Beaming lights shine on a runway surrounded by a thousand stares.
Anxiety creeps in as a job candidate shakes hands with his future boss.
Nerves can get the best of all of us, but John Gaiters is on a mission to help today’s youth own first impressions – and own them with fashion.
“I didn’t want to teach kids just how to rock it on the runway but to know what does it mean to gain life-learning skills. How do you operate in different functions? What is the proper etiquette?
At 22, Gaiters is the founder and CEO of the Arkansas Fashion Council, a non-profit organization aiming “to create an inclusive fashion network and support system that educates creatives, nurtures children and promotes students.”
In a year’s time, he has graduated from the University of Central Arkansas with a degree in innovation and entrepreneurship, started the fashion council, held workshops to teach students the importance of building a professional brand, and is now hosting the first Dream Fashion Soirée, which will have students from Fayetteville High School and the Little Rock Air Force Base modeling on the runway at the Starr Theater in the Walton Arts Center this weekend.
“I wanted to create a fashion show but not just to have another pretty face walk on the runway,” Gaiters explains. “I wanted these students to be empowered, and I wanted the audience to be empowered – to know that it’s not about your credentials or have you been in a certain job for 30 or 40 years. Because a lot of these kids, they feel like, ‘I can’t do anything until I get X, Y and Z,’ and that’s not true.”
Born in a military community in Oklahoma, Gaiters was young when he moved to the Little Rock Air Force Base with his mother, Endalynn Seals, and his siblings.
His love for fashion was sparked in high school when he and his mother went on a trip to LA Fashion Week. As a young adult, he even began modeling for Sculp Agency.
“My mom told me, ‘If I can make it from war, you can make it, too. You can do anything you put your mind to.’”
The idea for the Arkansas Fashion Council came when Bill Doshier, his UCA professor, encouraged Gaiters and his fellow students to create something that would have an impact and involved one of their passions
So while fashion is Gaiters’ platform, his statement is to empower youth and help them build a personal brand.
With ambitious dreams, Gaiters has seen some roadblocks, but he’s here to tell teenagers and young adults not to give up too easily.
“It’s not uncommon for someone really, really young to just do something out of the box,” he says. “…I want to be an inspiration, but it should be so normal for these kids to do stuff out of the blue. I want to set the precedent for other kids to just do it. Take it one step at a time and just do it.”
Realizing the need for good mentors, Gaiters also calls on adults to provide more robust guidance and support for youth.
“A lot of times, it’s not that kids are stupid or unruly, it’s that they haven’t been exposed to these things,” he explained. “A lot of times, adults have an expectation of something that they’re not willing to give in to. You can’t expect what you don’t inspect.”
He doesn’t have just one person to turn to – Gaiters has several adults to mentor him and he believes he can learn from their different perspectives – especially from those who serve on his council.
Another person he looks to for support is his godmother, Anne Reynolds-Robertson.
“What I’ve been inspired with what [John] is doing is it’s not just about the outside, it’s about the inside, too,” she says.
Focusing on making good impressions on the outside but also developing students’ people skills from the inside, he is here to remind them greatness is a mindset.
“Greatness is doing something that you see needs to be done and no one watch you,” he says.
Greatness starts with an idea, and in his words, “You’re not a failure until you stop.”
There’s no sign of stopping in Gaiters’ future. When asked where he thinks the Arkansas Fashion Council is headed, he chuckled and says, “It’s a secret, but what we do know is that we are continually growing and I’ll say this – we are expanding beyond Arkansas.”
The Dream Fashion Soirée, presented by Dillard’s, begins at 6 p.m. December 15. It will feature winners of the Wearable Arts Competition, an AFC program that allowed Fayetteville students to create artistic accessories to showcase at the fasion soirée.
Tickets range from $25 to $125 and can be bought through the Walton Arts Center website.
The keynote speaker will be Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who will speak on youth empowerment. The event will also feature the “Dreaming, Planning and Executing” Panel, which includes Gaiters; Rod Bigelow, CEO of Crystal Bridges Art Museum; and Tara Gartman, VP of Retail Development at Nickelodeon. Kim Lane, CEO of Conductor, will serve as the panel moderator.