Memphis fashion design scene encourages collaboration, youth participation

Avianne Robinson is an 18-year-old award-winning fashion designer. That may seem like a young age for such an accomplishment, but for her, it’s been a long time coming.

Avianne Robinson is an 18-year-old award-winning fashion designer. That may seem like a young age for such an accomplishment, but for her, it’s been a long time coming.

She designed her first dress in the 4th grade with a dress pattern, a small set of fabrics and a handheld sewing machine. She discovered fabrics while in school through 4-H, a national youth development organization with an array of training programs, including one in the arts.

Over the years, she’d study YouTube interviews with professional designers in order to refine her tastes.

At 16, Robinson decided to introduce her talents to the city.

Avianne Robinson, 18, is the winner of the 2017 Emerging Memphis Designers Project. “I was just Googling things to do in Memphis with fashion, and you know Memphis isn’t known for fashion design, so I was very shocked when I found out we had a fashion week. So I was like I need to sign up. I need to sketch something. I need to try.” 

She submitted designs to the Emerging Memphis Designers Project and was accepted into the program. Last year’s Memphis Fashion Week was her first exhibition. This year, she stole the show.

“I’m inspired by other people’s designs,” Robinson said about her experiences with Memphis Fashion Week. “You look at their designs and it just inspires you, you wonder if you can make something that awesome.”

Jayla Slater, 15, is another member of the Teen Collection program of the Emerging Memphis Designers Project. Her first runway show was this year with Robinson, who she now considers a friend.

“The competition part was really low-key. We didn’t think much about it. It was so awesome talking to each other about the design process,” Slater said.

Backstage at a runway show, the vibe is exuberant rather than tense, as if teenagers and their friends are getting dolled up for a party. Designers are helping each other with any snags that may come up, like hair falling flat or a piece of fabric suddenly coming unsewn.

“Everyone was really cool with each other, just making sure things got done the right way,” Robinson said.

Guests of Memphis Fashion Week attend a runway show at Memphis College of Art.For some young designers, the thrill of finally seeing your clothes sashay down a runway can be surreal.

“You’re like, wait, that’s my dress that came out of my head,” Slater said with a laugh. “Now, it’s on a person walking around wearing it, and people are around looking at it. It felt like people are inside of my brain.”

The overarching non-profit organization that makes Memphis Fashion Week and the Emerging Memphis Designers Project possible is the Memphis Fashion Design Network.

The MFDN also funds The Lab, which is an incubator for newbies in Memphis’s fashion industry. The Lab space houses four studios for designers to work from complete with dressing rooms and sewing machines. It has conference rooms and offices in which designers can meet guests and fit clients, and a computer lab complete with the Adobe Creative Suite for designers that work digitally.

Access to The Lab is granted through paying for a membership in the Memphis Fashion Design Network, or designers can be granted one of five scholarships.

Designer Shayla Slater, 15, watches models wear her designs on the runway at Memphis Fashion Week.In addition to those workshops, MFDN also sponsors continuing education classes at the Memphis College of Art in sewing, textiles and draping techniques. According to Abby Phillips, a board member of the MFDN, sewing is a particular skill that our fashion industry lacks, but she hopes these classes will rekindle love for this essential art.

Because most of the designers working out of the space aren’t quite at the point of having storefronts, The Lab also puts on trunk shows, similar to pop-up shops, so designers can get a chance to actually sell their work.

It’s an environment that feels wildly conducive to creativity with its chic design and dormitory-like construction. Most of the resident EMDP members share studio spaces and have their sketches and dressed mannequins proudly displayed in the hallways.

For a fledgling sector like Memphis’ fashion industry, economic sustainability is vital. The focused programming on youth is part of that strategy to build a foundation of fashion design in Memphis.

 “Our long-term goal is to continue to foster the local fashion scene, and that’s not just fashion designers. That’s stylists, that’s models, that’s bloggers, and hair and makeup,” said Phillips.

A model shows the designs of local artist Jennifer Williams at Memphis Fahsion Week.Her hope is that the success of Memphis Fashion Week and the MCA classes will have trickle-down effects that stimulate economic growth via the burgeoning demand for seamstresses, pattern makers and small-batch manufacturers.

At this stage, collaboration is vital to Memphis’ fashion professionals.

“Because of the stage we’re in, we want everyone to succeed,” Phillips said. “We had 18 emerging designers this year, and if you go through their photos, each one’s style is so different that you can’t really be in competition because you’re doing such different things.”

Considering the friendliness of the EMDP members, the borderless nature of The Lab, and the desire for everyone to do their best, the avenues available for collaboration are wide open.

“That’s something I think Memphis in general does very well,” she added.

Of course, the knowledge that this is, in fact, a competition never fully leaves, since winning the emerging designers competition nets you a membership to The Lab and an MCA scholarship, which are together worth about $600. Robinson, however, takes a refreshing glass-completely-full position.

“We’re all doing something awesome by being in a runway show, so we’ve already won.”

Read more articles by Wesley Morgan Paraham.

Wesley Morgan Paraham is a Memphis native and huge fan of the 901. He enjoys writing about music and art especially from local artists. He has freelanced as a graphic designer and videographer. He is currently attending the University of Memphis and seeking a degree in Public Relations. One day, he'll actually manage to find it. 
Signup for Email Alerts