Marshallese, Congolese Sewing Students Showcase Garments at Fashion Week

Models will walk the runway in the designers’ creations Thursday and Friday night.

a Marshallese woman standing next to a sewing machine on a table cuts a bright orange piece of fabric
Marshallese student Tie Matthew has created four garments that will be worn on the runway by models during NWA Fashion Week. Photo by A. Grajeda

Inside an old church building in downtown Springdale, Marshallese women are putting the finishing touches on dresses they’ve made as part of sewing classes organized by INTERFORM, a nonprofit working to build a self-sustaining, design-led fashion and art industry in Northwest Arkansas. 

The students have worked on their garments for weeks and they’ll get to show off their final products during NWA Fashion Week. In total, more than two dozen students have created 41 looks for five collections that will be showcased on the runway over the course of two days. The collections include clothing inspired by Marshallese and Congolese aesthetics, but designers have added their own creative twists.

“[I’m] proud and a little bit tired right now, but so excited,” says Basana Chhetri, senior director of fashion design and apparel education.

Born and raised in Nepal, Chhetri was educated and trained in her home country as well as in Japan and England. After completing her fashion design education in Japan, she returned to Nepal and started the Contemporary Institute of Arts and Fashion. Fourteen years ago, her husband’s job brought her to Arkansas where she presented her collections in NWA Fashion Week for two seasons. 

Chhetri found fashion design in college and fell in love with it. Freedom and creativity are some of the best parts of being a designer, she says.

“It’s like art, you get to express your feelings, you get to express so much in one dress,” she says. “The freedom is what I love.”

Marshallese and Brazilian women work on sewing dresses at tables
Basana Chherti assists students with creating their garments on Mar. 3, 2022 in INTERFORM's Springdale education building. Photo by A. Grajeda

In addition to designing, Chhetri also enjoys teaching. She launched sewing classes focused on underserved communities in 2019 and today those courses include Marshallese, Congolese and Hispanic students. While classes often feature a mix of pupils, some sessions are specifically for Marshallese or Congolese students to assist with any language barriers.

As the student’s skills have grown, so too have the course offerings. INTERFORM provides classes for beginners and advanced sewers, as well as an introduction to fashion design. Chhetri is hopeful that one day her Arkansas students — just like her Nepal students — will open their own business, boutique or school that she can support. 

Overall, the Arkansas students have been receptive to the classes. They want to keep progressing and Chhetri enjoys the relationships she’s built with them.

“Unless they move out or something comes up in their life, all of them want to stay forever…I feel like I cannot imagine my life without having them, without being around them,” she says.

Tie Matthew is one of those students who has spent the last few years learning from Chhetri. Matthew didn’t know how to sew when she first started and while it was difficult at times, her skills have improved and sewing is something she now enjoys.

“I’m really glad that I can now cut for myself and sew for myself,” she says.

Matthew has created four dresses this year and she’s looking forward to sharing them with the public at NWA Fashion Week.

“[I’m] kind of nervous, but I’m kind of excited,” she says. 

a Brazilian woman sews a bright yellow dress with a sewing machine
A native of Brazil, Fatima Pollard has learned to sew her first dress during an eight-week course. Photo by A. Grajeda

Matthew and her classmates are inspiring other women in the community who want to gain sewing skills as well. Fatima Pollard, for example, learned about the class through a Marshallese friend and is trying to learn all she can from the experience. Originally from Brazil, Pollard has lived in Arkansas for more than 20 years. Pollard is excited that over the course of eight weeks she’s been able to craft her first full dress out of a bright yellow fabric — her favorite color — and that she’ll model it herself on the runway this week. 

“I have a wonderful teacher and she’s teaching me all these new tricks,” she says. “It’s very exciting to be here and this opportunity to be in Fashion Week, I feel real grateful.”

More opportunities lie ahead for these students. For those that don’t want to keep the garments they created, they’ll have the opportunity to sell them in a few weeks during a popup shop at The Record in Bentonville. With their new skill set, students also have the opportunity to open their own business or sew for someone else. Additionally, INTERFORM will soon launch apprenticeship classes that will provide former students with a source of income as they work on a small batch assembly line.

“We’re super excited about it because it’s nice to have them with us,” Chhetri says.

NWA Fashion Week is Mar. 10-12 at The Momentary in Bentonville. INTERFORM Students will showcase their creations Thursday and Friday. For tickets and more information about each collection, visit www.interform.art

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.