Little Rock's new designing women 

A plan to move women from high security prison to high fashion jobs.

It was born, as original ideas often are, out of a casual conversation - a relaxed sharing of brainpower on a Saturday afternoon. Connie Fails, clothing designer and owner of the Hillcrest institution of the same name, was "at a low point" after trying to figure out what to do with the store after she leaves June 1 to head the Clinton Presidential Library gift shop. "The last thing in the world I wanted to do was just close it," she said. DeeAnn Newell, a long-time customer and friend, was in the shop that day. A week later, she came back with a proposal: Her family would buy the store and use it to support a program to teach seamstressing to mothers recently released from prison. The store would stay open and mostly unchanged, and Fails would be free of its day-to-day management. "This is a really important store, a fixture in Little Rock," Newell said. "She's a community leader. A lot of very important networking and decision-making of forward-thinking women happened in that store. I didn't want to lose that legacy." Newell's proposal was unusual, to put it mildly, but Fails went along. "The more we talked, the bigger and faster the ball rolled down the hill," Fails said. Newell's family, founders of the original Anthony School decades ago, now officially owns Connie Fails the store. Connie Fails the woman will continue to design clothes for the store, go to wholesale markets and will consult on the training program, Newell said. She said she hopes the training program - tentatively titled Designing Women - will start this fall. Fails' store has always featured her own creations, sewn by a team of seamstresses who work in a back room of her shop. That won't change; Newell said she's keeping the same staff, for the most part. Those women, however, will take on the new role of training the former prisoners in the kind of high-end skills they would need to make a living with a sewing machine. Fails will design a new line of products - simpler to make than her clothing designs - that the trainees will be able to make and market over the Internet. After four months of training, Newell said, the women will be able to continue working for the cyber business, or set up their own small businesses doing alterations or other sewing work. Along the way, they'll also get help in life skills - learning to manage money, to reconnect with their children. The goal is to keep the women from returning to jail, and keep their children from following in their footsteps. "It's kind of blending family reunification with employment, which is a huge issue with these women," Newell said. Newell should know: she heads the Centers for Youth and Families' program that works with the children of imprisoned mothers. She also helped found Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind, a non-profit that also serves those children. At least 50,000 children in Arkansas have a parent in prison, Newell said, and the trend is up: the number of women in prison nationwide has tripled in the last decade. Children who lose a parent to the prison system can suffer from their own kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, Newell said - grief, behavioral problems, trouble at school. But when women are released from prison it's hard for them to find decent-paying jobs. Drug offenders are ineligible for many assistance programs, Newell said. The Designing Women program will be able to train 10 women at a time, and the training will last for four months, Newell said. During that time they'll be paid a "living wage," work about 20 hours a week (Newell said it's essential the women have time at home with their children) and get added incentives for each month they stay in the program. For now, the training will be done at the Arkansas Voices offices on Elm Street. Newell said the cost would probably run about $240,000 a year. Some of that will come from the Connie Fails store's profits, but Newell said she'll also need grant money. The Connie Fails seamstresses will be passing on a valuable skill that fewer and fewer people learn the old-fashioned way, Newell said. "Those women very much feel like their work is a fine craft, and one that we're losing," she said. "There's always going to be demand for this kind of work."

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