When she was faced with sending her last child off to college, Joan Robbins knew she wanted to get involved with something new; something that would use her brain in a new way.
Robbins had been a finance major in college but didn't want to return to that field. She thought learning to sew would be a fine undertaking, so she began taking classes through Portland Sewing Institute, the public education portion of Portland Fashion Institute in Northeast Portland.
"I began by taking just a basic sewing skills class," Robbins said. "And then kept going back to take more classes."
What began as a hobby has blossomed into a career as a fashion designer. Now, after three years of increasingly difficult and technical classes in sewing skills, pattern making, fashion illustration, and more, Robbins has graduated from Portland Fashion Institute. She will present her graduate portfolio at Fade to Light, a runway fashion show to be held Aug. 23 at the Crystal Ballroom in downtown Portland.
"For the past eight months I've designed and created a collection of clothes," Robbins said. "At this stage in my life starting something brand new is a little scary, but these last few months have been so fun and a little nerve wracking."
From the start of her sewing and design career, Robbins wanted to create clothing for mature women; clothing that was comfortable and made of easy care fabrics, yet stylish. She uses natural and ecologically made fabrics such as linen, Tencel and rayon. She describes her style as "clothing for a new season of your life."
"My clothes are a modern-day spin in the casual sportswear category, especially designed for women our age, and our changing bodies," she said.
For the Fade to Light Fashion Show, Robbins will present her "Out of Africa" line. She took inspiration for the line from women from the 1920s and '30s who broke barriers in male-dominated fields — women such as Amelia Earhart, known for her courage, vision, and groundbreaking achievements in American aviation; Academy Award-winning actress Katharine Hepburn and Nobel Prize-nominee and Danish author Karen Blixen. Blixen is best known for "Out of Africa," an account of her life while living in Kenya.
"Each in their own careers crashed through barriers and succeeded," Robbins said.
She named her line Alton Oak, with a nod to her mother's family name, Alton. "I come from a long line of very strong women in the Alton family."
Robbins' great-grandmother Anna (Mintie) Alton was married to Robert D. Alton, who established a private medical practice in Livingston, Mont., in 1883. He frequently traveled to Europe for training, and Anna accompanied him.
"She was a real clothes horse," Robbins said. "She brought Paris fashions back and wore them in Livingston."
It's that confidence and style Robbins captures in her designs.
"Alton Oak exudes confidence, style and femininity; designed for women embracing a new season in their life," she said.
Presenting with Robbins will be fellow graduates Joan McCord presenting her line Valtensdottir, Jonathan Greer presenting Suburban Buddha, Karen Wilfred presenting Wilfred Apparel and Maia Burt presenting Woodville.
The show also includes past graduates showing their current lines, including Cayenne Alder, who is now working at Michael Curry Design; Florencia Pacheco, now working at Creative Capital Consulting; Viola Pruitt, actress and consume designer working for Mask and Mirror Theatre; freelance patternmaker Anne Swanson; and Bryn Swain, a design assistant at Union Rose.
Sharon Blair founded Portland Sewing in 2002, with a beginning sewing class for four students. The business grew to add classes in intermediate and advanced sewing. Then in 2010, Portland Sewing added classes on the business of apparel. The school became a licensed career school in 2016, and thus Portland Fashion Institute was created to offer three certificates and give people the skills to start businesses and get jobs at apparel companies.
This is the seventh year PFI has graduated designers. Past graduates include Claire Doody (Cooper Union), Jessica Caldwell (Machine Apparel), Christine Van Abkoude (Perilous Activity), Caitlin McCall (Quick Study), Jessy Burris (Candy Lagoon and Adidas), Melanie Bowman Clarke (costume designer for film and television).
Robbins admits the courses were difficult and time consuming, but she is proud of her accomplishments and wants to share that experience with others.
"If there would be one message I would offer, it's that you are never too old to try something new," she said. "Don't let age or anything be a barrier to achieving your dream."
Tickets to Fade to Light Fashion Show range in price from $17-$75. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the show begins at 8 p.m. The Crystal Ballroom is located at 1332 W. Burnside St. in Portland. Tickets may be purchased online at fadetolight.net.
A portion of the proceeds from this show will be donated to Cancer Curesaders, a Portland-based nonprofit raising funds and awareness for children's cancer treatment.
For more information about the event and the group it is benefitting, visit altonoak.com, portlandfashioninstitute.com or facebook.com/pg/CancerCuresader.
By Barb Randall
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