The Designers: Omaha’s Emerging Fashion Culture
Fashion writing keeps coming back into my wheelhouse. What’s interesting about this is that I never suspected fashion writing could even be in my wheelhouse given my less than fashionable wardrobe and my own disregard for elements of style in the way I dress. Don’t get me wrong, I like to look nice as much as the next person, but I’ve never spent much time or effort considering or cultivating a personal look or style for myself and I don’t pay much attention to buying fashionable brands. But in the last half dozen years I’ve found myself writing a fair amount about fashion. Part of that is a function of the fact that I am a cultural writer and fashion is a part of the cultura fabric, so to speak, of any metropolitan area. And so just as I write about film, television, theater, literature and many other aspects and streams of Omaha’s cultural life, I have found myself writing about fashion. Still, I likely wouldn’t have begun covering the fashion scene were it not for falling in with some of the very people who have nurtured the fashion scene here. That association led me to write about Omaha Fashion Week just as it was taking off and before I knew it I was penning stories about Omaha fashion, past and present, for Omaha Fashion Magazine and other publications. You’ll find those stories on this blog. The following story for Metro Magazine profiles four designers who are a part of that emerging scene. Has any of this work about fashion made me more fashion conscious in the way I dress? Not really. But I do have an enhanced appreciation for what individuals do in the fashion world, whether designers or models or hair and makeup artists.
Omaha’s Emerging Fashion Culture
Though far from a fashion center, Omaha’s always been home to people involved in the design, merchandising and consumption of fashion. While still not a couture capital, the city’s seen the emergence of a fashion culture giving local designers more opportunities to get their work seen and fashionistas new talents to support.
Helping lead this revolution is Omaha Fashion Week and the professional platform it provides independent fashion designers to showcase their work. The companion Fashion Institute Midwest nurtures aspiring designers and supports the region’s fashion ecosystem through training, resources and business incubation.
OFW designers are a diverse lot but all embody a passion for fashion and creativity that is part of their DNA. The four designers profiled here create highly distinct collections that are personal expressions of themselves. Each has been immersed in fashion for as long as they can remember, Each has been embraced by the local fashion community. They are part of a burgeoning creative class scene and design-style conscious movement that’s changing the perception of Omaha from fashion desert to oasis and from nondescript Midwest town to exciting hub for sophisticated fun.
They will be among the featured designers during the March 4-9 OFW event at the Omar Building, 4823 Nicholas Street.
Meet the designers:
Kate Walz at work
Seventeen-year-old Millard North High School junior Kate Walz has already shown her chic designs in her hometown, in Kansas City and in New York City.
She did her first OFW show at 13 and has now presented eight collections there. She made it to the Big Apple when she debuted her fall collection in an offsite New York Fashion Week show. She’s also Spokes Designer for Fashion Camp NYC, a day camp for teens wanting fashion careers.
All in all, she’s just the kind of promising young talent Omaha style-conscious, fashion-forward patrons hope to put over the top.
Walz doesn’t get caught up in her fast rise or bright future because she’s doing what comes naturally to her.
“My mom says I’ve been drawing dresses since I could hold a crayon. I first started sewing and draping at 8 in 4-H. I participated in the fashion and sewing competitions and found success, winning the title Grand Champion against all the high school kids. When I was 12 I started making my own patterns and selling my garments at Bellwether Boutique in downtown Omaha.”
She describes as her “biggest mentor” Bellwether’s late owner, Jessica Latham.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am in my fashion career if she hadn’t let me start selling my designs in Bellwether. I value the advice she has given me the most.”
Walz says she appreciates OFW showing her “what it’s like to be in a professional environment,” adding, “They’ve given me exposure and experience I haven’t found anywhere else.” Fashion Institute Midwest workshops, she says, have taught her pattern grading and pitching her brand. The Institute sponsored her New York Fashion Week trip.
She absorbs all she can from more experienced designers.
“My biggest inspirations are some of Omaha’s local designers: Buf Reynolds, Dan Richters, Jane Round, Megan Hunt, Audi Helkuik. They all have given me such great advice. It’s an honor to get to work alongside some of them.
“Really all local designers have been great mentors to me. The OFW team has also been a big help in directing me in the right path for both my design work and business decisions.”
Walz says she’s “tried all different kinds of looks” for her women’s wear line while “searching for my signature voice,” adding, “What I try to achieve as a designer is a balance between being conceptual, conventional and cohesive. Reoccurring characteristics in my clothing are femininity, attention to detail and a vintage vibe.”
She embraces Omaha’s growing fashion scene.
“The exposure has opened so many doors for us local designers.”
At a tender age she had to prove herself to doubters, though she finds widespread acceptance today.
“One of my biggest challenges has been people not taking me seriously because I am so young, although it’s not much of a problem anymore.”
Walz counts her greatest triumph being selected Spokes Designer for Fashion Camp NYC.
“They flew me to New York for 10 days to mentor fellow fashion campers from all over the world. I also had the privilege of meeting people at the top of the industry.”
After high school she has her sights set on attending Parsons The New School for Design.
“It is my dream to one day open up my own boutique in New York and eventually have my clothing carried in high-end department stores.”
Follow her at http://www.katewalz.com.
Aubrey Sookram walking the runway with child models wearing her designs, ©James Burnett, Omaha World-Herald
Hartington, Neb. native Aubrey Sookram has created a boutique children’s brand, Markoos Modern Design, that’s carried on the popular shopping site for moms, Zulily.com.
Her passion for fashion began as a girl.
“I wore a uniform to school on a daily basis all the way through high school,” she says “I definitely took casual days and dress-up days as an opportunity to express myself.”
Her creativity comes out in multiple ways.
“It actually took me a bit to decide what medium I was going to focus on. I adore interior design. I also like power tools. I will try creating anything at least once.”
She’s been intentional about making fashion a career.
“I have a degree in marketing with minors in merchandising and fashion design from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I taught myself to sew.”
Ideas for her children’s wear designs come from various sources for this wife and mother of three.
“I love vintage Dior and the simplicity of modern designers like Ralph Lauren, Halston and Kate Spade. I like clean design. A lot of my designs are a hybrid of retro and modern styles. I find inspiration in everything from architecture, fine arts, designers old and new and pop culture. Right now I am finding a lot of inspiration from music and movies from my youth.
“My new fall collection is based on a movie from the ’90s. Stay tuned.”
Her penchant for eclectic combos helps her work stand out.
“I love to mix patterns, colors and textures. Many designs start with fairly classic silhouettes but seem to morph into something more modern. I adore bold color.”
This entrepreneur appreciates the support she and other designers find through OFW.
“Omaha Fashion Week has been an incredible confidence booster and resource. I have gotten the chance to work closely with other children’s designers, such as Hollie Hanash and Yolanda Diaz. All the designers are supportive of one another. They’re a source of endless wisdom and practical knowledge.”
She says a fashion designer from here can be a success nationally but many hurdles must be cleared.
“The logistical issues are daunting. There is a limited number of fabric stores in the metro, so one can expect to travel to larger cities for fabric sourcing and production. As my business has grown, this problem has as well.”
Then there’s the time and money it takes to market your work.
“You can design the most amazing line but if no one knows about it you may as well pack it up and head home. Finding the right marketing streams is so very important and when you are starting out you need to do it as frugally as possible.”
Undaunted, Sookram says she’s moving into production. “I am working to get into boutiques and stores throughout the country and will be continuing my relationship with Zulily.com. I am always keeping my eyes open for new opportunities.”
Shop Sookram at http://www.etsy.com/shop/MarKoosModernDesign.
Fella and model walk the runway, ©Matt Miller, Omaha World-Herald
Fella, aka Wayne Vaughn
No matter where Fella, aka Wayne Vaughn, lived growing up in an Air Force family he indulged his love for clothes. His immersion in things couture went to a whole new level when at 14 he got the opportunity to work and hang out backstage at an Ebony Fashion Show.
“Being that close to those beautiful garments I knew then I wanted to design clothing,” says Vaughn, who has a Fella line of men’s and women’s clothing, costumes and wedding dresses. He paints, dyes and weaves some of his own fabrics..
In his late teens he lived in the United Kingdom, where he graduated from Lakenheath High School in Lakenheath, England. After his father was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb., Vaughn studied his craft at UNO and UNL, steeping himself in textiles, clothing, design, art, art history and costume design.
In 20-plus years as a designer he’s developed a look that emphasizes color, assorted patterns and interesting textures. He counts as influences Ralph Rucci, Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen. His extensive travels offer further inspiration.
His own work increasingly expresses thematic concerns and narratives. He says he imagines storylines about the women who wear his clothes and why they need his designs, His last collection’s colors were red and black and took their cue from a 19th century woman he concocted. He says of his muse: “She just got some new fabric from India and gave it to her dressmaker for a new wardrobe. The woman just had a new beginning and she needed clothing to party in.”
Vaughn’s new fall-winter collection is winter white gold with pops of color and incorporates Eskimo and Russian influences.
He’s now collaborating with two Omaha area designers, hatmaker Margie Trembley and crocheter Susan Ludlow, on his new collection.
Vaughn gets his work seen at private viewings and trunk shows. Maude Boutique in mid-town Omaha carries his clothes. He says OFW gives him yet another “great platform to showcase my vision of fashion.” The exposure from OFW events, he says, helps him “gain more of a customer base.” He says his last collection sold especially well and netted him a new batch of clients.
For anyone trying to make it as a fashion designer in Omaha, he says, the key is “getting your name out and letting people know that a custom-made garment may not be as expensive as they think.” He says designers like himself can help in creating “a tone for your life.”
Looking ahead, his goal is to be in more boutiques and to have his own string of Fella shops.
Sample his work at fellavaughn.com.
Jeffrey Owen Hanson and designer Caone Westergard at OFW
Jeffrey Owen Hanson
At 20 Jeffrey Owen Hanson of Overland Park, Kansas has achieved recognition few people realize in a lifetime. He was 13 when his original abstract paintings got so popular he began donating them to charitable auctions, where to date his work’s raised more than one million dollars for various causes. He then branched off into hand-painting dresses designed by Caine Westergard. Their collaborations adorned the OFW runway, thus linking him to the burgeoning fashion scene here.
Hanson’s success is remarkable given that he accidentally stumbled upon his gift and that he deals with a serious visual impairment. He has a genetic condition, neurofibromatosis, that resulted in an optic nerve tumor. The tumor that he nicknamed CLOD left him with severe vision loss. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation. None of it interfered with Hanson becoming in-demand philanthropic artist.
A real clothes horse, he refers bold colors in his own wardrobe and in the hand-painted gowns he creates for his Jeff Hanson Collection.
The self-taught artist sees the world in vivid colors despite a limited field of vision he describes as “seeing through Swiss cheese.” Yet he’s grateful for his condiiton because it’s led him to use color and texture in ways that make his vibrant, tactile art singularly his own.
As a child, he says, “I painted on rocks and I did dot art and that type of thing.” His mother says ,”He did the kinds of crafts and arts things kids always do but really is art wasn’t anything special,”
At her suggestion he began painting notecards for something he and his friends could do when he had visitors over while recovering from treatments. His creations immediately stood out. He sold his early watercolors on notecards from a lemonade stand outside his house. He gravitated to making acrylics on canvas sold in galleries and auctions. Commissions for his work now flood in every week.
Much of his approach seems intuitive though his impressionistic landscapes are often inspired by places he’s visited.
High contrast colors characterize his work. “I just think I have a good eye for color,” he says. And a feel for texture. “Almost all of my paintings have really thick modeling paste spread all over to give texture,” he says.
He often incorporates materials into his work, even making woven canvases, to add layers of depth and form. Always though his work exudes the most iridescent tones. “The colors I like to use are bright colors, like lime green, pink, purple. Bright happy colors.” The buoyant colors are a direct reflection of his joyful personality.
For his work as a fashion artist he now collaborates with a seamstress on dress designs that complement his art. Once a gown is designed, the drape of the fabric is analyzed and then hand-painted and signed.
OFW shows have given him a new market for his hand-painted gowns and commissioned paintings.
His story, now told in a book, has found him hailed a People magazine “Hero Among Us” and featured on CNN’s “Impact Your World.” Huffington Post readers voted him “Top Kid Making a Difference.” Prudential gave him its national Spirit of Community award.
Check out his work at http://www.JeffreyOwenHanson.com
For OFW show details and tickets, visit omahafashionweek.com.