily involve tactile, hands-on learning, language differences are not a major issue.

“We’ve managed to find a way to create coursework that resonates with anybody who comes in contact with it, as well as creating a safe space for students, designers, and other artists to share their talents,” Baker said.

MAKE “Make” is the second step of the cycle and INTERFORM’s newest initiative. The organization offers small-batch production in its sewing studio, eliminating a barrier for many designers and creatives who do not have the means or expertise to produce more than one item at a time.

“We can help designers bring their ideas to life,” Baker said. “If a creative jots an idea on a napkin, we can turn that idea into something they can sell.”

Part of INTERFORM’s vision is to build and sustain a sewn-goods industry in Northwest Arkansas. Training people to develop prototypes and produce garments through its small-batch manufacturing operation serves as an additional revenue stream for INTERFORM, while making a major part of the fashion ecosystem more attainable. The nonprofit partners with local and global brands to produce and repair fashion products, including serving as the North American headquarters for repairs of Rapha cycling clothing.

“Shortening the supply chains and putting manufacturing back in the realm of possibility for everyday individuals instead of just giant conglomerates is empowering,” Atkinson said. “There is manufacturing capacity and apparel-product development capacity right here at INTERFORM.”

SHOW “Show” is where it all began and is the part of the creative cycle where participants involved in INTERFORM’s “learn” and “make” programs can test-drive their ideas, express themselves and showcase their apparel to a captive audience. This entails NWA Fashion Week as well as a recently launched art and fashion biennial called ASSEMBLY.

As INTERFORM’s primary fundraiser, NWA Fashion Week enables the nonprofit to generate revenue through sponsorships and ticket sales, ensuring it is financially viable in the future. The longstanding, public facing-event takes fashion and apparel as a specific form of artistic production and creates a community around it, giving the local creative community an opportunity to get involved in Northwest Arkansas’ burgeoning fashion industry.

“There is something magical about an organization that does such deep community work but then occasionally does something super splashy, fun, and beautiful with a high-production value,” Atkinson said. “Marrying those two worlds has been the magic behind INTERFORM. We believe in always doing both.”