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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.”

 

Model-turned-actress Jaime King comes home for screening of film she wrote and directed, “Latch Key,” atOmaha Film Festival

March 1, 2012 2 comments

When Jaime King made the move from modeling to acting I tried getting an interview with her in early-mid 2000s but I never got a response from her handlers.  I guess I always figured I would catch up with one way or the other, and as fate would have it she’s coming to me in the sense that she’s coming back to our shared hometown of Omaha with a film she wrote and directed, Latch Key, which means she’s predisposed to promoting it.  Thus, I finally got my interview with her.  It was worth the wait.  She has a great story and it turns out she’s very serious about the writing-directing track she’s on.  It also turns out she gets back to Omaha, where all her family lives, with great frequency, which means she’s been closer than I thought all these years.  I should note by the way that the Omaha Film Festival is an ever-growing event that increasingly lands major industry figures.  In addition to King’s appearance, the fest is rightfully touting appearances by screenwriter Hawk Ostby (Children of Men, Iron Man), actress Famke Janssen, who’s apeparing with her directorial debut Bringing Up Bobby, and actor Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill).  This blog is full of my stories on film.  Look for my Q&A with Ostby in an upcoming post.

Jaime King
Model-turned-actress Jaime King comes home for screening of  film she wrote and directed, “Latch Key,” at Omaha Film Festival

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In the 1990s Omaha native Jaime King‘s fresh face and lithe body graced the runway fantastic for the likes of Gucci and Alexander McQueen in New York and around the globe. She did provocative shoots for Vogue, Mademoiselle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan and other trendy mags. She appeared in music videos. She was a Revlon girl in the same media campaign as Halle Berry and Eva Mendes.

Heady stuff for a girl in her mid-teens who left Westside High School to pursue The Dream. She actually began modeling at Nancy Bounds Studios here. A New York agent discovered her at a fashion graduation show.

But when King comes for the Omaha Film Festival this weekend she’s arriving not as a model or actress – the career she’s known for today – but as a filmmaker. She’s appearing with a “deeply personal” dramatic short she wrote and directed titled Latch Key. She shot the movie in and around Omaha last winter, using local youth actors alongside industry veterans, including her husband, director Kyle Newman (Fanboys, The Crazies), who’s also one of the film’s producers.

Latch Key shows as part of a short film block on March 9 that starts at 6:15 p.m.

This writer-director thing is no passing fancy. The directing bug bit her in her teens and she angled for years to make her own films, debuting with the short The Break-In (2011). She now has several film projects in development, including a feature she co-wrote, Polar Seasons, that her good friend Selma Blair (who appears in Break-In) may co-star in. King’s interest in writing – she pens a style column for the Huffington Post – goes even further back, to her childhood in Omaha.

“Before I went to Westside it wasn’t that easy for me. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t like a jock or a cheerleader or your typical type of kid in that way. I went through a lot of bullying in school. So I wrote a lot and that really helped me to get my feelings and emotions out. All I did was read and write, that was all I really cared about. I so immersed myself in all of these creative things.

“Writing for me has always been the most freeing part of my life.”

At 14 she turned to the pen when her boyfriend at the time died. That experience informs Latch Key, whose young protagonist, Emma, deals with a sudden loss.

“It comes from me having this experience of being young and losing someone very suddenly, and waking up not understanding how the world can continue when your whole world feels like its been shattered.”

 
Jaime King as Goldie in Sin City 

 

 

Having to grow up fast the way she did informs another script she’s looking to develop, Life Guard.

“I write a lot about coming-of-age and what it’s like to grow up very quickly and how to handle that type of thing. I guess I’m inspired by what we have to go through to become adults or to make our way in this world, but I guess all good stories are about figuring out who you really are.”

Once considered an infant terrible and party girl, she’s many years sober after battling a substance abuse problem. She long ago made the successful transition from modeling to screen acting (Happy Campers, Blow, Pearl Harbor, Slackers, Two for the Money, Sin City). She has major roles in a pair of films due for a 2012 release: Pardon and Mother’s Day. She also stars in the CW comedy Hart of Dixie.

Does she harbor regrets about having gotten swept up in the high-pressure model subculture, with its ultra-thin obsession, stealing away as it did part of her youth?

“Not at all. I feel very blessed, I feel everything that’s happened in my life has been perfectly on track for me, through the ups and the downs, through everything, and I feel so incredibly lucky that I was discovered and that my parents stuck with me and made a difficult decision to let their young daughter go off into a big world.

“Through modeling I got to travel all over the world and I got to meet some of the most amazing people, and I was smart, I saved my money and I knew I wanted to go into filmmaking.”

Besides, being a model was her idea from the start. Always interested in fashion, style, photography and film, she set out to get noticed, make it to New York and use this platform as a springboard to a film career.

“I wanted to live a very creative life and not necessarily taking the traditional route of going straight through high school and onto college. I just didn’t feel that was right for me. I needed to be doing something creative. It may seem odd for someone that age but I just knew that was my direction.

“As an adult now looking back I feel a lot compassion and gratitude towards my parents for letting me foliow my dreams.”

Poster for Jaime King’s film, Latch Key 

 

 

King’s made it all happen, too, though walking away from lucrative modeling gigs didn’t set well with her entourage.

“When I told them I was quitting modeling at the height of my career people weren’t happy about that because they were making a lot of money off of me, but I was lucky to have some people who were supportive.”

She still does fashion spreads.

Of the high profile film roles she landed right out of the gate, she says, “It was just one thing after another and I think it happened because I never doubted myself, I went into it thinking that’s what I was meant to do.”

Acting’s worked out better for her than it has for many former top models. And as much as she finds that career satisfying she needs more to feed her creativity.

“I don’t feel completely whole just doing that. I feel whole when I’m writing and directing and acting, when I’m creating material and stories that I feel should be told and will move and entertain people,” she says. “As a creative person you just want to create.”

She could have made Latch Key anywhere but she felt pulled to do it in her hometown, where her entire family still lives and where she gets back to visit a few times a year.

“I have a really romantic view of where I was born and raised,” she says. “I have these very distinctive memories of every single season in Omaha and what it felt like to grow up there and to have a space of your own where you could run along the train tracks and be out in a park or farm by yourself or yet be in the Old Market and go find a great record or comic book or see a great show or concert.

“So much of my creativity started there, and I feel like there’s a great creative community there. I just really want to honor that.”

Jaime King in Hart of Dixie 

 

 

Her sister, Sandi King Larson, put up Jaime, her husband and two fellow producers and let her home stand-in as Emma’s dwelling.

King says she received excellent cooperation from Young Filmmakers In Nebraska in filling out the crew and from Ralston Public Schools officials in letting her use Ralston High School as a location. King had an inside woman there in her sister, who works at the school. The head of Ralston’s drama department, Todd Uhrmacher, helped King cast via Skype auditions-interviews. Alexis Jegeris, who plays Emma, is among several Ralston students in the film.

King says she was impressed by how her young cast “were really willing to go there for a film that’s very honest and raw and real,” adding, “I cant’ wait to come back for the film festival to show the kids what a beautiful job they did.”

Nancy Bounds, Timeless Arbiter of Fashion Beauty, Glamour, Poise

February 4, 2012 8 comments

Imagine my surprise when I searched for images of the late Nancy Bounds, the subject of this story, and could not find a single one.  My surprise stems from the fact that Bounds was a much photographed stylish woman whose entire career was built on image enhancement work with aspiring models and actors.  She was a personality and celebrity whose all about town comings and goings were grist for the Omaha society mill pages.  She frequently appeared on television, too.  So, instead of pictures of Nancy I bring you pictures of one of the talents who came out of her modeling school, indeed the most famous graduate of all –model-actress Jaime King, an Omaha native like me.  My search for Nancy Bounds images continues and I expect before long to have her lovely, smiling face and well-outfitted figure gracing this post.  For now though, Jaime King is not a bad compromise.  If you’re into all things fashion and style, you’ll find other articles of interest on this blog.

NOTE: Special thanks to fashion photographer Michael Dar, who got his start under Nancy Bounds in Omaha, for his photo of her.

 

 

 

 

photo
Nancy Bounds, ©photo by Michael Dar

 

Nancy Bounds, Timeless Arbiter of Fashion Beauty, Glamour, Poise

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

For 40 years, Nancy Bounds was Omaha’s saucy arbiter and symbol for good looks and social graces. The owner of a string of modeling/finishing schools bearing her name, she applied her tastemaker’s role as television host, magazine columnist, pageant director and self-improvement guru. This former model, singer, dancer and actress best embodied her own beauty ethos. Whatever the gala, she was always the stylish, well-turned-out fashion plate looking like she was poured into her haute-couture designer clothes, which her closets overbrimmed with.

Bounds shared her story with the New Horizons a few years before her passing. Her repuation preceded her and she proved to be everything and then some that was said about here.

An expert in the rules of attraction and feminine wiles, Bounds is just what you’d expect from a Southern-born and reared beauty queen. She exudes a soulful, sassy, sweet, sad quality that almost makes you think that at any moment she’ll utter Blanche du Bois’s famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire. You know the one: “I’ve always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”

A coquettish charmer with milky skin and sun-dappled hair, Bounds greets visitors to her resplendent Dundee home in the warm honey glow of her broad smile, sparkling eyes and sultry voice. Wearing an antique blue silk ensemble and a pair of high-heeled silver sandals, she’s still every inch the fashion maven and beauty diva who’s made men weak-kneed at the sight of her since her ingenue days.

It took all of her cheeky guile to get where she is today, which is a long way from her rural Arkansas roots. It may surprise some that this sophisticated lady, who’s the epitome of chic, owns a background closer to Dogpatch than Fifth Avenue.

Growing up the youngest and brightest of six children, the former Nancy Southard was born, on an undisclosed date, in the Ozarks, where her gentrified father owned land, saw mills and other interests. Despite such backwoods environs, she comes from good stock. She said her mother’s family, the Tayloes, are descendants of George Washington and her father’s family is related to the Astors of old New York high society. Still, there wasn’t much in the way of culture where she lived.

And her precocious bordering-on incorrigible personality didn’t sit well in her “very strict Christian” home that her father ruled with an iron fist. “I was an obstinate, self-confident tigress. I don’t know how anyone stood me,” she said.

Her rearing came in a series of small towns — Rodney, Norfolk, Mountain Home — she felt confined in and pined to escape. The rote learning of a small school was torture for a girl bursting with starry-eyed dreams and ideas inspired by the books and magazines she devoured. In class, which she found “boring,” she’d either fall asleep or break out in hives or draw the ire of a teacher, and be sent to the principal’s office, where she played duplicate bridge and chess with the headmaster. As a young schoolgirl she exhibited an extrovert’s expressiveness and a knack for makeup and performing, but had no real outlet for her gifts.

If not for her astute godmother, Maude Washington Arthur, Bounds may not have broken away from the shackles of that constraining life. A kind of down home grand dowager duchess holding court in a cabin atop a mountain, Maude was an educated, well-traveled woman who saw the potential in Nancy and held out the possibility she could live out her dreams. Nancy lived for a time with Maude, who became her personal finishing school mistress.

“She somehow picked on me and wanted me to have the sophistication she thought I was lacking at school,” Bounds said. “She helped me to choose the good books to read. That lady — she knew I was going to be something in the world. She believed in me. She was my mentor.”

Making a mark is what Bounds wanted more than anything.“I didn’t have so much a dream. I just knew I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to be well-known. I wanted to be a star. It never crossed my mind I was going to fail,” she said. “I had more guts than good sense, in some cases, but for some reason there’s always been a little star following me around all of my life, and it’s always sort of taken care of me.” Consumed by a sense of “ambition, wanderlust and loneliness…a lot of loneliness,” Bounds just wanted to be free and Maude encouraged her to try her wings. “She kept saying, ‘You can do it.’ And I knew I could do it.”

 

 

 Jaime King - Critics' Choice Awards 2013 Red Carpet

Jaime King at a premiere

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So convinced was Bounds that her future lay in the wider world that the first book she bought was “a book on manners,” she said. “I wanted to be able to move in whatever kind of society I was ever going to be in.” Her intuition served her well, too, as she’s lived a storybook life that’s found her mixing with everyone from world famous designers, models and entertainers to politicians to royalty.

Emboldened by Maude and by a grandfather who also recognized her destiny, Nancy one day just packed up and left. She was only 14, but her exasperated parents let her go, knowing she had to try. “That’s how much I wanted to get out of Arkansas and to get out where it was happening in the world,” she said. Her destination? Springfield, Mo. It was as close to cosmopolitan as she could get. Why Springfield? “I had enough money to get there –$35. I got on a bus. It stopped every 20 minutes and I’ve never ridden a bus since. That was not going to be my style,” said Bounds, who nowadays tools around in a chauffeur-driven limo.

Without knowing a soul in Springfield, she put on a brave face and made herself up to look older than she was, quickly landing jobs as a waitress and cosmetics clerk. Then, she really showed her brass when she auditioned for a singing slot on a local radio station. She got the gig and sang a few times a week on live broadcasts.

Then she met a man who looked good in an Air Force uniform. She was 15. They got hitched. Before she knew it, he was off flying Goonie Birds in the Berlin Airlift. “I didn’t see him for a year,” she said, “and by then I’d forgotten what he looked like.” While he was away, she found she was pregnant. She moved back home, where she’d kept the news of her marriage a secret from her father, who’d warned her to stay away from those “hound dogs.” After “having it out,” she went to Wichita, where family lived nearby.

On her own again, Bounds made do. A couple of sailors, Ronnie and Jean, befriended her in the weeks leading up to her giving birth. “They both fell in love with me, but they were always like brothers to me. Better than brothers,” she said. They were with her when the labor pains began and flagged down a taxi to take her to a military hospital. She was still so young and naive she thought doctors “cut you open to get out your child.” To show her undying appreciation to her friends, she named her daughter Ronnie Jean after them.

When her long-absent husband returned from overseas, she greeted him with, “I’ll take you to meet your daughter.” The couple’s ill-advised union fell apart when he took her to live with his family in Minnesota. After three months, she said, “I had to get out of there. So, I got up and packed at three o’clock in the morning and snuck out with about equal amount the money I had when I left home.”

She fled to the Ozarks. He found his child-bride, but she would not have him back. She filed for divorce and went to Minnesota to get it. “I didn’t want anything except the right to my daughter for the rest of my life and that he was never to come near me or her.” To her dismay, she learned the state only granted divorces then on the grounds of adultery. “Well, I wasn’t about to do that,” she said. “So, we picked one of his good friends and he and I sat up all night long and played gin rummy. We came down the next day and he went to court and swore he spent the night with me. Totally staged. But I got my daughter back, which is all I wanted.”

Living back in Wichita with her baby girl, Bounds screwed up her courage and reinvented herself again. “I learned a group was looking for a singer. I auditioned, but I didn’t like the group. It gave me an idea, though. Why don’t I get my own group? Of course I had no money, but I had the audacity to start doing interviews.” Soon, she assembled a pianist, bass player, drummer and saxophonist. She fronted with her vocals. After some Wichita area gigs, her group moved west, landing jobs in Colorado. When band members began bowing to pressures from home, she disbanded the group and went solo. “I had to support my daughter,” she said.

She headlined at a nightclub in Denver and a hotel in Estes Park. What her voice lacked, her sex appeal made up for. “I sang love songs and lots of blues. I had a soulful, smoky sound. There’s something about a saxophone that could really turn my voice on. But I was never a fabulous singer. I was a much better performer than I was a singer. I could sell a song. And I had a great bod,” she said.

Her hunger next took her to Chicago, where she variously modeled, sang and danced for a living. She also acted in TV spots. Her growing interest in acting led her to join a repertory summer stock company in Boston, where she appeared in several plays over three seasons. Theater, for her, fed a desire to improve her mind and broaden her knowledge. “I wanted to improve my ability to articulate my feelings,” she said. “I learned a lot about the language by doing different parts.”

Back in Chicago, the ever-enterprising Bounds continued her education by hiring a Northwestern University professor as her private tutor. “He was a wonderful guy who wanted to teach me what I wanted to know — everything. He was interested in my life and in my mind and I was incredibly interested in all that he knew. I always called him Webster.” With the prof’s help, she lost her Southern accent and further refined herself. He was her Dr. Higgins and she his Eliza Doolittle.

She eventually found romance with a man, Carmen, who became her husband and dance partner. She, her new hubby and her daughter moved to Kansas after her little girl was diagnosed with asthma and doctors advised the child live in a dry climate. Nancy and Carmen were performing as a dance team in Wichita when an agent saw them and recommended her to band leader Xavier Cugat. The Latin maestro signed her up and she happily performed with his band in the Dallas area. “Oh, play me some Latin music and watch this body and hear this voice work it. I’ve always loved Latin music,” she said. Cuggie or Papa, as he was called, became her newest Svengali. “Oh, he was such a puppy dog…the sweetest guy.” She recalls him painting surrealistic images in his spare time as she “sat at his feet and watched him” work. “His courage with color was amazing. He said I was a muse for him because I was so enthusiastic about his art. He said, ‘When I see you, I see golden…yellows…rainbows.’ He painted my personality. I adored him.”

 

 

 

 

 

 January Jones at a premiere

 

 

 

Meanwhile, her marriage to the dancer fizzled. Her life turned again when she bought some Fred Astaire Dance studios in Kansas and fell in love with and married an Air Force colonel, Robert S. Bounds, who gave her her professional name. She wound up in Omaha when he was transferred to Offutt. At first, Nancy thought she “would be happy playing golf, playing bridge and just being an officer’s wife. Well, that lasted about three months.” Restless, she looked into working for a local modeling school. Instead, she ended up running it. When the owners of another school noticed her business savvy and offered her a 50 percent piece of their place, she held firm for a controlling share. She soon made over the business as her own, moving it into the suave penthouse quarters of the old Fontenelle Hotel.

Marriage number three ended when the colonel got reassigned and she balked at moving. Besides, she said, he’d run her burgeoning modeling business into the ground after she sold it to him. “It’s then I decided it was I who had the brains,” she said, “when he had me believing all the time it was him.”

Every time she’s started over, Bounds has gritted her teeth and feigned her famous moxie, but it was all a facade. “I felt frightened, but I never let anyone know it. I was scared to death about half the time, but I kept saying, I can do this.”

Do it, she has. A breakthrough for Bounds occurred in the 1970s. Tired of her models being snatched up and under-used, she made elite agents, such as Ricardo Guy in Milan, take note of Omaha as a rich talent pool and launching pad for serious careers in modeling, films and television. As soon as agents learned her models got magazine covers and film-TV roles, her annual graduation show at the Orpheum Theater drew talent scouts from New York, L.A., Milan, Paris and Tokyo. Several of her graduates have gone on to major careers, most notably model-actress Jaime King.

She feels Nebraska’s gold mine of talent springs from something in the water or gene pool here that creates “The Look” everyone’s after. Then, too, she adds, “I think I was blessed with good eyes. I start watching them when they’re 9 or 10.” She said the model standard hasn’t changed much in 35 years. “It’s just gorgeous, gorgeous and more gorgeous. It’s the beauty of the face and the personality. The naturalness.” She said one difference is more women of color are now top models.

As her Nancy Bounds International Modeling Agency and Nancy Bounds Studios thrived, she opened schools in other cities. Helping her grow the company was her fourth husband and business partner, Mark Sconce. “He just believed in me 100 percent,” she said.

Eager to improve the image of the modeling school field, which is plagued with disreputable operators, she formed the International Talent and Model School Association. It was an attempt to create industry-wide standards and practices and, via ITMSA conventions, provide showcases where models from many schools could strut their stuff before top agents. After a rough start, when she “chewed out” school directors, the association proved a success. Then, she said, it all fell apart and the “rip-off” artists took over. It’s a long-standing problem, even in Omaha.

“People enroll and pay some thousands of dollars, and they’re taken to these conventions and they’re lucky to get five seconds on the runway,” she said. “There isn’t regulation. Before I got here, you didn’t even need a license. There’ve been 17 schools open and close here since I’ve been in business.”

She got an improbable ally in her efforts to clean-up the industry when state Sen. Ernie Chambers came to her bristling over modeling schools reneging on promises made to constituents of his. When he asked Bounds — What can we do about this?  she said, “We can write some laws.” They collaborated on a bill the legislature passed that requires operators be licensed. “She was extremely helpful and professional in guiding me through what was very strange territory for me,” he said.

Bounds is the first to admit that while models are the “X-factor,” most of her clients neither expect nor seek a modeling/acting career. Instead, she said, they come in search of personal image development.

“It’s the most exciting thing I do,” she said. “The real purpose for me beginning this school is that I had seen so many young people that didn’t stand a chance in this world of being successful because they were insecure. You gotta love yourself. And in my opinion the only way you can get self-esteem is to be proud of what you do. It’s a total growth process. We start with the facade and then we go deeper and find out who this person really is. We try to give them the best of who they are and, more importantly, we give them things to go out and accomplish.”

She said the training is really about life skills. “We teach kids how to communicate. We teach them manners. We teach them how to order food and what clothes to wear to an interview. We talk about romance and relationships. We have them sing and dance and do anything to pull out their personalities and to get them out of their boxes.” Nothing excites her more than seeing kids blossom before her eyes. “It just turns me on,” said Bounds, who regards herself a teacher.

She’s honed the image of everyone from aspiring models to corporate execs to politicos. Modeling career or not, grads come away with “great confidence.”

These days, Bounds oversees a modeling empire she’s franchised out, but still very much “involved in.” She has franchises in Omaha, Norfolk and Kansas City and is now looking to franchise Japan. “I train the teachers and the franchisees, because then I know things are going to be done right under my name,” she said. Her decision to franchise came in the wake of a dark period a few years ago when her 29-year marriage to Mark Sconce ended. She took a bad fall at home and suffered pain and depression. “I didn’t want to work every day. I became reclusive.”

Single for the first time in awhile, she’s not ruling out marriage. “I’m not finished with romance. Romance makes the world go round. Someday I’ll run into somebody I care about. I could never become somebody’s mistress. That’s not the way I do things.” As for the men in her life — “There’s been so many men in this world that have taken care of me, and I married most of ‘em,” she said with a laugh. “But I’ve never had one penny of alimony. Never wanted it.”

All in all, she said, “It’s been a fun ride, and I’m not finished yet.”

Omaha Fashion Past

February 4, 2012 4 comments

The words Omaha and fashion may seem incongruous, certainly not synonomous, and no one, including this writer, would argue the fact that as a Midwest city far removed from the fashion centers of America this place is in a perpetual state of catching up with and therefore always behind trends in clothing and accessories and other aspects of style.  Of course there’s always been a fashion scene and community of its own here, just as there is in any city of a certain size, and no matter how small or insignificant that fashion conscious segment may be by national industry standards it has still produced its share of highlights and notables, even if on a scaled down size. There was a time when high fashion in Omaha was catered to by a whole range of stores, shows, and figures.  Then owing to several factors high fashion activity here faded away.  Recently though there’s been a resurgence of interest and activity, much of it coalescing around the wildy popular Omaha Fashion Week, and the fact that this article is for an upcoming issue of Omaha Fashion Magazine is an indicator of just how far things have come around.  Omaha never had a fashion week or fashion magazine before.  And the same people who’ve made those things happen, Nick and Brook Hudson, now have the Omaha Fashion Institute in the works.  In their own way this power couple has done for fashion in Omaha what individuals and institutions like Elaine Jabenis, Nancy Bounds, J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store, and the Clarkson Fashion Show did in an earlier era.  There’s more to come in future issues on the fashion institute.  In the meantime, think of this story as a guide to what Omaha’s Fashion Past looked like and check out my other fashion stories on the blog:  a profile of fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell, who has a new book and exhibition out featuring her work; a look at Omaha Fashion Week; and profiles of past and present style mavens – Nancy Bounds and Nick and Brook Hudson.

 

 

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Elaine Jabenis, center, hosting telecast of Omaha Community Playhouse opening

 

 

Omaha Fashion Past

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in Omaha Fashion Magazine

 

Fashion Divas

Just as fashion is of the times, so is the infrastructure supporting it, which is why the Omaha fashion scene once looked quite different.

It used to be fashionistas frequented multi-story fine department or apparel stores. Attentive customer service ruled the day. The same way boutiques do, box stores employed a fashion arbiter to select the latest seasonal looks in men’s and women’s clothing and accessories from the major American and European fashion centers.

The area’s penultimate arbiter was Elaine Jabenis, “Omaha’s First Lady of Fashion.” The radio-television personality and theater actress was fashion director for the pinnacle of department stores – J.L. Brandeis & Sons. She later served the same role for the Crossroads and OakView malls. Twice a year she visited New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Milan to view top designer collections.

“There was a whole way of educating the customer about what the trend was and why, and Elaine was in the forefront of that,” says designer Mary Anne Vaccaro. “She was always checking on what was in fashion.”

“We never let our customers down. People understood what we stood for and what was important,” says Jabenis, who found a happy medium between West Coast daring and East Coast sophistication to fit the Omaha market.

 The French Room at J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store

 

 

Always an innovator, she integrated theatrical elements into her runway shows.

“I felt all the shows I had seen were very boring. Models just walked down and somebody talked forever. It was kind of nothing. I thought there must be a better way to do this. I wanted music, dance, interesting staging. I decided to break it up into scenes and do a color story, a trend story, transition from day to night and night to day. Brandeis really loved that and the audiences loved it too.”

“Elaine’s shows were great,” says stylist David Scott, who with Rick Carey designed hair and makeup for Jabenis shows.

She went over-the-top with sets, actors, singers, musicians, celebrity guests.

“That kind of show could never be done today. You could never afford it,” she says.

As corporate fashion merchandiser she implemented themes throughout the entire Brandeis chain, extending to window displays. Models strolled through the stores. In-store fashion illustrators and copywriters carried the themes into print ads, articulating the look and feel of garments in a few strokes and well-chosen words.

The work of fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell is now showcased at Durham Museum.

Always attuned to trends, Jabenis was a pioneer in focusing on plus-sized women. “I was really a maverick,” she says. Mademoiselle and Seventeen magazines recognized Jabenis, who’s authored fashion merchandising books.

“Elaine is the crowning diva queen of all fashion ever in Omaha,” says Scott.

Other fashion forward figures made their own marks. The late modeling agency maven Nancy Bounds put on a smashing graduation show that launched international modeling careers, including Jaime King‘s.

“Nancy Bounds had a huge impact for not only opening up doors for young models but also creating a great sense of style in Omaha,” says retail consultant Wendy Chapman.

Fashion Culture, Then and Now

Upscale retailers abounded (Nebraska Clothing Co., Topps, Zoob’s, The Avenue). Stores, large and small, strutted their wares at the Clarkson Fashion Show – “THE huge fashion happening here,” says Scott. Trunk shows featured major designer lines and sometimes the designers themselves. Vaccaro met Oscar de La Renta at Brandeis. Scott recalls Michael Kors, Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene and Halston all coming here.

Mary Anne Vaccaro

 

 

Local designers like Vaccaro turned heads too with their custom couture works.

Though the Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Ball is not a fashion show per se, socialites used it as a stage to out-dazzle each other in their designer gowns.

“Everybody would wait to see who was going to wear what by these famous designers,” says Scott. “Everybody held their breath for Rosemary Daly to come from Paris. As she swept in she would have on Yves Saint Laurent and the crowd would ooh and ahh.”

The fabulous traveling Ebony Fashion Fair often stopped here, giving locals a chance to ogle the latest European and American lines.

When the Clarkson show ended after 1999, the era of big Omaha shows, with the exception of bridal wear events, ended too.

“The audiences became less and less. Fashion sort of became passe,” says Scott. “It wasn’t as prominent in people’s lives because then things were coming off the racks and fashion wasn’t just a one-of-a-kind thing for a woman. Anybody could go buy it.

Chapman says where the emphasis was on building wardrobes of enduring high style, “I think today some of that is lost because things are more geared to disposable fashion. It’s all about getting the look and if the customer knows she’s only going to wear it four times, she doesn’t care if it’s going to fall apart.”

Many exclusive department stores, Brandeis included, disappeared. No longer, Jabenis says, did someone tailor selections to the Omaha market. The big chains, she says, “don’t buy on a personal level” but rather via “a central buying office.” The intimate connection between store and customer faded. “The human touch is gone, service is gone. It’s not at all the kind of thing it used to be, consequently the department store is losing its foothold and the specialty shop is doing much better.” Nouvelle Eve, Tilly’s and Trocadero are among Omaha’s high-end boutiques today.

Fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell

 

 

Chapman says department stores “need to continue to reinvent themselves to be relevant with customers.”

Malls and national chains (Ann Taylor) featuring ready-to-wear designer brands became the new norm. The changing times made it tough on specialty shops too.

“People started going to Target and buying online what they bought in designer stores,” says Vaccaro. “In the fashion business if you go sour or you cannot sell one seasons’s collection, you’re in trouble. That’s the way it is. To outlast all the challenges coming at you you’ve got to have the strength of God practically.”

Changing Times, New Directions

“This industry has just changed so dramatically, I wouldn’t say either better or worse but just that fashion is moving much faster,”says Chapman. “Things are instantly knocked off and on the streets.”

“Today, fashion is about celebrity and it’s quick and it’s highly competitive,” says Vaccaro. “There’s not a few big name designers, there’s one celebrity designer and stylist after another.”

Vaccaro has changed with the times. She still has a design studio, but she’s mainly an image consultant these days. She says, “If you’re not willing to change then you are not a person of fashion anymore. You have to be what it is.”

Scott pines for what once was. “I miss it in the fact it was such a fantasy era,” he says.

To the delight of Scott and Co. fashion matters again in Omaha, where magazines, events and organizations support the emerging local design community.

“It’s an exciting look back and an exciting look forward with the evolution Omaha’s gone through and what’s happening now with Omaha Fashion Week,” says Chapman.

 

 

A runway show at Omaha Fashion Week
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