WORDS / KELSEY FERGUSON
PHOTOS / MAX GRUBB & TANJA HEFFNER
“What’s so attractive about Northwest Arkansas is that it’s all potential,” new NWA Fashion Week CEO Robin Wallis Atkinson tells me with a gleam in her eye. Like many other creatives, Atkinson now sees Northwest Arkansas not as a desert for artistic development, but rather as a playground.
As one of the founders of Art Amiss, Fayetteville’s first major arts promotion organization, Atkinson remembers how difficult it was to build a competitive arts portfolio in-state – and how much the cultural landscape has changed. Atkinson opted to return home in 2014 after building an impressive career across the country and abroad, taking some time to identify where she might best have a lasting impact. Now she’s stepping into action, deciding to reinvent and deepen the region’s connection with a budding fashion industry. Atkinson stepped up as CEO of NWA Fashion Week last summer, seeking to revive the organization that still lay sleeping after a two-year hiatus.
“The brand was strong, the images from the past were interesting, and in many ways I felt that it set the bar high for the area,” Atkinson recalls. “Taking on something that’s so aspirational and that strives to be really well put together intrigued me.”
As part of the rebranding effort, NWA Fashion Week is adopting a new mission and vision. “On every level of the organization, I would like to make it more inclusive, diverse and interactive with the community,” Atkinson clarifies. “Fashion Week is an event, but it’s also an organization with an inclusive and diverse mission, that brings in people from all parts of the community, and that creates images on-par with any other metropolitan area.” With newfound purpose, NWA Fashion Week is now poised to not only continue feeding the creative economy in Northwest Arkansas, but to also facilitate the kind of educational opportunity that Atkinson would have wanted in the beginning of her artistic career right here at home:
“What I envision for NWA Fashion Week is that if you’re a graduate from the University of Arkansas in Apparel Studies, a budding photographer, a model or a stylist, we give a set of opportunities to practice that art that would otherwise not be available in this area. I’m really interested in providing enough opportunity and enough projects that we keep our smart, talented twenty-something and thirty-something producers here. If you want to build a portfolio, you can build it with us rather than needing to move to Dallas, Houston, New York or elsewhere. Of course people will move, but as a person originally from here and who left to build my own portfolio, I want to provide people that opportunity to become professionals here in their hometown as well as recruit talent from other areas.”
As it strives to build its foundation, Fashion Week is getting off to a great start. With a successful fundraiser in the books, the community should get excited for the reinvention of what Fashion Week has always been known for: its annual runway show. Make plans for March 1-4 for four days of fashion including galas, workshops and a two-night show in downtown Bentonville. On the 1st, Atkinson will kick off the week at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art with a public gallery talk. On the 2nd, 21C Museum will host the NWA Fashion Week gala: a night to preview upcoming designs, participate in a fashion-forward auction, and enjoy live music with performance. On the 3rd and 4th, visit the all-new Record downtown for the official runway show highlighting Arkansas fashion designers and boutiques.
As it continues to evolve, Fashion Week hopes to expand to two events: a formal production in the spring, and a more relaxed production in the fall. In the meantime, however, Fashion Week lives as a prime example of potential in Northwest Arkansas – not just for business, but for creative expression and opportunity as well.