New York, Paris, London, Little Rock. What do all of these cities have in common? They’re all leaders in the fashion industry — well, Little Rock is on its way to becoming one, anyway, with the help of fashion designer and teacher Jamileh Kamran, founder and director of the Arkansas Fashion School.

 

Her story begins along the Caspian Sea in the Gilan Province of Iran. A young Kamran sits inside her aunt’s shop as lines of customers wait with fabrics in hand, excited for the woman to transform their materials into something beautiful. The woman would listen to the customers’ design ideas and make measurements and cuts right before their eyes. Paying attention to each word exchanged between tailor and customer, each snip of the shears, each thread, Kamran was falling in love with the process. 

Kamran and her students pore over designs at the fashion school.

“My aunt would pile up the fabric next to her and sometimes put it in a room where it would be safe. One day, I stole a bundle of fabric that caught my eye and hid it underneath my clothes,” a much wiser Kamran says with a laugh today. “I went home, so proud of myself and excited to use the fabric for my doll.” However, her victory was short-lived when her aunt stopped by the house and caught Kamran with the fabric and scissors in hand. 

 

“She told me that if I were to steal from her again she would cut my finger,” Kamran says between laughs. “I was so scared for when my father would find out what I did. I kept waiting and waiting for the punishment I would receive when he got home, but when he found out what I did, he said to my mother, ‘Why don’t you take her to a fabric store and buy her some fabric?’ I was shocked, to say the least.” She laughs again and shakes her head, “That’s how it all started.”

 

Her father, Jalal Zamir, held a high position in the Ministry of Education in Iran. He always encouraged his children to learn skills that would take care of them later in life when no one else could. “He believed that if something were to happen to him and my mother, us kids needed to have something that could take care of us. He never wanted us to feel dependent. We could always find ways to make money,” explains Kamran. 

 

Her father enrolled Kamran in a small fashion school that she attended twice a week. “I took one or two courses there for a summer, and it was a small program. I realize today just how small it was and that maybe they didn’t know what they were doing,” she explains. The Kamran family moved every few years due to her father’s job. After her time at the fashion school, the family moved back and forth between the southern and northern regions of Iran. “Once we had moved back to [the north], I was busy with high school and preparing for college, and then I got married and had a baby,” she says. With the arrival of their daughter, her husband going to school and political unrest in Iran, she and her little family moved to America.

Kamran and Hillary Clinton. (Courtesy)

“The original plan was to stay in America for four years so that my husband could finish his degree, and then we would move back to Iran. So, we only brought enough money and belongings for the four years that we were staying,” Kamran says with a tired laugh. “This was in 1978, and the revolution in Iran began. We knew that we couldn’t go back home with everything that was going on, especially with our daughter who was around 3 at the time, so we stayed in America with very, very little to support us.”

 

Kamran and her husband, Allen Afsordeh, attended Central Baptist College (CBC) in Conway. A couple of months into their studies, they noticed one day when they were walking around campus that other students would whisper and give disapproving looks. “One of our professors at the college called us into his office, and he told us that some Iranians took a couple of Americans hostage,” Kamran says solemnly. “He told us that if any of the students tried to bother us or if we felt threatened, we could stay at his house, and he would take care of us. I was so thankful in that moment for his support. It’s difficult coming to a new country and trying to make a life, but it’s more difficult when people don’t want you there.” During this time, Iranian students lost funding and scholarships from the American government to go to school, and Iranians were targets of hate crimes. “Iranian businesses were attacked, tires were slashed, it was a scary time. Much like what’s happening today with Asians living in America.” Kamran says that she has never had any trouble in Arkansas, for which she is grateful. “The people here have been kind to us; they’re good people.”

 

Along the way, she found more people that helped her navigate life in the U.S. She had worked in a technology company in Iran prior to moving to America. At this job, she could type in Farsi, and it would translate to English simultaneously, allowing her to learn how to type in English as well. Not too long after she and her husband had been living in Arkansas, she applied for a job at a hospital. “As part of my interview, I had to type some sentences, and they were impressed by how fast I could type,” she says. “Thank goodness the lady interviewing me didn’t ask me to translate what I was typing.”  

 

She had taken some English classes at her job in Iran, but some terms and phrases were still a bit lost on her. “Dr. Eckert, who was the director of residency at the time, he liked me — he was a man who traveled a lot and had been to the Middle East, and he knew my situation. He took me under his wing and taught me English. I would type something, take it to his office, and he would correct me,” she says. She shares that other leaders in the hospital supported her along the way, and she’ll always be grateful for the help she received.

Kamran has invested the majority of her life into her career.

Kamran worked at the hospital for around seven years. During that time, she was also designing in her family’s little apartment. By this point, she and her husband had two children: Nirvana, the daughter who moved with them from Iran, and Nader, their son that was born in the states. Kamran worked, took care of the two kids, did household work, and ended the night designing and making clothes. 

 

“I would work all day and then go home to design and sew late into the night in our tiny apartment. Then the cycle would repeat the next day, and the next. I worked, worked, worked,” she recalls. “I barely slept those years. I found myself depressed and in a dark place,” Kamran shifts in her chair, adjusting her coral suit jacket. “I took a look at my life, and I loved my husband, I loved my children, but I didn’t feel like I had anything to show for myself.” 

 

The aspiring fashion designer’s big break was soon to come. Her daughter Nirvana was a part of the Rockefeller Elementary School gifted math program that students from all over the state tested for, including then-Gov. Bill Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea Clinton. “I went to an awards ceremony with my daughter, and I saw Hillary Clinton. I thought, ‘I absolutely have to meet her and show my designs,’” Kamran says with wide eyes still full of determination. “I went up to her and told her I was a designer, and you know what she said?” Kamran pauses dramatically. “She said, ‘Send me some sketches, and I’ll look at them.’ I didn’t believe she would give a second thought to it, so I decided to send my sketches with a sample of fabric I brought from the Middle East that matched her eyes.” Hillary later reached out to Kamran, and the two collaborated for many years when Hillary was the First Lady of Arkansas, as well as for the presidential inauguration in 1993.

 

“I went to the first inauguration, excited that my name would be listed as one of Hillary’s designers. Unfortunately, all of the other designer’s names were there, but my name was not there,” she pauses and smooths out her tailored pants with a breath. “That really, really hurt me. It felt like a slap to the face, and I could have acted out of anger but I didn’t.” The Clintons made a trip back to Arkansas to visit his mother a little while later, and Kamran decided it was time to find out what happened. “I was confused because when I delivered the gowns to Hillary before the inauguration, I heard her tell her assistant that all of her designers needed recognition, but I deserved the most recognition because I had done the most for her,” Kamran says. “Hillary didn’t know that I hadn’t received recognition, so for a while, I was the only designer she wore. Whether it was pants, jackets, dresses — she only wore my designs as her way of apologizing.” Kamran laughs, and then shares that People magazine wrote an article about Hillary’s designers, and Kamran was the only one they wrote good things about. “I have that article framed right over there.”  

 

More politicians, judges and similar influential figures reached out to Kamran for designs. “Many of my clients flew on their own personal planes to see me,” she says. “They would stay in a hotel so we could design and do fittings and then they would fly back home where I could ship them the completed line.” Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, former president of Philander Smith College, was a client of Kamran’s and now serves on the Arkansas Fashion School’s advisory board. “When she moved to Florida to Bethune-Cookman College, she invited me to attend the college centennial celebration and dress her administration.”

 

When the economy crashed between 2007 and 2008, most of Kamran’s clients were greatly affected. “I lost so many of my clients — I didn’t know what to do,” she says with a shrug. “I paused and took a look at my career until that point.” 

Flashback to the ’80s, Kamran recalls what she considers the highlight of her career. “At this time, there was a huge stigma and fear surrounding the AIDS crisis. No one wanted to be near a person with AIDS because they thought they would catch it,” she says rolling her eyes. “People with AIDS were in desperate need of help and, more importantly, they needed support.” She joined the AIDS foundation and designed a fabric that was made into scarves and ties and sold for the benefit of Arkansas AIDS patients. “I got people talking about AIDS more openly, and I got the media involved, so the issue of lack of funding and support was brought to Arkansans’ ears.” 

 

One memory stands out amongst the rest for Kamran. “A middle-aged man came in and bought a scarf and a tie and when he was turning to leave, he stopped. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘Thank you.’” Kamran herself gets emotional sharing this story. “Over the last 50 years of my career, it’s that moment that makes me the happiest. I did something substantial and meaningful with my skill, and I’ll always be proud to have supported the people that no one else would,” Kamran says, looking at a sample of her AIDS Foundation fabric hanging on the wall.

 

Realizing that she felt the most fulfilled helping others, Kamran made the decision in 2007 to share her skill and knowledge with others. She opened Arkansas Fashion School, the first of its kind in the state.

 

“Sharing my knowledge and giving back the gift that was given to me was the one thing I hadn’t done yet,” she says. Kamran began planning the curriculum for her school and looking at the available materials taught to fashion students. “I didn’t like the books, so I wrote my own.” At that, she shows off her first two books, The Art of Couture and The Art of Decoration. Arkansas Fashion School now has around 14 levels of instruction that Kamran and her assistant, Amanda Morely, teach to the students. “We started out in a one-room building where the students were crowded, and we were limited on how many classes we could hold,” Kamran says. She gestures to the space around her, “Now we have three work areas that can hold multiple classes at once, and my students can feel more comfortable.” 

 

Her students learn everything from designing to sewing to making patterns to measuring to anything and everything under the fluorescent lights of the studio. “There was nothing in Arkansas like this. The people wanting to learn fashion had to go to schools out of state that are expensive, and even more so for out-of-state students,” Kamran says. “My students are all ages. They work hard in and out of the school while supporting themselves and possibly their families.” Kamran tells her students that they must keep their passion for the art alive. 

 

“Passion, commitment, rewards. That is our motto,” Kamran says, pointing to a large sign above the door. “I tell my story to my students to prove to them that if they put in the work and stay focused, they will find reward.” She emphasizes that her students know that the journey will be a series of ups and downs. “My entire life has been ups and downs, but through it all, I worked and became better. I didn’t stop.”

Inside the Arkansas Fashion School’s new location.

She tries to provide her students with all of the opportunities that bigger fashion schools around the country offer their students. “In 2022, we will be attending New York Fashion Week. We’ll have an entire hour to exhibit our designs, and my students will get to feel what it’s like to be a professional designer.”

 

The Arkansas Fashion School has attended New York Fashion Week in the past, but COVID-19 halted their trips for 2020 and 2021. “I have students that are already working on their designs for the trip. It’s a huge opportunity for them,” Kamran says. A video of the previous New York Fashion Weeks plays on loop in the entrance of her school. “Many of the students in this video are now in Chicago, New York or shipping their designs across the globe.” 

 

Her next goal is to bring more attention to her school on Rodney Parham Road in Little Rock. “We want the student body account to come up substantially,” she says. “I have so much to share with students, and I know there are more aspiring designers out there. Most people don’t know that they have an option right here.”

 

The fashion designer and teacher says she’s not finished yet. “I have been so blessed with this gift, and I have to thank God for it. I know that there is still more for me to do, starting with this school.” She is passionate about her students and their progress in their developing fashion careers. “Great things are happening, and more can be done.”

 

Kamran shares that she has zero regrets. She’s invested the majority of her life into her career, and it’s obvious to anyone around her that she is the happiest when she’s around fabric. “When I came here, there were a lot of things trying to stop me. I was a foreigner, I was a woman, and it was difficult at times to prove myself. I didn’t let any doors close on me, though. I opened them wide and told people, ‘This is me. This is who I am. And this is what I do.’”