Ethwes | Sindhu Varagani
A PIECE OF clothing can be a portal. To Sindhu Varagani, it leads to New York City, circa 2013. She’d just arrived from Hyderabad, India, and when she looked up, she was enthralled by the silhouettes and details of the city’s soaring buildings: the steel-paneled swoop of the Barclays Center, the pyramid shape of VIA 57 West, the skeletal, birdlike structure of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub.
NYC’s architecture left an impression so deep that, when dreaming up her spring 2020 collection, her mind glossed over a world of ideas and landed right back in New York. “I used to walk around the city streets,” she recalls fondly. “I used to love those buildings.” That’s where the colors came from—skyscraper silvers, the light blues of the sky crushed on glass, the dark grays of days passing into evenings.
Although this will be her third collection, Sindhu has been flexing her sewing chops for a while now. You can trace it all back to her mother, who worked as a dressmaker in India and is one of the biggest reasons Sindhu learned the careful art of hand embroidery and fabric painting as an adolescent. Back then, there was no question about it. Sindhu declared to everyone, with uninhibited youthful confidence, that fashion was her calling. Although there were some considerable detours—a degree in computer science, for instance, or her six-month stint as a software designer—that calling, though muted, never quite went away. After springing for a fashion-design diploma in India and moving to New York, Sindhu landed a position with designer Anya Ponorovskaya in New York. Working closely with an established designer in the country’s fashion capital fostered her understanding of the inner workings of the business, of how things are done.
In 2017, Sindhu moved to Arkansas with her husband and, two years later, launched Ethwes. In Bentonville, she’s carved a niche for herself as a designer of versatile, multifunctional pieces, such as reversible coats that pull triple duty with removable sleeves and tails. Another thing she’s known for? Marrying Western patterns with Indian fabrics. (The label’s name is a portmanteau of the words “ethnic” and “Western.”) “For [the spring show], I’m trying, for the first time, to create a collection that’s not fusion or versatile,” says Sindhu, who’s now on the board of the Arkansas Arts and Fashion Forum. “I’m trying to show that I can also do other things.”
Modeled by UALR Dance Student Dominique Hubbard
22nd Element Clothing & Accessories | Bruce Davis
BRUCE DAVIS READILY admits that it all happened by accident. In 2014, during his freshman year of college, he was getting ready for a wedding and was increasingly flustered that he couldn’t find the perfect neckwear to complement what he was wearing. At that moment, his girlfriend (now his wife) turned to him and said, “Why don’t you make one?”
Bruce didn’t have a background in fashion. Far from it. He was a biology student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. But he did have some practical knowledge stowed away somewhere in the recesses of his mind, a few things he picked up in his high-school home economics class. “[I made] a black-and-red leather bow tie,” he says. “I mean, it was hideous. But at the end of the day, I made something.”
Now, Bruce juggles two jobs. He’s a regional dispatcher at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, but he’s also a fashion designer with two collections (a third’s on the way) under his belt. “Last year, we had a crazy fire, which … I lost everything,” he says. “I lost the collection, and I lost my sewing machines, my fabrics, everything.” A week and a half after the fire, his brother died. In the midst of that unfathomable devastation, with just a little over a month left till Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week, Bruce had to hastily put together a collection for the Fall 2019 show. “I felt like it didn’t represent me,” he says, “so I’m basically taking inspiration from that and creating what I would like it to look like now.”
This fully realized lineup— dubbed “Life of a Flower” and dedicated to his brother—will visually tell the story of a flower’s life cycle. One look, for example, is a windbreaker with pockets that mirror the shape of petals. The ’80’s-inflected silhouette is structured, made with bull denim—a type of fabric that lends the piece its heavyweight feel. You’ll see more biology lessons scattered throughout, with pieces assuming the shape of stamens, pistils and petals in a spectrum of earth tones and blush. As a whole, it’s proof of how two passions can click together and of how things have a way of coming full circle.
Modeled by UALR Dance Student Mario Valdez
Big Sister | Brandy Lee
IT WAS BRANDY Lee’s grandmother who first gave her a sewing machine—and very little instruction on how to use the old thing. But her grandmother did show Brandy the basics: how to turn on the machine, how to make it run and how to thread the needle. “She didn’t know anything about how to make a dress or how to sew from a pattern. She was like, This is how it goes, and this is how it works. Good luck.” And really, at 15, that was all Brandy needed.
Curiously enough, Brandy’s career began with acting (she studied theater design at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, from where she hails), moved into scene design and later veered into costume making. She worked as a seamstress in vintage shops and, at one point, as a wardrobe assistant for Disney on Ice. “We were in New York for the show, and [my friend] was like, We have to go to Mood [Fabrics],” she says, her excitement building at the other end of the line. “We went in there, and I was like, Oh my God. This is amazing.” The genie was out of the bottle. She made two of her own pieces from scratch with Mood’s fabrics, and she was hooked.
In 2018, Brandy moved to Arkansas with her husband and quickly jumped into the NWA fashion scene. “There are places here in Arkansas that will get really, really hot,” she says, when asked about the meaning behind this year’s collection. To counterbalance the rising temps, she’s created a collection that’s breathable, with eco-forward fabrics and natural fibers such as silks, linens and cotton.
Because really, there’s a bigger conversation involved here, and it’s about the environment—a hot topic in the fashion industry, which is known to be one of the world’s greatest polluters. Turning toward natural dyeing, she’s letting the Earth dictate her color palette—fresh pigments of pink lilies, daisies, red onion skins and purple petals she kept from her wedding bouquet. But she’s still learning and experimenting, of course. Consciousness isn’t achieved easily in fashion. “I’m not going to claim to know everything about sustainable fashion or how we can change the industry, but this is just my one brand,” she says. “This is my venture into that world.”
Modeled by Ballet Arkansas Company Member Hannah Bradshaw
House of Colby | Colby Butler
IT STARTED WITH faces. Then, as Colby Butler got older, he began penciling in the rest of the body. He sketched so quickly, his high school art teacher took note. Too fast, she told him. Nobody really sketches in such a mad rush, except for fashion designers. “At the time, I don’t think I was interested in making clothes,” he recalls, “but I definitely loved drawing people with different fashionable clothes on.”
That changed, of course, but not right away. First, he dabbled in photography. Then he studied architecture at a trade school, convinced it was the right path. Next came the modeling. None of it really swept him off his feet. He thought of something else: Maybe fashion design? That stuck, and in 2013, Colby rolled out his first line of evening gowns.
In looking at his work, it’s easy to see: Colby is no minimalist. Just consider his Fall 2019 collection, which included a pastel-pink gown with larger-than-life cascading ruffles and a statement-making frock with mounds of airy silk-blend organza the color of cherry sorbet. There were also sequins, pearls, feathers and lace galore. It was part glam, part disco drama, part fairy-chic and, somehow, also very Hollywood, because really, drama like that only unfolds behind velvet ropes on red carpets.
“[My aesthetic] is something that’s exquisite, elegant and artistic,” he says, matter-of-factly, all business. This year, he’s turned his eye to the rebellious glamour of the late ’60s and early ’70s, borrowing elements from those decades and amplifying them to extravagant proportions. On a mock-neck mini red dress — in that classic, full-throttle red that’s everyone’s first tube of lipstick—he revives the forgotten feather boa, or its essence, at least. A black-and-teal, rhinestone-studded fringe of feathers climbs all the way up one sleeve, travels across the chest and glides down to the hem of the dress. You could say it’s both flight and fancy—sketched quickly (yes, still) but brought to life with intention.
Modeled by UALR Dance Student Nichole Waldron
Rosie Rose Designer | Rosie Rose
WHEN YOU KNOW, you know—and Rosie Rose knew early on. As a teenager, she made a lot of her own clothing, even though she couldn’t sew back then. She created things anyway. She would cut stuff, safety-pin things together and iron letters on T-shirts. Her prom dress was a collage of vintage slips and pieces of lingerie layered on top of one another, dyed and traced with a sharpie.
After apprenticing with designer Mark Hughes of Regalia Handmade Clothing, Rosie Rose decided to strike out on her own. In 2011, at a small show at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, she made her debut with the Butterfly Punk Collection, which comprised five Betsey Johnson-esque pieces that oozed pretty, lollipop femininity.
With a now full-time career in fashion, there are a few things that are important to Rosie Rose. First, that her clothes are as sustainable as she can make them. Second, that her pieces are worn by more than one type and size of woman. And with a new emphasis on custom orders, that her designs are reflective of what she loves creating most: over-thetop fashion moments.
While the collection she showed last year was very wearable— predominantly black and white— this year, she’s throwing sellability out the window. A very different, and perhaps more honest, facet of her design mind will transpire on the runway. Drawing on an underlying circus theme, the collection will showcase playful colors, raucous patterns and whimsical silhouettes—a jester’s leotard with tiered flounce details, ball gowns festooned with pom poms, and a surprise finale (spoiler alert: There are helium balloons involved).
“I try to make my runway shows an experience,” she says. “It’s not just about the clothing and the finished piece. It’s also about the experience of watching the show and the feeling that it leaves you with afterward—which I’m hoping this time will be joyful and inspired.”
Modeled by Ballet Arkansas Company Member Meredith Loy