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Proteges of Model School Diva Nancy Bounds Pay it Forward Building the Omaha Fashion Ecosystem


This is a story I did a couple years ago for Omaha Fashion Week Magazine that I’m only now posting.

As Omaha and fashion become less and less incompatible and mutually exclusive, I find myself continuing to write about aspects of the growing fashion scene here. The piece looks at Omaha’s fashion past through the work being done today by Alyssa Dilts, Robin Jones Gifford, Stephen Hall, and Michael Dar, all proteges of the late modeling school director Nancy Bounds, who was a legend.  Each is paying forward lessons learned under Bounds in terms of developing and showcasing emerging models. They’re some of the professionals Brook Hudson is calling on to assist the model development efforts of Omaha Fashion Week and Fashion Institute Midwest, and all part of what Hudson refers to as growing the Omaha fashion ecosystem.  You can find profiles of Brook Hudson and her hubby Nick Hudson, along with stories about Omaha Fashion Week, on this blog.  You can also find a full-blown profile of Nancy Bounds.  Special thanks to fashion photographer Michael Dar for his wonderful photo of Nancy, who was very careful about her image and reluctant to have her picture taken.  She liked to be the director.  She didn’t like being directed.  Dar said the image (at the bottoom of the post) is from the only time she let him do her hair and makeup.  The photograph was made a year before her death.

Omaha Fashion Week, ©chrismachian.blogspot.com

Proteges of Model School Diva Nancy Bounds Pay it Forward Building the Omaha Fashion Ecosystem

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in Omaha Fashion Magazine

There was a time when aspiring Omaha models took their cues from a pair of divas with their fingers on the pulse of the high fashion world.

J.L. Brandeis & Sons fashion merchandizer Elaine Jabenis drew on her experience as a stage actress and regular attendee at New York and Paris fashion weeks to produce runway extravaganzas.

But for training there was no one like the late modeling-acting-finishing school director Nancy Bounds, a charismatic figure whose theatrical graduation shows were legendary. Her Nancy Bounds Studios developed countless young men and women for careers in fashion.

When Jabenis retired in the late 1990s and Bounds died in 2007 it left a gap. With the growth of Omaha Fashion Week, the launch of modeling schools by Bounds proteges Alyssa Dilts and Robin Jones Gffford and the formation of Fashion Institute Midwest the metro now has the makings of a fashion infrastructure unseen here before.

Nebraska natives Dilts and Gifford are just two of many success stories who came out of the Bounds Studios. Others include former model Renee Jeffus, models-turned-actresses Jaime King and Rebecca Staab, actress January Jones, photographer Michael Dar, Factor Women Model Management women’s division director Stephen Hall and Ford Models Chicago director of scouting Shannon Lang.

“She gave people like us our start in the industry,” Dilts says of Bounds. “We kind of have this little network.”

Dar, who began as a model and stylist before turning fashion shooter, says Bounds gave him and others the “belief anything’s possible. She taught us to be fearless and to step outside the box. It’s amazing the things she instilled. She was such a pygmalion. Quite a force.”

Hall, who also modeled before becoming a scout, says he utilizes daily things Bounds taught him to prepare models.

“Nancy was one of the originals for this whole concept of what a modeling school is,” says Hall. “I realized when I got out in the industry how together and tight Nancy had her program and how prepared her graduates were when they got through there.

“I think she was one of the first people that really understood there’s so much more to being a model than being beautiful and having correct measurements. She somehow had the foresight to understand the direction the business is going in, which is the girl who has the right personality and knows how to handle herself on camera.”

Alyssa Dilts
Alyssa Dilts

A New Wave

Dilts and Gifford represent a new wave of local talent developers with connections to the past. Each brings years of top-flight national experience in the industry. Their classes are inspired by what they learned from Bounds and other industry pros. Just as Bounds did, both women expose students to many different facets of the fashion biz.

Following a brief modeling stint Dilts, an Omaha North graduate, taught for Bounds. After studying at the International Academy of Design in Chicago she headed the runway division for Elite Model Development there. She later worked as the agency’s director of New Faces and Development, traveling the U.S. scouting and developing new models.

A talented newcomer she developed, Maria Bradley, opened Alexander Wang’s 2011 New York Fashion Week show. Dilts accompanied her to Milan for a Versace show and to Paris for a Balenciaga show.

Dilts recently returned to Omaha to launch her own modeling school and placement agency, Development. Its name reflects her passion.

“That’s what I do, that’s what I’m known for, that’s such an integral part of the modeling industry. That’s why I decided to lend my expertise and follow my heart, which is giving young people opportunities.”

To blossom.

Gifford modeled internationally four years then scouted, developed, styled and booked new models for IMG Models in New York City. She worked at Taxi magazine before serving as director of scouting at Elite in the Big Apple, where she got her professional modeling start. She returned to her hometown of Lincoln in 1991, married, raised a family and worked in the nonprofit and corporate worlds before launching her own company, Springboard for Success, in 2007.

“I love using what I know as a model and agent to find and develop young girls,” she says. “Young models have to get development somewhere. If they go to New York and somebody takes them under their wing that’s great but it can be a very expensive venture.”

Like Bounds before them Gifford and Dilts emphasize personal development over strictly modeling instruction.

“Really what we do in our school is teach life skills so they can be successful in anything they do,” says Gifford. “I use all of my background to teach communication, interviewing, etiquette, presentations, making first impressions. Students learn poise, confidence, how to command a room. We really drill that home first and then we teach the modeling on top of it.”

Giving students a solid foundation for how to carry themselves is more important than ever, say Gifford and Dilts, because few young people are taught such things anymore and rising interest in modeling is making an already competitive field harder than ever to break into.

Robin Jones Gifford
Robin Jones Gifford

Modeling 101

“I think back in the day girls wanted to be Miss America and now they strive to be models,” says Dilts.

She says until recently a young person living somewhere far from the fashion capitals had little access to the industry except through magazines. That’s all changed.

“Now our whole industry is pushed forward through the Internet and reality TV shows like America’s Next Top Model.”

That exposure, she says, gives young people the sense “it could be a possibility for them as well.”

Gifford says shows like that also offer a distorted view of the industry, leading many aspirants to mistakenly believe modeling is easy and is only about having a pretty face and slim body.

“They’re not doing their research They don’t understand there are height and measurement requirements. You have to be fit and healthy. We want girls who know their angles, who can sell clothes, who know how to speak with their face. One look with a smile is not enough.

“You have to have the right mentality. You have to be serious about it, you have to be on time. They don’t realize it’s a job, it’s hard, it’s a business. You’re your own brand when you’re a model and if you don’t understand that and you can’t figure out how to create it, then it’s not going to happen for you.”

Hall says, “There’s definitely a method to it and there’s definitely things a model does need to be prepared for.”

Gifford says a must resource for would-be models is the website models.com. “It’s the industry bible.” She also advises anyone serious about it get busy acting since so much of modeling is role-playing.

Mostly, Gifford hammers home the realities of the modeling industry.

“I tell them the truth. I tell them how hard it is. That even most girls who sign with agencies don’t make it because they just cant take it. If someone’s still willing to go through my school after I tell them all that then they’re there for the right reason.”

She gives students a further dose of reality by taking a group to New York City once or twice a year.

“We visit models’ apartments, we visit agencies, we go behind the scenes at magazines and with designers.”

She took six girls to NYC in July. Last year her group did New York Model Camp, where she says top model Coco Rocha personally taught “the girls posing, how to come alive on camera, how to move their body, how to show tension and anger and anything you’d want.”

She says Rocha impressed upon the girls know they don’t need to do lingerie and nude work to succeed. “She’s one of the top-paid model and she hasn’t. She told them, ‘Make the choice for yourself before you get in those situations.'”

Dilts also stresses the standards necessary to break through are high and the pitfalls many. Having a professional coach who’s lived it is an advantage.

“You have to up your game. Schools like mine that really know what the industry is about can give the girls the upper hand,” says Dilts. “If I represent someone with potential I can get her straight to the person making the decision because I have those contacts. They’re contacts you can’t get walking into an open call.

“My agency is very much focused on the highest caliber of talent because I know what the top agencies are looking for.”

“It’s still all about being an individual and finding your passion,” says Dar, who credits Bounds with teaching him “not to do what everyone else is doing.”

In order to make it, he says, “you have to want it,” adding, “It takes that I-want-to-get-out-of-here drive.”

Gifford and Dilts supply models to Omaha Fashion Week. Dilts conducts “boot camps” for participating models. Half-measures don’t cut it on the unforgiving runway. Every facet of a model’s walk and look must be scrutinized and honed.

“If their skill level is not up to par it’s very noticeable,” says Dilts.

Michael Dar
Michael Dar

Platform, Showcase, Resource

OFW gives fashion the kind of stage it hasn’t had here since the big shows Nancy Bounds and Elaine Jabenis organized.

“They really put on quite a show in Omaha, I was really impressed,” says Dar, who attended the spring shows.

Not only has OFW become a destination event, it’s given designers, models, stylists and photographers a high profile platform to display their wares. It’s new nonprofit arm, Fashion Midwest Institute, is a mentoring-training-development resource to help designers take their work to the next level. Because designers and models are joined at the hip and depend on one another to make fashion lines look fabulous, any edge designers get only helps models raise their performance.

“The mission is to support the fashion ecosystem in the Midwest, especially young designers,” says director Brook Hudson. “We have different program pillars: skills development, resource development, business incubation. It’s a great holistic approach to helping designers no matter where they are in their career.”

Hudson says the Institute is collaborative like the industry it supports.

“We’re looking to leverage and partner with others who are doing things that we can bring to bear to help our designers. In March we did two programs during Omaha Fashion Week for designers in the Institute. One was a pattern grading workshop taught by Isabelle Lott from Pattern Works International.

Brook Hudson

“Another was a creativity workshop in partnership with Development. Jerell Scott of Bravo’s Project Runway All-stars spent time working with designers showing in the spring shows.”

More recently, the Institute partnered with Princess Lasertron to deliver apitch workshop to help designers prepare presentations on their collection proposals for the OFW selection panel.

Dilts and Gifford look forward to working with more models to help best show off designers’ creations. They say as OFW, the Institute and their own own schools continue growing there may be more opportunities for Nebraskans to establish careers in fashion.

“I think we’ll see individuals emerging that may not have had a chance to emerge without this support,” Gifford says.

Dilts agrees, adding she’s impressed by what OFW and the Institute have done already. “They really understand the industry and have a handle on what is needed for our city. They understand we can give back to the community by nurturing and showcasing this talent we have here to further their skills.”

Hall, who’s attending his first Omaha Fashion Week in August, sees great value in “encouraging young talent” here because the industry is full of professionals who come out of small markets like Omaha.

photo
Nancy Bounds, ©photo by Michael Dar

In a real sense, Dilts and Gifford are trying to do for young people what Nancy Bounds did for them. Gifford says Bounds could be a taskmaster but her demanding ways “absolutely” helped prepare her for the rigors of modeling and other fashion jobs.

“There’s a reason why there are so many of us that came out of her school who are over the world working in different capacities, as agents, models, actors, you name it,” says Gifford.

And just as Bounds gave graduating models a runway grand finale that drew scouts from leading agencies around the world (it’s how Jaime King was discovered), Dilts and Gifford do the same.

“If you have the connections with those top agencies they’ll fly in to scout those events and see the talent,” says Dilts.

Bounds had the connections. She also had a flair for staging what Dar calls “spectacular shows” that compare with anything he’s seen. Hall agrees, saying the Bounds productions were matchless.

“Everyone knew her name,” says Dilts, “and any scout or agent of a certain age has fond memories of flying into Omaha and finding great girls, and that’s what I want to bring back.”

She looks forward to having one of her own models discovered.

“I can’t wait until I get a girl or a guy with enough potential placed. They’ll forever be ‘mine.’ I think it will be extremely gratifying.”

 

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