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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese volunteer Diana Chen says of the fashion show, “I really hope it increases the visibility of the Marshallese people in Northwest Arkansas in a very positive way, and I hope, for the Marshallese people, it will help them come out of their shell a little bit more, and interact with the broader community.”

Opening night for this week's NWA Fashion Week will feature a rare treat: Four designers from the Marshallese community will share their traditional cultural attire with the audience. Jola Kaious, Esry Samuel, Bodik Joseph and Lisa Clarence will each design five looks to be worn by Marshallese models down the catwalk.

The event is part of a growing initiative to share the tight-knit Marshallese culture with the wider NWA community, says Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese founder and executive director, Melisa Laelan. She says the idea took root after talking to the Walton Family Foundation about the availability of exhibition and performance space for artists through a partnership with the nonprofit Artspace.

WHAT — Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese Designer Showcase

WHEN — 7:15 p.m. Sept. 20

WHERE — Drake Field, 4500 S. School Ave., Fayetteville

COST — $25-$90

INFO — nwafw.com or 422-7305

"We were able to share our vision with Artspace, which is to bring a better quality of life for the Marshallese here in Northwest Arkansas," says Laelan. The Springdale area has the highest concentration of Marshallese citizens outside of the Marshall Islands themselves. "Of course, you want to make sure that you foster a good quality of life for the Marshallese, but also, at the same time, you want to preserve your culture. So one idea we had was to sit down with folks like Walmart and the Walton Family Foundation and see if they like the idea of a Marshallese Cultural Center."

They liked the idea very much, and Laelan is hopeful talks will continue and that, eventually, the Marshallese community will have a space where it can showcase its cultural history and background. In the meantime, she said, initiatives like the fashion show can be a good first step.

"We're really trying to communicate our culture and what we're about -- our identity -- to this community that maybe, perhaps, has not heard of our culture or does not have an understanding of it."

Laelan says that the designers will make sure Marshallese traditional clothing is represented, though a few of them are working to blend the present with the past.

"You're going to see some interesting pieces out there that speak loudly of both cultures," she says. "One designer was really struggling -- 'Should I just stick with Islander style?' I said, 'You know, if that's you, you should just do you.' And one of the designers is pretty young, in her 30s, and she said, 'You know I'm interested in doing something that tells the community that I'm Marshallese, but that I am American at the same time.' So I'm really looking forward to that."

But despite desginers' thoughtful approach, efforts to bridge the two cultures can be difficult.

"We're here to assimilate -- not in a forceful way, but in a way that both cultures are appreciated," Laelan says. "It really can be hard when you're trying to honor your culture, and, at the same time, assimilate yourself to this new world.

"I think what I'm trying to do with these designers is trying to make a breakthrough. I think they're so enclosed and so used to their work and focusing just on the Marshallese way, but now we're challenging them. I feel like we're really just giving them that lift. That's the goal: to uplift the community."

NAN What's Up on 09/16/2018

Print Headline: By Community, For Community

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