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My Omaha Fashion Magazine Work: Omaha Fashion Week May Be Showcase for the Next Big Thing Out of Omaha


Last minute posing!

Image by Mary P. from Pretty Good Things via Flickr

Anyone who knows me would raise their eyebrow or get a good laugh knowing that I wrote most of the articles for the inaugural issue of Omaha Fashion Magazine.  That’s because I am so much like the Anne Hathaway character at the start of The Devil Wears Prada, which is to say I don’t think a lot about fashion and the way I dress and carry myself reflects that.  After getting the fashion assignment for the new magazine I didn’t undergo anything like the transformation Hathaway’s character did, but I did gain a new appreciation for fashion as an aesthetic medium and as a pervasive industry.  I am glad I got the assignment, as I interviewed a number of designers with real passion and talent, and even if I never write about fashion again, although I would very much like to, I will forever be more attuned to what is behind the garment that drapes the model strutting down the runway.  As I found, designers are just like all the other artists and creatives I’ve interviewed and profiled, which is to say they are wonderfully afflicted with a magnificent obsession to create and to turn their visions into reality.

The magazine (www.omahafashionweek.com/magazine) is published by Omaha Fashion Week, the big player on the local fashion scene with its September 13-17 week of shows and events.  I am presenting the stories as I submitted them, which is a bit different than the way they appeared in the print and online magazine.

My Omaha Fashion Magazine Work: Omaha Fashion Week May Be the Showcase for the Next Big Thing Out of Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of the following was published in the  inaugural issue of Omaha Fashion Magazine (www.omahafashionweek.com/magazine)

Staking Out a Scene

Not so long ago the idea Omaha could ever be synonymous with high fashion strained credulity. But like lots of things once considered outside the domain of this Midwestern burg, say a relevant music scene for instance, Omaha continues defying expectations by making a splash in the American cultural stream.

Just as Saddle Creek Records framed the indigenous indie music scene as a much heralded, widely traveled brand of original artists sharing Omaha as their home base, other creative stirrings here are making waves. Whether in film, photography, animation, theatre, music, literature, painting, sculpture, graphic design or software applications, Omaha is producing a veritable flood of creative activity. So much so, this fly-over city long in search of a marketable image is gaining a reputation as a well-spring of imaginative start-ups and endeavors that intersect art and business.

Wherever you look there is a dynamic creative class of individuals, institutions, organizations, businesses and venues pushing the envelope. As more opportunities arise in this social networking age, creatives and entrepreneurs are carving out distinct niches for themselves. These include a diverse community of fashion forward designers whose couture and ready-to-wear work is finding an appreciative audience.

Omaha Freelance writer Lindsey Baker, who covers the fashion beat, said, “the fashion scene has developed right alongside” the city’s other cultural scenes. “I think people’s openness to all of the other things has made an openness to fashion appear. People are receptive.”

“The fashion scene in Omaha today compared to five years ago is definitely more sophisticated. Omaha has its own community of fashionistas, and they aren’t just over-styled, super trendy and accessorized to death. They are knowledgeable and savvy about what is happening right now in the fashion industry,” said Agency 89 booking director Christie Kruger, whose agency provides models for fashion shows and shoots.

The nexus of art and business in Omaha fashion is Omaha Fashion Week, a fall showcase that has become a platform and network for local designers in less than three years. OFW, patterned after those more famous events in larger cites, is evolving to connect designers with patrons, boutique owners and buyers.

It’s a production of Nomad Lounge, which utilizes an urban valley Old Market setting as the meta style site for a runway finale. The evening gala is aglow with lights and alive with energy as killer fashions walk down the 140-foot runway on tricked-out models to pulsating music, oohs and ahhs and popping flashbulbs. Thousands attend this culmination of a week-long focus on fashion, a must-see on Omaha’s ever-expanding cultural to-do list.

 

 

 

 

“It’s something that’s on people’s calendar and we are very surprised it only took three years to do that,” said event director Rachel Richards.

“Our event has really got this huge following,” said Nomad owner Nick Hudson, who along with Richards and designer Dale Heise of Omaha co-founded OFW.  “We are the biggest Midwest fashion event by a sizable margin, which is an amazing achievement. The community should be proud of that because they’re the ones who’ve done it, they’re the ones who’ve attended.”

Hudson said “it’s passion that’s driving this.” That’s true for the designers who make fashion, the models who bring it to life, the stylists and makeup artists who complete the look, the photographers who shoot it, the journalists who cover it and himself.

Tee’z Salon owner Thomas Sena, who directs the Week’s runway finale, said social media sites Facebook, YouTube and MySpace are “very important parts of marketing this and keeping the buzz alive.” With designers, stylists, models and photographers “posting photos and videos all year long,” he said, “the show doesn’t go away.””We’re starting to get noticed,” said Hudson. “The Convention and Visitors Bureau is hearing how wonderful it is. They’re bound to be interested in it because it’s helping put Omaha on the map. The Mayors apparently got it on his radar that it’s a really positive, good event. We’re getting nothing but really good vibes about it.”

What OFW has done is to identify and coalesce a formerly fragmented design landscape into something nearer a cohesive community.

As Omaha fashion photographer Chris Machian puts it, “There was a scene before, but it wasn’t organized. Fashion Week helped organize it a bit by sort of giving it a calendar and a cycle.”

Along the way, a deeper talent pool than anyone imagined has been revealed. This comes on the heels of a once subterranean fashion scene moving above ground, into the light of day.

“At some point there becomes kind of a critical mass with the underground movement where there’s an eventual spilling over into mainstream, and I think we’re right in the middle of that happening now,” said Sena. “And I think it really culminated in Nick Hudson recognizing the raw talent in the design scene. He started putting all these pieces together and recognized it was ready for kind of prime time. I really have to give Nick credit for recognizing that it was valid and it was doable.”

All Dressed Up and Somewhere to Go

Creating fashion is one thing. Having some place to display it and appreciate it is another. As more and more Omaha designers emerge, the need for sufficient area outlets to get these artists’ work noticed, talked about, bought and sold. whether in stores or at shows, becomes paramount.

Omaha Fashion Week is a catalyst for local fashion finding homes.

“Omaha Fashion Week has noticed the growth and interest and created a larger and growing platform for the undiscovered talents in Omaha,” said Bellwether Boutique owner Jesse Latham, whose Old Market shop carries work by locals.

 

 

Rachel Richards

 

 

The work of many Omaha designers is turning heads and finding buyers. There’s enough now that Latham can afford to be selective. Not everything she sees she likes. “Yes, there are a lot of designers,” she said, “but I see lines or pieces that are totally uninspired and missing the meaning or idea that this IS an art form, not some shifty way to get attention.” Latham said those designers whose work she does embrace “do well” in sales. “They did better when I first opened five years ago but the economic climate wasn’t quite as dire. My customers love to support them and I love to tell newcomers about each designer as if they were my kids.”

What are the upper limits for an Omaha fashion designer?

At least one, Thakoon, has gone national, although he felt compelled to leave Omaha for New York to do that. The hope is that someday someone will go big here and stay here with a locally designed line that’s sold coast-to-coast, even worldwide.

Conor Oberst did it in music. Jun Kaneko in art. Alexander Payne in film. Richard Dooling in literature.

“I don’t see why the same thing couldn’t happen with the design scene. I can see these young designers being picked up. The quirky idea of this coming from Omaha will just give it added buzz. It’s a good story,” said Tee’z Salon’s Thomas Sena. “I think it’s going to take just one successful Omaha designer to get out there in front and be picked up on a national commercial basis — someone who really gets out and kills it.”

Some have caused ripples. Mary Anne Vaccaro makes much-in-demand evening wear gowns. Sabrina Jones has her own lines of bridal and evening wear. Alexia Thiele’s Autopilot Art label reaches a wide audience of 20-somethings. Megan Hunt, aka Princess Lasertron, has nationwide clients for her bridal accessories. She and Joi Mahon of Dress Forms Design are launching a line of bridal and party dresses.

Meanwhile, several high fashion shops have opened in recent years, such as Alice Kim’s Trocadero.

“She’s (Kim) successfully introduced people to things. Some of the places that have opened up downtown have been a really good indicator that people in Omaha are interested in having a more metropolitan attitude towards fashion,” said Omaha fashion writer Lindsey Baker.

Additionally, shops like the Bellwether and Retro Rocket feature local fashion.

“Jesse Latham is a huge proponent of the local designers,” said Omaha designer and fashion photographer Dale Heise.

Even national chains like Urban Outfitter and American Apparel have added a hip  new aesthetic. Then there’s the out-of-the-closet factor of television reality shows like Project Runway bringing high fashion into people’s living rooms every day. “That show has done great things for fashion as a whole and Omaha has caught wind of that,” said Latham.

As Omaha designer Buf Reynolds sees it, the more exposure designers like herself have to a big fashion stage, the more realistic a career seems. “Everybody’s starting to understand that it’s something that’s real and it’s attainable at this point.”

Taken together, there’s a synergy around Omaha fashion as never before.

 

 

Nick Hudson

 

 

I’ve been asked by the Chamber of Commerce what are the implications of fashion here,” said Nomad owner Nick Hudson. “It’s quite a hard question to answer. In terms of being on a big scale those things take time but certainly there’s the beginnings there of real potential. So what we’re doing is spending some time listening to the people involved about what can we do to help keep improving and nurture that. That’s why we put on an end of March show this year — to keep it a little bit alive, to keep the designers connected with people. It’s a smaller, more personal show where they can actually connect one-on-one with people who are interested in buying the garments.

“The other initiative is this magazine, which is going to live in hair salons and boutique stores and help in bringing this fashion community together.”

 

 

 

 

No one is pretending Omaha has anything like a sustainable fashion industry. Yet.

But those immersed in the nascent scene see the potential for a breakout phenomenon akin to what happened with indie music here.

“Omaha’s Saddle Creek indie music scene seemingly came out of nowhere,” said  Heise. “All these musicians were just doing what they love in their basement and doing occasional shows. It basically took them taking their acts to New York and somebody seeing them, saying, ‘Oh, this is amazing.’ I think the same thing will happen with fashion in Omaha.”

If it does, Fashion Week will almost certainly be involved as a facilitator.

With the Help of Some Perspective

It’s not that there was no fashion scene before Omaha Fashion Week debuted in 2008 to surprisingly big crowds. Prior to OFW the scene amounted to local celebrity shows for charity with off-the-rack, mass-produced garments, or funky guerrilla alley or warehouse shows of original but extreme, avant-garde designs with limited appeal.

Omaha designer Buf Reynolds said, “About six-seven-eight years ago a fashion scene hardly existed. There were a few fashion shows here and there but they were not a whole lot to speak of. It’s come so far so fast. I’m pretty happy to be a part of it.”

“The success of Fashion Week is stimulating a lot of other fashion shows,” said Thomas Sena of Tee’z Salon.

Not that there weren’t interesting shows in the past. A legendary one organized by designer Dan Richters at the Medusa Project presaged the compelling original designer fashions that have since come to the fore.

“Dan is in some ways the grandfather of the modern (Omaha) fashion scene,” according to Omaha designer Dale Heise. “He put on this show of all local designers and all these people came out just to see fashion. It was very underground.”

“Slowly but surely there was kind of an alternative underground movement of originals that grew just like there was in music. Some of these underground parties started doing little showings of original clothing,” noted Sena, whose salon has sponsored its own annual runway show.

By and large though, said Heise, presentations of original local designs were mere interludes or diversions between band sets at live music clubs. Fashion was minimized as side show, add-on, after-thought, frill. It was not main attraction.

Heise, Reynolds and designer Julia Drazic wanted to change that by making fashion, what’s more local fashion, the spotlight, not the music or models or drinks. They began energizing the scene with shows at the Omaha Magic Theatre.

Then Heise met Nomad’s Nick Hudson, a transplanted Brit with a rich background in the fashion and beauty industries and a passion for entrepreneurism. Hudson was already impressed by Omaha’s arts community. Nomad began hosting shows and Hudson said when he saw the work of Heise and other local designers “it really caught my attention. I wasn’t really expecting to find fashion designers of any real note in Omaha.” But he did.

Hudson, Heise and Rachel Richards, who is Nomad’s general manager and marketing/events director, envisioned something grander and more glamourous than these small alternative shows with a handful of designers and 200-300 spectators.

“When I started conjuring the idea of Fashion Week I wanted it to be a larger outdoor show,” said Heise. “I wanted it to be accessible to the public, I wanted it to be seen from far off, I wanted it to be a spectacle.

“What we did at the Magic Theatre was very cool and artistic but anyone from Chicago or New York would have thought, Oh, that’s cute. I wanted something that said we’re really serious about this, we’re not trying to be cute.”

Photographer Chris Machian, who is part of Minor White Studios, finds the spectacle a blast to shoot.

“What I enjoy is seeing a mix of color and light coming down that runway,” he said. “The event uses dramatic stage lighting, and you can do a lot of different things with that. I rarely ever use a flash. I’ll play with it, I’ll go with a slower shutter at first, and then as the show goes along I’ll go in different artistic modes and do all silhouette or all panning shots. Then real detail shots on eyes and shoes and things like that. Crowd reactions. I don’t go in with all those things planned either. Then I’ll go backstage and have the models and designers coming out.”

He said the intimate access afforded by OFW is rare. “New York Fashion Week is all shot from the same spot because they cordon photographers off. There I wouldn’t have the access I have here. Here, they let me do my job, and it’s wonderful,” said Machian. If he wants to, he said, he can spend an all-nighter with a designer crashing to complete a line, just as he’s done with Dale Heise. He can also interpret that same designer’s creative process — from sketch to sewing to fitting to runway walk — as akin to the stages of a butterfly’s life.

Freelance writer Lindsey Baker said aside from minor quibbles she has with aspects of the event, Fashion Week has proven itself a bona fide happening that is building as opposed to plateauing.

“Obviously there’s something going on,” she said.

The 2,000 or so who turned out the first year doubled in 2009. “After last year. we realized it wasn’t a fluke,” said Hudson, who expects 6,000 to attend this year. The artists involved include hundreds of models, stylists, make-up artists. All volunteers.

“I think we were all just a little bitt shocked at quite how good it was and how’d we’d created this possibility,” said Hudson. “We begged and borrowed bits of equipment to make it happen on a budget the best we could, but it looked really impressive.”

Devoting an entire week exclusively to local design broke new ground here.

 

 

Thomas Sena

 

 

“Going with all original local designers was something completely new to Omaha, On that kind of a scale that had never been done before,” said Sena.

Taking Off

No one anticipated an Omaha fashion week would reel in so many participants. Twelve designers were part of Fashion Week I. Twice as many made lines for Fashion Week II. Heading into Year Three dozens are vying for the coveted main runway slots. As local designer Dale Heise put it, “designers are coming out of the woodwork.” Clearly, organizers tapped into a creative community that never had a dedicated showcase like this until now.

Buf Reynolds, owner of Retro Rocket, has been part of the scene for a decade. She’s stunned by how much growth there is in the number and quality of designers.

“Six years ago we couldn’t find 10 designers to do a show, where now there’s over 30 designers trying to get into a show. It’s pretty amazing,” she said. “The amount of talent out there is astounding. It’s really overwhelming to see all these people. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, is my stuff good enough?’ You have to wonder. And it’s great because it challenges you and pushes you forward. It’s really fun.”

“In total, Omaha has at least 50 designers, all at different stages, of course, but talented people doing original, creative things,” Heise said. “You’ve got such a spectrum of designers and diverse designs — from electric clash punk to formal bridal gowns to evening wear that looks like Armani to razor cut tuxedos with incredible lines.

“Then there’s Buf Reynolds with her modern twists on 1920s, 1930s-inspired dresses. Simple elegance. Very flowing. They’re not the most radical but they’re very interesting, and there’s a sold consistency from Buf. She’s a powerhouse who does several shows a year and designs several pieces for every show.”

Heise’s own work features monochrome panel dress designs that  expose skin in a sultry peek-a-boo style.

In an e-mail Bellwether Botique’s Jessie Latham shared her take on other leading Omaha designers:

“Shannon Hopp will bring her work down, and call it ‘dumb,’ while I’m thinking she should make one in every color. She edits her pieces perfectly to make the beauties from the past look modern. Dan Richters is the example I would put in front of people when I tell them fashion is also art.  Alexia Thiele is the queen of reconstruction. She makes unique, adorable pieces for the entire family.

“Jennie Mason is sweet as a GAP model only to throw you off with electric colors, spiked shoulders, computer carcasses, pink tutus and robots. She is the only designer who nailed the market on men’s wear. Amazing tailoring. Every time Jane Round brings me something new it blows my mind. She’s constantly growing as a designer, as much and often more than the ‘scene’ is.”

Before OFW, Heise said, few designers knew each other. “It’s been this magnet for, Oh, there’s somebody else doing it here, too — I’m not as crazy as I thought.”

“It’s also cultivating new talent,” said Tee’z Salon owner Thomas Sena, who echoed others in admiring the work of two teenage designers featured at last year’s Fashion Week. One was Jane Round and the other, Claire Landolt, who drew much attention with her playful paper dresses fashioned from newsprint and duct tape.

Before she got plugged into the scene courtesy the Bellwether’s Latham, Landolt said she had “no idea” there were local designers beside herself.

“I think it’s very important to make connection with the other designers,” said Landolt, an Omaha Roncalli junior who accessorizes her drab school uniform with high heels and sprays of fabric and color. “We’re not competitive with each other but it kind of makes us work harder. I know I want to be more creative and think of new ideas, so I’m not too similar to someone else. We all have our own distinct looks, but I think we kind of overlap in some areas — a lot us like the vintage-inspired clothing.”

In Latham, Landolt’s found a mentor who carries her Itchy line at Bellwether. “We’re really good friends. She just kind of nurtures me and supports me,” said Landolt. The teen was a spectator at the first Fashion Week and thanks to Latham got an insider’s look at the goings-on. “She took me backstage, just holding my hand and dragging me everywhere, so I got behind the scenes. It was crazy back stage.”

 

 

 

 

The environment whet the young designer’s appetite to be part of the next show. She was and she impressed many with ger creative talent. Thanks to Latham and the experience of Fashion Week the sweet, shy Landolt now counts several designers as friends. It’s just one less degree of separation for what otherwise can be an isolated art form. That feeling of being part of a design community has benefits. “It’s really great because you can actually sit down and talk with somebody who has a sympathetic ear and understands all the little daily things we have to go through,” Reynolds said.

Aside from a few exceptions, being an Omaha fashion designer means working solo rather than with a team of assistants. It means doing everything by hand one’s self. It means working a day job to support this passion and then pulling all-nighters to get lines ready for showing. Most designers have little time to actually market their brand.

Heise said, “Now we’ve kind of started this support group for fashion addicts in order to get us all moving in the right direction and thinking about it as a serious thing in terms of — how do you market yourself, how do you show your designs, how do you get in front of clients, how do you sell things?”

Nomad’s Nick Hudson confirmed that OFW is trying to provide more structure for designers. “We’re helping them with just simple things like business cards and Web sites — trying to help designers with some of the business basics.”

Top of the World

According to Omaha fashion professionals and observers taking the scene to the next level requires putting in place a support system that operates year-round, not just around Fashion Week. Said Nomad owner Nick Hudson, “One of the things the designers asked us to help them with is getting in more stores. I’d love there to be a store that stocked all the designers all the time, so that’s something we’re working on, trying to encourage more stores to stock the clothes.”

A more economically sustainable scene is the goal and that means finding ways to link more designers with buyers or investors. Designer and shop owner Buf Reynolds said Omaha lacks an infrastructure for designers. “You don’t have somebody who can take a one-of-a-kind garment and turn it into a pattern, then send it to somebody who can do a small scale production of it. If that happened in Omaha I think that would change everything pretty drastically.”

Lindsey Baker sees a need for Fashion Week to facilitate more interaction between designers and those interested in fashion, whether consumers, store buyers, or journalists like herself.

“I’d love for there to be a greater opportunity to mingle with the designers and say, ‘I really love that dress — how can I get it?’ I think it would be great if afterwards there were a couple additional days where the designers would be available in the location selling their work. I think that sort of thing would help.,” said Baker.

“I really like to see the work up close and to touch it if I can, to provide a better reference, because sometimes when a model is walking by you don’t necessarily see all of the excellent tailoring details. That sort of thing is lost up on the runway. “

It’s why OFW held its first annual Spring Premier runway event at Nomad on March 31. The private showing of designs by up-and-coming artists is the intimate antithesis of the giant fall runway finale and part of Hudson’s strategy to better connect designers with the fashionista public.

If the fledgling Omaha fashion scene is to become an industry those kinds of relationships need a framework that encompasses all the players.

Designer Dale Heise said, “Part of the ball is now in Omaha’a hands in moving it to something where people are seeking out local designs and finding designers they become fans of and buying local. It’s a rough industry anywhere but in Omaha there’s no support network. We’ve got a design scene that’s far outpacing the market for it in Omaha right now.”

“It takes energy and it takes leadership at lots of different levels,” said Hudson.

Everyone agrees there is a bottom line practicality that needs addressing. “Money is energy and money will support the industry and support the people and make a difference here. It’s important for the community to support these artists and entrepreneurs in this way,” said Hudson, who acknowledges the need to expand beyond grassroots support to formal business models.

The nonprofit Halo Institute he co-founded with Creighton University nurtures entrepreneurial companies. Halo may be an incubator for future designers.

“Nomad is all about artists, Halo is all about entrepreneurs, and Omaha Fashion Week is where those two things come together,” said Hudson. “All artistry is a little bit of entrepreneurship. It just has a different mind set. But fashion in particular is very much a combination of art and entrepreneurship. Angel investing is perfectly possible with some designers in a few years. I think that’s the direction we’re going.

“It’d be great having a big line coming out of Omaha, and I’ve actually got a plan for that using a number of different designers. But I think it’s all about timing and it’s no good I’ve learned to launch things before they’re ready.”

Hudson senses Omaha fashion is near “a tipping point. I think it’s just strange enough and enough rumblings are going on that people are connecting the dots and realizing this great collection of activity going on here is pretty special.” He said fashion writers from national publications are taking notice and may cover this year’s Fashion Week.

Some designers, like Heise and Reynolds, are adamant the scene remain edgy in the face of growing pressures to have more mass appeal.

 

 

 

 

“It’s very fragile at this point and one wrong move could spoil it for a lot of people,” said Reynolds. “We have to keep doing things that are very independent and very creative. We have to keep pushing the bar, raising it, and not losing the really independent spirit that the fashion scene has right now.”

Tee’z Salon owner Thomas Sena said, “You could end up going too commercial too fast and just watering it down and losing what you had in the beginning. That could be a danger.”

Whatever direction it takes, the consensus is the artists should come first.

“It starts with support for the designers,” said Bellwether Botique owner Jessie Latham. “I see them put their entire lives into their work but they can’t sustain themselves on it. They give their all to a show and then that’s it, they pack up their garments and go home. It’s kind of a ‘way of life’ or political issue. If people could take their money out of the big box stores and put it back into the local economy, it would help all forms of art in Omaha thrive, not just fashion.”

Megan Hunt is bullish enough about fashion’s potential here she’s staking out a debut line of dresses she hopes to premier at Fashion Week. She believes Omaha’s entrepreneurial community will invest in fashion as a growth market.  “I think we have the perfect storm here of community support and a culture of risk taking,” she said.

Hunt’s further demonstrated her commitment by moving her studio and office into the Mastercraft building, where creatives are taking up shop. She feels she’s onto the next big thing in NoDo, where Mastercraft, The Hot Shops, Slowdown, Film Streams, the new ballpark, the Qwest Center and the riverfront are shaping Omaha’s new image.

“We’re really lucky — I think we’re having our Roaring ’20s here in the 2000s.”

“All that is going on and happening is why I think Omaha is a really exciting place to be,” said Hudson. Fashion is just the latest expression of the city’s creative capital.

When Hudson goes to L.A., as he did during Oscar week to pitch celebrities his Excelsior Beauty line with the help of celebrities, he still gets skeptical looks when he mentions Omaha and fashion in the same breath. The difference now, he said, is that people know Omaha as a place where good art is coming from.

“Now we can say it with a wry smile,” he said,

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