Archive

Archive for the ‘Omaha Fashion Week’ Category

Room with a view: Omaha Design Center

August 2, 2016 Leave a comment

The Omaha Design Center is THE swank new spot to hold events in town. It’s owned and operated by the people behind Omaha Fashion Week and they’ve crafted a flex space that hosts a diverse slate of events. Read my story about the Omaha Design Center and the entrepreneurs who make it happen in the Fall issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/).

 

 

Room with a view: Omaha Design Center

Creative space is new home for Omaha Fashion Week and more 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in Fall 2016 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

If Nick and Brook Hudson appear calmer at Omaha Fashion Week (OFW) this fall, it’s because they’ve found a permanent home for this once gypsy event at their recently opened Omaha Design Center (ODC).

Upon founding Fashion Week in 2008, the Hudsons were its sole proprietors and producers until bringing in Greg and Molly Cutchall as partners. Now the two entrepreneurial couples have joined forces as owners of Omaha’s newest event facility. Located in the former TipTop Ballroom at 1502 Cuming Street, ODC opened in March with the Spring OFW show. Omaha native Kate Walz, an OFW veteran and star Parsons School of Design student, was the first designer to show there. The space has earned raves from the fashion community from clients who’ve held weddings, parties, receptions and charity events there.

“People are just amazed at how beautiful and open the space is,” Brook Hudson says. “It’s impressive.”

“We’ve gotten lots of good responses,” Greg Cutchall confirms.

Nick Hudson says Fashion Week regulars and newcomers “loved it,” adding, “Our attendance was up 15 percent. People really like the energy of the space.” Its size and flexibility allows OFW to do more shows, including a new Kids Rule Fashion Show.

A 31,000 square foot flex space that is Fashion Week’s own rather than leased and that seamlessly accommodates diverse, design-oriented events is what drew the partners to purchase and refurbish the facility.

Supply and demand meet vision

The deal made sense for Fashion Week and for the catering operations the Cutchalls have. The couples met when Greg’s catering division started doing food and beverage service for Fashion Week VIP tents. They saw a shared opportunity for a year-round event space. The Cutchalls purchased the building last December and financed the remodel work. The Hudsons became co-owners in a stock swap.

“Nick and Brook are the marketing force behind the business. They’re great at creating and branding events of all kinds. My wife and I and our office team are more the business and operations side,” Greg says.

The architectural firm Alley Poyner Macchietto, who offices next door at the TipTop Building, did the redesign. The firm’s Laura Alley, a business development and community relations administrator, first recommended the site to the Hudsons.

“When Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture moved into this building and this neighborhood, we saw the potential for what it could be and we began looking for others who loved design in all its various forms. First we filled our space, then the Co-Lab next door. Then we started thinking of the ballroom. Ryan Ellis with PJ Morgan Real Estate suggested Nick and Brook might be looking for space. They were exactly the kind of passionate, design-minded, creative people we hoped to connect with.

“The space had all the right parts to fit their needs, and our design team – led by Michael Alley and Katrina Stoffel – was able to help them envision how the space could look. We are beyond thrilled to have the Omaha Design Center as our neighbor. It serves as a catalyst for some of our city’s most creative and passionate minds.”

Eight weeks of demo and construction produced an as-new, ready-to-use event space  “That’s kind of how it all came together. It was a big undertaking,” Greg says.

Makeover transforms facility

The facility’s once dull, generic banquet interior has been been remade as a chic, industrial warehouse-meets-party room. Extraneous walls and a drop ceiling were removed to open up the space, whose main ballroom has a high exposed ceiling. Polished concrete floors accent towering glass chandeliers suspended by chains from the metal beam-works. There’s also a smaller adjacent ballroom. An L-shaped granite-topped, mirror-backed bar is built into the lobby. A portion of the lobby serves as an art gallery. Another section supports pop-up vendor wares. Satellite bars can be easily set-up throughout the facility. Vintage furnishings round out the hybrid retro-contemporary feel.

Movable panels covered by sheer curtains can turn the space intimate or expansive. The panels are backlit with colored LED lights that can be programmed to create any mood or atmosphere – from casual to formal, from fun to romantic, from bridal or ball to rave.

“The lighting is immersive – it’s all around you,” Brook says. “It feels like you’re not just looking at the stage but you are a part of it. It’s really interesting.”

The remodel added state of the art lighting and sound systems. Backstage are ample amenities to support events and crowds from 200 to 2,000. There are dedicated bridal and grooms suites that double as green rooms or dressing rooms. two commercial kitchens, storage bays, a loading dock. Offices and meeting rooms are planned.

“We finally have everything we need in one spot,” Brook says, adding  that OFW no longer has to bring in things like portable restrooms or to rent off-site storage units.

The whole works remedies issues the Hudsons contended with during OFW’s first eight years, when the event got staged at various indoor and outdoor sites, most recently under a football field-sized tent in the Capitol District downtown. Certain risks and limitations come with leasing spaces others control. And where the outdoors in Nebraska is concerned, weather plays a factor.

 

metroMAGAZINE’s mQUARTERLY Fall (AUG/SEPT/OCT) 2016 Issue
ISSUU.COM

 

Finding home

Nick says, “Everything possibly that could go wrong at those events would go wrong. The building helps make Fashion Week more stable.”

Before, Brook says, “when things came up, such as inclement weather or equipment failures, we were hostage to the site. Here, we know what to expect. It’s predictable. We know it’s going to be air conditioned and heated, it’s not going to get flooded. It’s a home.”

Participants finally have a venue to display their skills to full effect.

“There’s a lot of different people involved and it’s really important they have a good platform to showcase what they’re doing for their experience and their work,” Nick says. “It’s a very growing and building experience for designers and models, for hair and makeup people, for the photographers, musicians and artists. It is too for the people planning and producing the event. Brook has a whole program of young volunteers and interns who make it their career. This new space means they can have a better experience.”

Brook says, “It’s a place where they can come and be their best.”

“The reason Fashion Week became successful was the basic concept we’re giving a professional platform for all these different creative young people who wouldn’t normally have that opportunity for free,” Nick says. “Now we can do it even more professionally. That is a huge breakthrough for us. The reason we kept moving is we could never find a space quite right in terms of infrastructure. The ceilings were too low, the space backstage was too cramped,”

Brook says, “It took a lot of energy just to compensate for all that and to reinvent the wheel every season and now we know what the wheel is. Now we can focus on just continuing to improve the productions and the creativity and the entertainment value. It opens up so much more time and energy to focus on things we’ve never been able to do before because we were busy getting water and air conditioning.”

Fashion Week audiences can expect ever more theatrical shows to go along with full, well-outfitted guest services at OFW events.

Nick says not only do participants have a better experience, the audience does, too. That’s important to an event that’s been so embraced. “Lots of people have really supported this event over the years, they’ve helped it grow, in some cases they’ve helped support some of the creatives, and because the creatives can focus more on being creative the audience is going to benefit from that as well and have a great evening, so it’s a really big step up for our community.”

Staging events in this flex space affords unlimited possibilities.

“When we have Fashion Week we design it how we want it to look and in a lot of spaces that’s harder to do – you have to take it how it is.

Here, it’s very easy to adapt it individually to what you’re looking to create,” Nick says. “It’s very creative inspiring. You come in here and personalize it to your tastes. There’s lots of things you can do.”

Brook says, “It’s a blank canvas and a playground. It can be used for many different events, in many different ways. It imposes few restrictions. Every time you walk in we have totally different events with totally different setups. It’s always something different. It’s really great.”

Design central

The owners saw that a single venue that could provide the right fit for many kinds of events is in short supply in Omaha.

“There’s a void in the market for facilities that can accommodate       mid-range sized events,” Greg Cutchall says.

“We realized if we needed something like this for Fashion Week there were all these other people who needed something like this for their nonprofit or their family or their business,” Nick says  “We called it the Design Center to reflect the designing of individual events here but also because we encourage design. Besides Fashion Week we do design-oriented things here, which is exciting, and were trying to help the fashion eco system, which this is now a big part of. The fact that it’s in the heart of this North Downtown neighborhood that could be Omaha’s design district is even more exciting.”

Creatives abound in the area. As a creative hub and staging ground,

Omaha Design Center aligns well with creative community neighbors Co-Lab, Alley Poyner Macchietto, the Mastercraft, the Hot Shops Art Center, Slowdown, Film Streams and the coming Kiewit University.

The Center is also within walking distance of several hotels and a short drive from the airport and the Old Market. The site’s already seen a broad menu of events, including a Terence Crawford victory celebration, the Berkshire Hathaway MoneyBall, a fight card and a comedy troupe. It is hosting College World Series events, a Halloween bash and a New Year’s Eve party. Everyone from models to boxers to aerialists to fire dancers to musicians have performed there. Weddings will always be, as Cutchall says, “our bread and butter.”

“We thought there would be demand for something like this and there has been,” Brook Hudson says. “We started promoting it in December and I don’t think this space has been empty since April.”

Nick Hudson says, “We’re now facilitating events for these other communities here in town. It’s exciting having these different communities and organizations coming in and doing events here. It’s all about creating community and the community building you get through events. We’re big fans of diversity. It’s always been very important to us having a really diverse crowd of people doing different things and we’re getting that same thing here. Now we just want more people to be aware there is this new space available to come celebrate through events.”

Brook says, “Yeah, we want people to come make some memories.”

“Bookings are going stronger than we anticipated our first year,” Greg Cutchall notes. ‘We’ve been very pleased and we think it will continue to grow as more people learn about the facility and see what we have to offer.”

After all the moving around OFW did, Brook Hudson is just glad to have a place she and others can count on.

“It’s good to be home,” she says. “My team is excited about that as well. All of our interviews, meetings and programming happen here now. And we get to share this great space with other communities.”

Fall Omaha Fashion Week unfurls there August 22-27.

Visit http://www.omahadesigncenter.com.

Advertisements

Bright Lights: Teen designer Ciara Fortun mines Filipino heritage in Omaha Fashion Week collection

July 29, 2016 1 comment

Omaha Fashion Week has a decided youth focus in its efforts to nurture and build the local fashion ecosystem and one of the latest prodigies getting showcased and supported is 16-year-old Ciara Fortun. Here is my profile of Ciara appearing in the August 2016 issue of The Reader  (www.thereader.com).

 

Ciara Fortun

 

 

Bright Lights

Teen designer Ciara Fortun mines Filipino heritage in Omaha Fashion Week collection

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The private doodles Ciara Fortun used to make have evolved into working sketches for collections she now produces for Omaha Fashion Week shows.

After debuting at OFW with a formal women’s wear show last March, she’s unveiling a new collection of dresses inspired by her Filipino heritage in August.

The 16 year-old Elkhorn resident and junior at Concordia High School has been fascinated with style since early childhood. But it wasn’t until attending her first Fashion Week in 2015 she realized living in flyover country was no barrier to doing something in fashion.

She attended Omaha Fashion Camp and got inspired by industry professionals working as designers, models, creative directors, stylists and photographers. That led her to sketch out a collection. The designs variously drew on Audrey Hepburn, Old Hollywood and Art Deco. Fortun’s tastes run to refined and vintage in apparel and music. She often listens to classic jazz while working.

Regarding her personal sense of style, she said, “It evolves all the time. I may look completely different day to day. Today, I’m wearing overalls, but tomorrow I may be wearing heels and a pencil skirt. I’m kind of minimalistic with everything. I don’t like a bunch of patterns. It’s pretty clean, pretty simple,” she said from her second-story home workroom. The space is filled with sketches, magazine spreads, inspirational words, a tailors dummy draped by a tape measure, an electric sewing machine, clumps of fabric and a wardrobe rack filled with her handiwork.

 

Ciara Fortun

Photos by Heather and Jameson Hooton

Models by Develop Model Management

 

She waited until “the last day” to submit her designs and then only after her parents’ gentle prodding. Upon being selected to interview she faced a panel of five adults who critiqued her work and asked about aesthetics and aspirations. It was intimidating. She said she learned “you have to really know what your personal style is before you can make something because then you know what your foundation is with fashion.”

She waited two excruciating weeks before getting word she made the cut as an invited OFW designer. That’s when reality set in she next had to create a wearable, runway-ready collection in four months. The family project involved her parents and younger sister, but Ciara and her father Luis Fortun did most of it together. Though neither has formal training, they have genetics on their side. Ciara’s paternal grandmother is from the Philippines, where she sewed. An aunt was a master seamstress and a great-grandfather a master tailor. Ciara’s steeped in stories about her ancestral homeland.

Between calling on ancestral skills, watching YouTube how-to videos and “Project Runway” episodes and sounding out OFW staff, this father-daughter combo figured things out through “lot of trial and error,” Ciara said.

A GoFundMe campaign helped with buying materials.

She agonized getting every last detail right, but her dad reminded her, “They’re not looking for perfection, they’re looking for confidence.”

Ciara said the finished dresses ended up “a lot different than what we had on paper. We did a lot of tweaking.” “On the fly,” added Luis.

“I was unsure about a lot of stuff,” Ciara said, “but then we just went for. By rack check I was terrified. I was like, ‘What if they don’t like any of the stuff and the changes I made?’ But they were really good about that. They care more about what you feel was the right choice than what will sell. It turned out well,”

During the process, OFW consultants made suggestions and Luis said, “We took most of the suggestions but some we didn’t, and they were actually very complimentary about that, saying it shows Ciara”s OK standing by her own decisions. I  was very proud of Ciara.”

Dealing with adults has taught Ciara the importance “of being able to hold a conversation” and articulate her vision. “It’s caused me to step out of my comfort zone to share what my heart is,” she said. “It’s great to be pushed to share what you love. It all has a risk factor, but you just have to stick to what you know and love. It’s been a really good growing experience, especially in a supportive setting.”

“Watching her grow through the whole process has been very encouraging – just taking responsibility for all the things,” said her father.

Getting the collection done in time came down to the wire. It meant pulling some all-nighters.

The Fortuns were pleasantly surprised by how accessible OFW staff were answering questions and providing assistance.

“You can go talk to them if you need help with something,” Ciara said. “The thing about Omaha Fashion Week is that everyone there is really supportive of the younger generation. They want to bring you through this and show you different steps of making a collection and a brand.”

She’s found big sisters and kindred spirits in designers Buf Reynolds and Sabrina Jones.

“They’re really inspiring. I see them as mentors and people I can look up to.”

As a father pressed into duty as a dressmaking production director, Luis Futon appreciates the help OFW provides.

“They do a really good job of framing out major milestones you have to reach in terms of salon, music, model call, rack check. They just don’t say, okay, we’ll see you in four months. They give you guidance. It’s very structured. They kind of walk you through the whole thing and give a lot of pointers and insight.”

Ciara’s fall collection featured highly structured, muted dresses using neoprene. Her work was well received by patrons and judges at the Omaha Design Center. Her models walked to “Forever Mine” by Andra Day and “New York New York” by DJ Cam Quartet.

By winning her night, she earned a $500 prize. In true entrepreneurial spirit she plowed it right back intto buying fabric. She’s discovered what all fashion designers here learn – you must look outside Nebraska for the best fabric and pay a premium for it.

Her new collection, for spring-summer, is lighter, brighter and more flowing with its colored satins. Besides the accent on color, another nod to her Filipino lineage is the incorporation of capiz shells.

She may study art in college to keep her creative options open.

“I’m still trying to figure out things.”

If she pursues a fashion career, it helps that OFW has her back.

“It’s a really good community we’ve found. If we lived in New York, it wouldn’t be that way. It’s really cool being part of this unique group that get me.”

Fortun, who creates under her Noelle Designs label, is among 27 designers showing during the August 22-27 Fashion Week. Her collection hits the runway August 23.

For schedule and tickets, visit omahafashionweek.com.

Yolanda Diaz success story with Little Miss Fashion nets her new recognition

May 5, 2016 1 comment

One of Omaha’s most successful fashion designers, Yolanda Diaz, has earned many accolades  for her Little Miss Fashion designs and for her entrepreneurial spirit. She was recently honored in Omaha and at the White House in Washington D.C. as Nebraska’s Small Business Person of the Year. Her story of perseverance and persistence is one we can all learn from. Her story also reminds me that the most commercially successful artists, in her case designer, are very entrepreneurial and must be in order to make a go of it. Through a lot of hard work she has mastered both the creative side of her work along with the business side. Most artists or creatives fail on the business side of things. She has been determined to not let that happen.

 

 

Yolanda Diaz

 

Yolanda Diaz success story with Little Miss Fashion nets her new recognition

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Yolanda Diaz dreamed of being a fashion designer growing up in Monterey, Mexico. Living in poverty far from any fashion capitals, it seemed an unrealistic aspiration to some. Not to her. She actually realized her dream in Mexico and then did so all over again in America. Her clothing manufacturing company in South Omaha, Little Miss Fashion, has become such a success that she’s been named Nebraska Small Business Person of the Year.

The recognition comes from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Diaz will accept her award at May 1-2 ceremonies in Washington D.C., where she will be joined by other state winners. The 2016 National Small Business Person of the Year will be announced then.

She is also being honored May 3 at the Nebraska Small Business Person of the Year Award Luncheon and Entrepreneurial Workshops at the Salvation Army Kroc Center at 2825 Y Street. The 8:30 a.m to 12:30 p.m. event is free and open to the public. Registration is required. Call 402-221-7200 to register.

This is not the first time Diaz has been singled out for her entrepreneurial achievements. Her story has captured the imagination of business organizations and media outlets since 2011. Still, this newest recognition was not something she expected..

“Honestly, it surprised me,” she says. “However, I feel very happy. Even though my business has not grown as fast as I would like, it has grown in ways I didn’t expect. I have been working hard for years and I think the award is recognition not just for me but for all the people who work hard like I do in the community. There are a lot of people around me working hard and there are institutions and organizations helping me.

“It is an honor for me to have the opportunity to get this recognition.”

Aretha Boex, lead center director for the Nebraska Business Development Center, nominated Diaz for all that she’s done to find success. “She is hard working to the core. Her tenacity and her drive is very contagious. When you work with someone like her you buy into their passion and their idea,.” Boex says. Boex’s admiration grew when she discovered Diaz has mentored women at the Latina Resource Center and trained correctional facility inmates to sew. “She cares and she’s really out there to make a difference.”

Diaz’s children’s collections are sold online through Zulily and Etsy and in select boutiques. The business has seen ups and downs and she’s learned many hard lessons, but through business workshops and loans she’s grown her operation to where she now employs nine people. Her husband and son also assist.

She says news of the award is encouraging her local network of English-as-second-language entrepreneurs.

“They say, ‘Well, one day I will be in the same place as you,’ and I say, ‘You can do it, you will. If you work hard you will get the recognition one day.’”

Boex says there’s plenty in Diaz’s story to inspire others. “She’s a woman who built her business from the ground up. She moved here from Mexico to pursue the American Dream. There’s a lot to take away from her experience and how hard work really pays off. She had the resilience and the courage to build this from scratch. She’s a great success story. We love working with her.”

Diaz’s road to success began in Mexico, where she learned to stitch on an antique sewing machine.

“I really loved doing it, I fell in love with fashion because it gives me everything I want. ”

 

Yolanda Diaz works on a skirt in her Little Miss Fashion shop in Omaha. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News; all photos by Mike Tobias, NET News, unless otherwise noted))

Marta Chavez (front) and Dolores Diarcos (back) working at Little Miss Fashion

 


Diaz holds her best-selling Little Miss Fashion design.

 


Diaz hopes to move Little Miss Fashion production into a location nine times larger in the near future.

 

Little_Miss_Fasion.jpg

(Diaz, owner of Little Miss Fashion LLC, Janell Anderson Ehrke, GROW Nebraska CEO, Laurie Magnus Warner, Central Plains Foundation Board Member)

 

 

From an early age she began making her own school apparel from old clothes and fabric scraps. Her ever-changing personal wardrobe drew much attention. Her dreams were encouraged when her talent was identified by a mentor who became her first client and referred other clients to her. Diaz even landed a contract to create school uniforms.

She steeped herself in her craft and built a successful business, learning from seamstresses and studying at design schools. Her business thrived but her then-husband didn’t support her pursuits. That proved frustrating to Diaz. who self-describes as “very independent.” After she and her family came to the States in 1996, her first marriage ended. She remarried and worked regular jobs searching for her niche here. She made pet tents before making children’s clothes. She started her company in 2003 under a different name, at first targeting the Latino market before expanding to the Anglo market. Along the way, she’s participated in the micro loan program Grameen America and taken classes at the Juan Diego Center, the Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC) and Gallup University.

“She built her business while she had a night job, fulfilling all the orders herself, cutting and assembling by hand, which meant long hours, in addition to having a family. So she really believed in this,” says Boex.

A regular designer at Omaha Fashion Week, Diaz showed a collection that sparked interest from Zulily. The onset of online sales orders forced her to outsource production to Mexico, where family members pitched-in. Now everything’s done in-house in Omaha. An SBA microloan from the Omaha Small Business Network provided working capital to grow her business enough to meet large orders. Little Miss Fashion now averages $10,000 sales a month from online orders. Last May Diaz received a second SBA microloan through Nebraska Enterprise Fund. The loans allowed her to buy additional commercial sewing machines, purchase materials and hire more workers. She gets ongoing management consulting and export support from NBDC. Diaz recently sealed a deal to sale her clothing lines through the German e-commerce company Windelbar.de.

Every step of her journey, from improving her English to learning how to write a business plan to doing budgets to managing employees, has helped her succeed.

“I like challenges. I never say never,” she said. “A lot of work, but a lot of fun. I still learn something new every day.”

True to her entrepreneurial spirit, Diaz envisions growing into more markets, a larger production facility and her own retail shop. But for now, she’s content knowing she’s “doing what I’ve wanted to all my life – I’m following my passion.”

Follow Little Miss Fashion on Facebook or visit http://littlemissfashionusa.com/.

 

Omaha Fashion Week & SAC Federal Credit Union: Building the fashion eco-system via business focus

August 5, 2015 2 comments

One look at me and my duds and you instantly know I am no fashion plate, at least where my own apparel is concerned.  However, I do feel I have a good enough fashion sense where others are concerned.  None of which means a hoot when it comes to the fashion stories I write, and I’ve written a whole bunch of them, mostly in connection with Omaha Fashion Week, because I go the experts who know fashion for my information.  This story for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) is the latest OFW piece I’ve done and where in the past I’ve focused on designers and shows and trends, looking sometimes back and other times forward, this story examines a burgeoning business relationship between emerging designers and a local lending-financial institution, SAC Federal Credit Union.  The idea being explored by this pilot program and thus by the story is the importance of desginers having access to capital to grow their lines, their brands, their businesses if Omaha is to ever foster a true design community and industry.

The next Omaha Fashion Week is August 17-22.

ecosystem: Omaha Fashion Week & SACFCU
Building the fashion eco-system via business focus

©BY LEO ADAM BIGA

Originally published in the August-September-October 2015 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

Hooton Images

When Nick and Brook Hudson aren’t caring for their new-born girl they nurture their other baby, Omaha Fashion Week (OFW). The couple cultivate the local fashion eco-system through a multitude of showcase events, educational experiences like Omaha Fashion Camp and fashion sales organizations such as Design Parliament LLC. They were the inspiration and catalyst for the developmental organizations Fashion Institute Midwest and Omaha Fashion Guild.

This infrastructure gives area designers venues to show their work, experts to advise them on aesthetic and market matters and a support system for resources and professional development opportunities.

Now, with SAC Federal Credit Union as a partner, the Hudsons are bringing designers together with bankers to maximize commercial potential. Thus, the new financial support program gives designers the financial acumen and services to put their creative pursuits on a business basis. As SACFCU members, designers have access to credit lines for purchasing materials or equipment, for expanding into new spaces or for doing anything else to enhance and grow their business.

Banking on potential

The test program may eventually work with other kinds of designers as well as visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, playwrights, et cetera.

SACFCU president-CEO Gail DeBoer opted to work with fashion designers to initiate the program since her institution already had a sponsor relationship with OFW. She shares the Hudsons’ vision for building a sustainable fashion community.

“We really saw the potential of the designers and what the development of that industry could do for our region,” she says. “We wanted to be part of an event that’s not just entertainment but also adds to the quality of life here by nurturing these young entrepreneurs. We felt this was a niche nobody else was addressing from a business perspective.”

DeBoer says her credit union is well-positioned to work with the micro-size businesses most local designers operate.

“They’re small and so there’s not a lot of profit at the beginning for a financial institution and that’s probably the difference between a credit union and another financial. I don’t have shareholders to satisfy, so I don’t have to show necessarily a return on every deal we make. The return on the relationship isn’t our motivation.

“Our mission is people helping people, so we have a passion for helping them reach their goals and hopefully someday they will grow. But that’s not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is just to help our members. This is not just giving back to the individual designers but it’s giving back to the whole community because if we can foster that entrepreneurial spirit then it’s an economic benefit to our community.”

The Hudsons see close alignment between OFW’s goals and SAC’s.

“One of the things the team at SAC is very passionate about is helping people get started. They’ve got that mission,” Nick says. “And we have that, too,” Brook says. “We’re a social enterprise.”

Nick says, “I’ve never come across another financial institution willing to put the time and effort into all these small businesses, because we’re talking about tiny loans – a thousand dollars or two thousand dollars.”

Getting up to speed

A typical designer who shows at OFW requires assistance with everything from establishing a business checking account to devising a business plan. But there’s much more they need to learn, including
understanding finance, buying, pricing, sales tax and various legalities.

“There’s a whole set of skills around doing those things,” Hudson says. “You might have it all worked out but then you need access to money – you need some money to make some money. Designers might have an opportunity to sell $10,000 worth of clothing but they don’t have the money to buy the $1,000 or $2,000 of fabric they need.

“We still have a lot of designers we deal with who don’t have bank accounts or credit cards.”

The Hudsons regard the financial literacy entrepreneurs have to gain as empowering and critical to their success.

Nick says OFW and SAC are committed to “help people turn their passions into businesses or to help their existing businesses go further to make them self-sustaining. We’ve got wonderfully talented people having to fund their passion by working in a coffee shop during the day and then spending all night doing their passion.

“We’re trying to help them get to the next stage.”

He says with the skills development that goes on now informally through OFW and formally through Fashion Institute Midwest “more and more are now making a living – some are even employing people.”

Brook Hudson says it’s all about giving designers the tools required to reach more customers and find financial stability.

“In this day and age it’s a lot easier for an artist to turn their passion into dollars because of the Internet. They have a worldwide community they could potentially be selling to. So part of our challenge is helping them unlock that opportunity,” she says.

It’s important designers have the right mindset by being, what Nick calls, “more commercially-minded and thinking what customers want.”

“It”s a totally different ballgame to go from custom pieces to something designed from the beginning to be mass-produced,” Brook says.

Tailoring financial services to designer needs

The Hudsons introduce designers to SAC they consider ready to take the next step.

“Not every designer is ready for that,” notes Brook, who adds that some are intimidated by the prospect of working with a lender.

Bryan Frost and Erica Cardenas, owners of vintage-inspired boutique Wallflower Artisan Collective and designers of their own Wallflower apparel line, are excited to see how SAC can help them expand their apparel production capabilities. They say money’s critical if they’re to grow their business and if Omaha’s to grow a fashion hub. They’re encouraged that designers and lenders are finding alignment.

Samone Davis, owner-designer of the luxury streetwear brand Legalized Rebellion says she’s worked “diligently” with the SAC team to establish a line of credit for her label. She adds, “I definitely feel financial help is key to growth as long as there’s a solid plan and execution behind it. As designers we tend to get lost in our own minds. Sometimes we have to make sure we are focused and know exactly who we want to market to, otherwise there won’t be any progression.”

For designers like these, Gail DeBoer says, “we’re offering a kind of a concierge service,” adding, “We’re walking them through this journey. That begins by really developing a relationship with them to know what each one needs because they all have different needs depending on their business stage. We do look them in the eye to gauge how serious they are, how committed they are. We do talk with them in order to understand the uniqueness of their business and their challenges.”

SACFCU vice president of operations Keli Wragge is that concierge figure working with designers.

“Some are ready to take their designs to the marketplace and others are just getting started and wondering what they need to do in order to be ready for financing down the road,” Wragge says. “One client needs to expand and is looking at buying a commercial building. Another is about to open their first business checking account. Prior to this they transacted in all cash. There is a big gap between what the first member needs and what the second member needs.”

There are also many common issues designers face.

“Supplies and the cost of production are large expenses, especially if the designer isn’t a seamstress and has to hire outside talent,” Wragge says. “One of the big issues faced by designers is irregular cash flow and finding a way to live a comfortable life while trying to perfect their craft, innovate new designs and get a collection ready. Many designers have to have another income or job in order to support themselves.”

DeBoer says, “Just getting started and getting them to think about things they’re not even thinking about – often you don’t know what you don’t know – is huge. We bring in the right person at the right time from the credit union to help them through that next decision or that next product they might need. We want to make sure they have a business partner holding their hand, walking them through the process.”

There’s no guarantee any designers will make it.

“Whether they will all be successful, that’s up to them,” DeBoer says. “But we can certainly help them by taking away the challenge of writing a business plan or getting some early money to realize their dreams.”

Growing a design community and fashion industry
Nick Hudson is heartened by the way the metro’s fashion eco-system has evolved in less than a decade.

“There’s just so many more people and organizations involved and that’s what makes it grow,” he says.

The Hudsons have been planting seeds to see what takes root.

DeBoer says if a true fashion industry is to emerge here it must take the same intentional, step-by-step path that OFW has followed.

“You don’t start out with everything all at once. It has a life cycle and I think this is an exciting next step for Omaha Fashion Week and for us. I think everybody’s excited about taking it to that next level.”

Nick says, “The next stage is going to be helping with marketing and bringing the customers and sellers together.”

Increasingly, he says, designers sell their wares before and after OFW events.

He and Brook envision a brick and mortar base to anchor a dedicated design district. Having a critical mass of designers in close proximity to each other would provide access to shared spaces, facilities and services for sample making or material production and to economies of scale, efficiencies of operation and synergies of creativity.

“We’ve got to have everybody together working in one place and all that collaboration going on in order to reap some of those other benefits,” Brook says.

Ultimately, the Hudsons say if enough capacity is built a factory would be needed to manufacture the garments and accessories of not just local designers but of some select national and international designers.

Brook notes several major designers already have or are looking to move manufacturing from overseas to America, but many U.S. cities make that cost prohibitive. She says Omaha offers certain advantages, such as “great work ethic” and “low cost of doing business and living.”

Should fashion manufacturing ever happen here at scale, she says, “it would be powerful because that positions Omaha on a whole different level as a national player on the fashion scene, plus it’s creating jobs.”

Meanwhile, the creatives behind Wallflower and Legalized Rebellion say they appreciate the financial support system SAC offers as it propels their dreams and strengthens the design community.

The next OFW designer showcase is August 17-22. For details, visit omahafashionweek.com.

“We really saw the potential of the designers and what the development of that industry could do for our region. We wanted to be part of an event that’s not just entertainment but also adds to the quality of life here by nurturing these young entrepreneurs. We felt this was a niche nobody else was addressing from a business perspective.”
“I’ve never come across another financial institution willing to put the time and effort into all these small businesses, because we’re talking about tiny loans – a thousand dollars or two thousand dollars.”
“This is not just giving back to the individual designers but it’s giving back to the whole community because if we can foster that entrepreneurial spirit then it’s an economic benefit to our community.”

The Designers: Omaha’s Emerging Fashion Culture

February 2, 2014 2 comments

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.

 

 

metroMAGAZINE

the designers

Omaha’s Emerging Fashion Culture

BY LEO ADAM BIGA
Now appearing in Metro Magazine

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

 

 

Kate Walz
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

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, 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.

The Wonderful World of Artist and Social Entrepreneur Jeffrey Owen Hanson

January 1, 2013 2 comments

Jeffrey Owen Hanson is one of those unexpected and inspirational success stories I run into from time to time.  This young artist and social entrepreneur has found his niche as a pop art painter in spite of or perhaps because of his low vision and he’s using the sell of his much coveted work to support charitable causes.  The following profile I did on hin for an upcoming issue of Omaha Fashion Week explores how he came to discover his artistic gift and to make it the vehicle for philanthropy and details how he’s come to hand-paint dresses showcased at Omaha Fashion Week.

Old Windsor Garden by Jeffrey Owen Hanson

 

 

The Wonderful World of Artist and Social Entrepreneur Jeffrey Owen Hanson

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in Omaha Fashion Magazine

 

The unexpected artist

Self-taught artist Jeffrey Owen Hanson likes saying “I see through Swiss cheese” to explain the visual impairment an optic nerve tumor left him and the unique way it gives him of apprehending the world. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments destroyed the tumor and curbed any further vision loss. The tumor, along with some learning disabilities, are the result of a genetic disorder he’s lived with since birth called Neurofibromatosis.

None of it’s impeded his remarkable ascent as an artist and social entrepreneur. His highly collectible abstract renderings, including hand-painted dresses, are sought after by celebrities and raise major monies for charitable causes close to his heart. At 19 he’s on pace to reach his goal of raising $1 million in charitable proceeds by age 20.

He’s even grateful for his limited visual perception because it’s led him to use color and texture in original ways that make his vibrant, tactile art singularly his own. Indeed, before his vision got really bad he’d never shown the slightest inclination for art.

“I painted on rocks and I did dot art and that type of thing” as a child, he says.He did the kinds of crafts and arts things that kids always do but really his art wasn’t anything special,” his mother Julie Hanson confirmed. At her suggestion he began painting notecards for something he and his friends could do when he had visitors over while recovering from treatments, What began as a routine diversion soon evolved into a serious artistic and philanthropic outlet. His early watercolors on notecards were sold from a lemonade stand next to his mom’s homebred goodies in the driveway of the family’s suburban home. Within a few years he’d gravitated to acrylics on canvas sold in galleries and auctions, the works commanding five figure prices apiece. Commissions for his work now flood in every week from around the nation, even around the world.

It’s why his parents have come to call their only child “the accidental artist.”

The fact he’s turned an impairment into a gift and made his art a platform for helping others is why his work and story have touched people from all walks of life and well beyond his Overland Park, Kansas home. The Hanson magic has even reached Omaha, where his first line of hand-painted dresses debuted during the grand finale of last August’s Omaha Fashion Week. He’ll have a new line for the OFW Spring show and another in the August showcase.

The standing ovation he received in Omaha for artwork adorning dresses designed by Caine Westergard added to his growing recognition. He’s been named Young Entrepreneur of the Year, he’s been profiled in the Huffington Post, he’s met everyone from Warren Buffett to Elton John. He’s the subject of a YouTube video and a new book authored by his father, Dr. Hal Hanson, entitled “Lessons from Clod.” Clod is the name Jeffrey gave his tumor. Among the lessons he learned from that old nemesis he eventually embraced as a friend is that it’s better to focus on what you can do than on what you can’t do.

Seven years since clod’s disappearance he’s sold hundreds of paintings, enjoyed solo exhibitions, and seen his work purchased by the rich and famous at live charity auctions.

None of this was supposed to have happened.

Seeing past blindness

His father, an emergency room physician at Ransom Memorial Hospital in Ottawa, Kansas, simply calls what’s transpired “amazing,” adding, “We call Jeff the accident artist because no one was intending art being anything more than a childhood hobby. What started out as kid art just sort of evolved. He’s a person that’s totally naive to art, totally untrained, didn’t go to art school, and yet he’s become an in-demand artist with a whole career in front of him.”

Julie Hanson says right from the start of Jeff painting the notecards he showed an aptitude the other kids didn’t. “Jeff’s notecards were fabulous and this consistently kept happening.”

The mystery of how he could go from no apparent artistic ability and without any formal training to exceptional ability and the admiration of professionals may never be fully answered though the family has some theories. Much of his approach to art seems intuitive rather than drawn from any obvious influence, though his impressionistic landscapes are often inspired by places he’s visited.

“There’s no talent in our family for art to start with,” Jeff says by way of eliminating the possibility of some inherited art gene from his immediate lineage.

Where does he think his talent comes from then? “I don’t know,” he says. “I just think I have a good eye for color.” And texture. “Almost all of my paintings have really thick modeling paste spread all over it to give it texture.” He often incorporates wire, rope and other 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.

Could his visual impairment somehow give him a heightened appreciation for color as a way of compensating for other deficits? “Maybe, I don’t know, possibly,” he says. “Well. I mean I don’t know what I cant see. I see through Swiss cheese. My vision has holes.”

 

 

Jeffrey Owen Hanson

 

 

In preparing the book about their son and his unexpected journey in art his parents pressed Jeff about his methodology and discovered things that shed light on how and why he creates what he does.

“We started talking to Jeff about, ‘Well, how did you decide to paint that? Why did you put those two colors together?’ We asked him, ‘What are your rules here?” And we came up with a dozen things that he does that aren’t even at a conscious level for him,” says Hal Hanson. “He doesn’t sit and think about it, but when we tried to pin him down he would say things like, ‘Well, I have low vision so I don’t like to put two light colors next to each other. I have to put a dark color next to a light color because it’s high contrast and I can see the border. And I don’t like things that are flat. I like things that are chunky because I can see the texture when the light catches it.’ So he likes things that are really high contrast, high texture and with big, bold loud colors.

“He doesn’t like any piece of art that has a million little things going on all over it.

It’s gotta have big expanses of calm with nothing going on because it’s hard for him to see a million little things. His eye doesn’t know where to go. So it turns out a lot of  what he does is guided by his low vision. Where we once thought his art is popular despite of his low vision, it’s popular because of his low vision. His vision is peculiar enough or impaired enough that it kind of forces him into a certain style. It has sort of guided him in a direction of, ‘Well, here’s what works for me,'”

Then there’s the possibility other guidance is at work, too,

“Don’t you think this is a gift from God?” Julie asks Jeff at one point during the interview. “Yeah,” he answers matter-of-factly.

How else to explain Jeff creating paintings that captivate so many?

Art as career and mission

It took a long time for his mother and father to realize his paintings appealed to far more than just their parental pride. When others began responding to his art they at first thought people were simply being kind or sympathetic to his overcoming challenges to raise funds for NF research. But as his art kept getting more and more attention and interest, they realized something bigger was at work.

“We saw this going on but none of the three of us ever intended this to go anywhere,” says Hal. “For the longest time I thought what they really wanted was a piece of the story. That they’d heard about this kid who had low vision who was painting and giving the paintings to charity auctions. That they weren’t really interested in the art, they just wanted a piece of the story.

“I didn’t consider the possibility that people liked his art for its own sake until we found out people were buying it and they didn’t even know the story, they didn’t know he had low vision and gave the money to charity. That was sort of a revelation to us that, ‘Oh my God, people actually like the art.’ His fans, his clients kept telling us, ‘This isn’t just kid art.’ What we thought was something you would put on your refrigerator with a magnet turned into things selling at an auction for $10,000 and $15,000.”

Artist Rachel Mindrup of Omaha responds to both Jeff’s story and his art. She’s made him a subject  in a series of portraits she’s painting of people with  Neurofibromatosis who, she says, “are changing the world.” She says he’s a deserving subject for the series she calls The Many Faces of NF “because he’s done so much for NF and for the Children’s Tumor Foundation.”

Like many others, she finds Hanson to be an inspiration.

“Not only has he overcome many limitations he’s going way beyond expectations,” Mindrup says. “It’s cool when an idea like his art philanthropy takes on a life of its own and goodness begets goodness. If you have a good heart and you’re doing things to help other people that seems to grow exponentially.”

As she’s gotten to know Jeff she’s come to admire his “strong work ethic,” adding,

“He’s a working, living artist. He gets up and works every day. He does what any artist should be doing. I find him to be really inspiring, I really do. Here’s a kid who had this disability and instead of woe-is-me he’s doing something positive.”

Even if he didn’t have a heart-tugging story, she says, his art’s good enough to stand on its own.

“His artwork is a treasure in and of itself regardless of his genetic code. Who cares if he has NF or not? It’s like the paintings speak for themselves. They’ve got vivid colors and juicy brush strokes, they’re tactile, they’ve visually pleasing. Anybody who looks at the paintings, regardless if they know Jeff’s story or not, will find them engaging and interesting and will react to them, enjoy them. Without even knowing his biography, they work, they’re wonderful.”

Interior designer Emily Dugger of Omaha treasures the two Hanson paintings hanging in her home, including a custom piece she and her husband commissioned him to make using colors they selected. “We love them both,” she says of his works. “He’s very talented and he’s just extremely sweet. I’m very drawn to his story and his life and his passion.”

Before the Hansons knew it, the accidental artist selling his wares from a lemonade stand morphed into a full-fledged art enterprise. Jeff’s parents recently worked with a professional to devise a strategic plan for finding ever new revenue streams for Jeff’s art in order to sustain his career and his philanthropy.

“It was never intended to be a career at all, it kept snowballing to the point that we realized one day, ‘I guess we have an art business,’ and here we are,” says Hal Hanson.

“The whole world is moving so fast that if you want to continue to have a career in art and be successful you’d better be entrepreneurial and philanthropic,” Julie Hanson explains. “Theres all kinds of things we keep simmering in the business. We’re trying to let this be his career and be very successful at it while also giving to the world.”

 

 

Hanson with designer Caine Westergard at Omaha Fashion Week

 

 

Hanson’s new frontier: Hand-painted dresses 

Fashion art wasn’t something the Hansons conceived Jeff doing until a consultant identified it as a viable option.

“Fashion certainly was in that plan,” says Julie. “There was no intent of doing it quite so soon, however Omaha Fashion Week caught wind of Jeff and producer Brook Hudson said, ‘What if he would try hand painting dresses?’ And we talked with them about it. because that was exactly what we wanted to do. Jeff was invited to be in the grand finale. The door of opportunity opened and when it opens, Jeff…” “Run and go do it,” he says to finish his mother’s thought. 

The next order of business was finding a designer whose dresses he could hand paint. It just so happened that Jeff’s cousin Heather has a friend at Iowa State University studying apparel design, Caine Westergard. Working on a tight schedule mere weeks from the OFW show’s start, Westergard and the Hansons collaborated on three dresses.

“I went ahead and started sketching and used some patterns I had,” says Westergard. “They sent me some paintings they thought would be interesting on some garments and let me have free reign of all the designing aspects of taking which paintings I liked and completely designing the dresses as to what I would think would complement their design. Then I mailed my dresses to the Hansons and they went ahead and painted them.”

“She came up w three blank slates, three blank canvasses if you will for Jeff to apply three different hand-painted styles on these dresses,” says Julie Hanson. “And there’s no secret, we have to help Jeff with that kind of thing a lot. Imagine being given one hand-made original dress and fresh paint is going to go onto it, and guess what, you can’t mess it up, and Jeff’s visually impaired, so we help Jeff with that a lot.”

Westergard appreciates how “extremely textured” Jeff’s work is. “Until you actually see it in person you don’t realize how many different levels and pieces there are

and what is actually beneath the paint and built up. They truly are works of art.”

Inspired by some his impressionistic landscapes, she created three dresses. For “The Grasse”s she imagined “standing out in an open field or prairie” and being caressed by the wind and the colors of the grass. “I really wanted that dress to be long and flowy. I wanted it to have a kind of wave as it walked down the runway with high-low skirt.”

“For “The Poppy” dress I cued off its vibrant color to create a more elegant feel. I wanted to make more of a ball gown of that dress. For “The Water Reservation” or “On the Water Rez” there’s so many different blocks and colors. It’s very bright and flowy. I just chose a very simple black satin with a peek-a-boo skirt. When you look at the garment you can see a little bit of the painting but not until the model walks and the peek-a-boo skirt opens can you actually see the painting on the skirt.”

She couldn’t be sure how Jeff’s art would work with her dresses until the hand-painting was complete.

“The first time I saw the dresses totally finished with my work and their work was the day of the fashion show. It was a little nerve wracking. I had complete faith in them but hand-painting a dress you only have one shot at it. It wasn’t like we had time for me to design another dress or for them to re-hand paint it. But they really turned out to be three really unique pieces that I’m definitely proud of and I know they’re really excited about.”

The audience roared its approval, too. “Seeing that our work was really impacting people was really neat.”

 

 

Hanson with models who strutted the Omaha Fashion Week runway in the Westergard dresses he hand-painted

 

 

Refilling the bank of dreams

Hal Hanson never anticipated it would come to this. His son walking down the runway hand-in-hand with a promising young designer, surrounded by gorgeous models wearing hand-painted Hanson originals, lapping up the adoring cheers and applause of onlookers.

“I’m speechless,” Hanson says. “As a father, your kid is born and you have this dream bank. You look at your baby for the first time and you think, ‘OK, you’re going to be the quarterback of the football team’ or whatever and then events start occurring that start chipping away at your dreams. And you realize, ‘I guess we’re not going to do that,’ and before you know it he can’t drive a bicycle or roller-skate or see stars in the sky and you keep making withdrawals from your dream bank to the point you don’t’ have any more dreams.

“And that’s where I got pretty rock bottom. I was like, ‘I don’t see anything he can do between his learning problems and his vision problems.’ And then for him to start making and selling art, are you kidding me? Till the day you’re on this runway and people are liking these dresses. It’s just miraculous. My dream bank is bulging with deposits now. It was depleted five years ago, so it’s a huge turnaround.

“It’s turned into something amazing.”

Keep up with Jeff’s burgeoning career at http://jeffreyowenhanson.com.

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.”

 

%d bloggers like this: