Ahead of this year’s Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week, we sat down with CEO and President Robin Atkinson to learn more about her & this year’s exciting lineup.
21c: Much like us, you have roots in the contemporary art world. How did you end up in your role today?
RA: It was a series of perfect timings that put me in my current role. After several years in the contemporary art world in New York and New Orleans, I landed back in my hometown in 2014. I wasn’t at all planning to stay, but to my surprise, I met someone, fell in love with Arkansas again, and decided to call NWA home for the long run. Back in 2003, I had co-founded an arts organization in NWA called Art Amiss. My work with that put me on the radar of some of the remaining stakeholders of NWA Fashion Week. They asked if I’d take a look at the brand to see if it was viable, and after some study and financial projections, my husband and I decided to reboot the brand ourselves. I have worked in art organizations my entire career, but I could have never predicted becoming an entrepreneur in the fashion space. That said, I am absolutely loving it.
21c: What do you love about Northwest Arkansas?
RA: There is so much potential here the place is practically buzzing. The cultural landscape has been overhauled from the ground up in the last 8 years and the community of progressive art supporters is growing by the day. I really don’t think we could do what we do in another market. The support from corporate vendors to local philanthropists is truly unique, and it all works in service of building a completely new model for arts interaction in the public sphere. The attitude is really one of “yes, and…” which is incredibly refreshing. The cultural boundaries that are more cemented in older art centers are just much less present here. So, I can propose a fashion/art/music hybrid event without raising a single eyebrow about the appropriateness of the interaction and influence of one medium into another. We need much less justification for the moves we make, and I love that.
21c: NWA Fashion Week is similar to fashion weeks across the country, but it uniquely focuses on supporting designers working in Arkansas. Why was that important to you?
RA: This really comes back to my history as a curator and community arts organizer. It’s great to have vendors and well-established brands on the runway, but the real magic comes from supporting and cultivating a talent pool from the region and state that is thinking outside the box. Maybe the designs aren’t commercially viable, but they are works of art, they push our understanding of the boundaries between fashion and fine art, and they give our events a creative pulse that would otherwise be missing. We like to say that our support of emerging and Avant-Garde designers is what keeps NWA Fashion Week from being just a trade show.
RA: We have partnered with the very best of the best vendors in the NWA wedding industry to curate a show that expands on the possibility what bridal can be. 21c Museum Hotel is a perfect venue because it already sets a context of creativity and a tone of high-end experience. Through adventurous event design, floral creations, and lighting concepts we’ll set the stage for gorgeous runway presentations for both commercial vendors and for handmade couture garments created by Arkansas-based designers. Then the NWA Fashion Week touch is to make sure that the experience is radically inclusive with the highest standards for beauty, production, and presentation. We try to walk that fine line between a unique feeling of exclusivity while maintaining an inclusive attitude towards both participants and guests.
Courtesy of Jessica Robinson
21c: Beyond bridal, you’ve also introduced an activewear show this year, which is really responsive to how people dress today. Is this a reflection of how progressive the community in NWA is?
RA: Activewear is burning up the runways globally. Since Virgil Abloh’s re-introduction of the bike short with Naomi Campbell’s finale piece in his Off-White Spring 2018 show, bike shorts and activewear are getting remixed into high fashion looks more and more. So there is a currentness to bringing activewear onto the runway that we are embracing. But more pragmatically, there are also just an amazing array of activewear brands based out of, or with connections to, Northwest Arkansas. It was a no-brainer to make sure we are speaking to what creatively gets made here. Acknowledging that even clothing made for a very specific use is created with an artistic eye towards style and function, we want to highlight that this trend of athleisure, activewear, and outdoor gear isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
21c: I know it’s hard to pick favorites…but which show are you most excited about this year?
RA: I like to play those cards close to my chest since I’m so enthusiastic about many of the shows we have on the line-up. I can say there are a few fan favorites that never fail to wow the audience. The designers included with the bridal showcase are some of the most talented designers we have in the area, so I’m very excited to see the dresses they dream up. There is a group of designers from Stitches, a latinx Artist Collective, who, in collaboration with the Teen Action & Support Center, are putting together a really creatively conceived collection for NWAFW x Active. I’ve also heard word of a group of breakdancers taking to the runway, so that is SURE to be interesting. We have three private label brands from Walmart making a runway debut during our Ready to Wear show, which is first for us, and an exciting opportunity to work with one of the largest apparel retailers in the US. Their addition to the runway means that our shows span from individually designed custom one-off garments, all the way to household name brands, which just shows the unique mix of what our area offers. The NWAFW x Avant-Garde show on Saturday night should be packed with garments that push the boundary between art and apparel, so I always get most excited for what we get to see during our designer shows, given my interest in contemporary art and how it can become more accessible to the public.
21c: Last question is for those who are lucky enough to be spending April 3-6th for NWAFW in Bentonville, what are your top 3 must-eat recommendations in town?
RA: The pimento-cheese burger at The Hive is literally my favorite food item in Bentonville. I’m a sucker for classic Americana and that burger is just an absolute staple on my diet. I will no doubt eat more than one during the run of NWAFW! The house-made lasagna at Fiamma is fantastic and absolutely perfectly portioned for something that can be a little heavy. And the salmon salad on the lunch menu at Pressroom has been a staple on my weekday diet for months, and I’m still loving it!
Featured image: © Shelby Seaber.