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Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads

June 21, 2011 6 comments

Nick Hudson is one of several Omaha transplants who have come here from other places in recent years and energized the creative-cultural scene. One of his many ventures in Omaha is Nomad Lounge, which caters to the creative class through a forward-thinking aesthetic and entrepreneurial bent and schedule of events. This Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) piece gives a flavor for Hudson and why Nomad is an apt name for him and his endeavor. Three spin-off ventures from Nomad that Hudson has a major hand in are Omaha Fashion Week, Omaha Fashion Magazine, and the Halo Institute.  You can find some of my Omaha Fashion Week and Omaha Fashion Magazine writing on this blog.  And look for more stories by me about Nick Hudson and his wife and fellow entrepreneur Brook Hudson.

 

 

 

 

Nomad Lounge, An Oasis for Creative Class Nomads

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

Another side of Omaha’s new cosmopolitan face can be found at Nomad Lounge, 1013 Jones St. in the historic Ford Warehouse Building. The chic, high-concept, community-oriented salon captures the creative class trade. Tucked under the Old Market’s 10th St. bridge, Nomad enjoys being a word-of-mouth hideaway in a shout-out culture. No overt signs tout it. The name’s stenciled in small letters in the windows and subtly integrated into the building’s stone and brick face.

The glow from decorative red lights at night are about the only tip-off for the lively goings-on inside. That, and the sounds of pulsating music, clanking glasses and buzzing voices leaking outdoors and the stream of people filing in and out.

Otherwise, you must be in-the-know about this proper gathering spot for sophisticated, well-traveled folks whose interests run to the eclectic. It’s all an expression of majority owner Nick Hudson, a trendy international entrepreneur and world citizen who divides his time between Omaha and France for his primary business, Excelsior Beauty. Nomad is, in fact, Hudson’s nickname and way of life. The Cambridge-educated native Brit landed in Omaha in 2005 in pursuit of a woman. While that whirlwind romance faded he fell in love with the town and stayed on. He’s impressed by what he’s found here.

“I’m blown away by what an amazingly creative, enterprising, interesting community Omaha is,” he said. He opened Excelsior here that same year — also maintaining a Paris office — and then launched his night spot in late 2006.

If you wonder why a beauty-fashion industry maven who’s been everywhere and seen everything would do start-up enterprises in middle America when he could base them in some exotic capital, you must understand that for Hudson the world is flat. Looking for an intersection where like-minded nomads from every direction can engage each other he opted for Omaha’s “great feeling, great energy.”

“We’re all nomadic, were all on this journey,” he said, “but there are times when nomads come together, bringing in different experiences to one central place and sharing ideas in that community. And that’s exactly what it is here. Nomad’s actually about a lifestyle brand and Nomad Lounge is just the event space and play space where that brand comes to life for the experimental things we do.”

He along with partners Charles Hull and Clint! Runge of Archrival, a hot Lincoln, Neb. branding-marketing firm, and Tom Allisma, a noted local architect who’s designed some of Omaha’s cutting-edge bars-eateries, view Nomad as a physical extension of today’s plugged-in, online social networking sites. Their laidback venture for the creative-interactive set is part bar, part art gallery, part live performance space, part small business incubator, part collaborative for facilitating meeting-brainstorming-partnering.

“That whole connecting people, networking piece is really exciting to us because it’s not just being an empty space for events, we’re actually playing an active role in helping the creative community continue to grow,” said Hudson.

 

 

Nick Hudson

 

 

Social entrepreneurship is a major focus. Nomad helps link individuals, groups and businesses together. “It’s a very interesting trend that’s going to be a big buzz word,” Hudson said. “Nomad is a social enterprise. It’s all about investing in and increasing the social capital of the community, creating networks, fostering creativity. My biggest source of passion is helping people achieve their potential.”

“He’s definitely done that for me,” said Nomad general manager-events planner Rachel Richards. “He’s seen my passion in event planning and he’s opened doors I never thought I’d get through.”

The Omaha native was first hired by Hudson to coordinate Nomad’s special events through her Rachel Richards Events business. She’s since come on board as a key staffer. With Hudson’s encouragement she organized Nomad’s inaugural Omaha Fashion Week last winter, a full-blown, first-class model runway show featuring works by dozens of local designers. “That was always a dream of mine,” she said.

Under the Nomad Collective banner, Hudson said, “the number of social entrepreneurs and small enterprises and venture capitalist things that are coming from this space from the networking here is just phenomenal. Increasingly that’s going beyond this space into start-up businesses and all sorts of things.” Nomad, he said, acts as “a greenhouse for ideas and businesses to expand and grow.”

Nomad encourages interplay. Massive cottonwood posts segment the gridded space into 15 semi-private cabanas whose leather chairs and sofas and built-in wood benches seat 8 to 20 guests. Velvet curtains drape the cabanas. It’s all conducive to relaxation and conversation. Two tiny galleries display works by local artists.

There’s a small stage and dance floor. The muted, well-stocked bar features international drink menus. Video screens and audio speakers hang here and there, adding techno touches that contrast with the worn wood floors, the rough-hewn brick walls and the exposed pipes, vents and tubes in the open rafters overhead. It all makes for an Old World meets New World mystique done over in earth tones.

Hudson embraces Nomad’s flexibility as it constantly evolves, reinventing itself. In accommodating everything from birthdays/bachelorettes to release/launch parties to big sit-down dinners to more intimate, casual gatherings to social enterprise fairs and presenting everything from sculptures and paintings to live bands and theater shows to video projection, it’s  liable to look different every time you visit. Whatever the occasion, art, design, music and fashion are in vogue and celebrated.

Dressed-up or dressed-down, you’re in synch with Nomad’s positive, chic vibe.

“It’s this whole thing about being premium without being pretentious,” said Hudson. “Nomad is stylish, it’s trendy, it’s great quality. All our drinks are very carefully selected. But it’s still made affordable.”

In addition to staging five annual premiere events bearing the Nomad brand, the venue hosts another 90-100 events a year. Richards offers design ideas to organizations using the space and matches groups with artists and other creative types to help make doings more dynamic, more stand-alone, more happening.

 

 

 

 

Clearly, Nomad targets the Facebook generation but not exclusively. Indeed, Hudson and Richards say part of Nomad’s charm is the wide age range it attracts, from 20-somethings to middle-agers and beyond.

Nomad fits into the mosaic of the Old Market, where the heart of the creative community lives and works and where a diverse crowd mixes. Within a block of Nomad are The Kaneko, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, the Blue Barn Theatre and any number of galleries, artist studios, fine restaurants and posh shops. Nomad’s a port of call in the Market’s rich cultural scene.

“It’s such a great creative community. We want to help make our little contribution to that and keep building on all the great things going on,” said Hudson.

Besides being a destination for urban adventurers looking to do social networking or conducting business or celebrating a special occasion or just hanging out, Nomad’s a site for charitable fundraisers. Hudson and Richards want to do more of what he calls “positive interventions” with nonprofits like Siena/Francis House. Last year Nomad approached the shelter with the idea for Concrete Conscience, which placed cameras in the hands of dozens of homeless clients for them to document their lives. Professional photographers lent assistance. The resulting images were displayed and sold, with proceeds going to Siena/Francis.

New, on Wednesday nights, is Nomad University, which allows guests to learn crafts from experts, whether mixing cocktails or DJing or practically anything else. It’s a chance for instructors to market their skills and for students to try new things, all consistent with a philosophy Hudson and Richards ascribe to that characterizes the Nomad experience: Do what you love and do it with passion.

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Alice’s wonderland: Former InStyle accessories editor Alice Kim brings NYC style sense to Omaha’s Trocadero


Alice Kim’s story reads like a pitch line for a new reality television series. Growing up back east she began cultivating an intense interest in Omaha of all places, and her fascination grew more acute with each encounter she would have with someone from this Midwest city. She never visited here, mind you, she just read about it and kept running into Omahans, and every encounter and exposure reinforced in her mind this idealized version of Omaha as the embodiment of the All-American city. The thing is, her magnificent obsession didn’t wane after she carved out a career in New York City’s fashion and style industry, primarily as an editor with InStyle magazine. In fact, she kept cultivating this fixation and then one day she left her life and career in the Big Apple behind in order to transform her life in the middle of the country, far from the tastemaking and trendsetting scene of New York. The following story and sidebar for The Reader (www.thereader.com) describe how Kim has transferred her fashionista sensibilities to my hometown of Omaha and reinvented herself at the same time as a first-time mom and soon to be bride. Her fairytale life change is the subject of her delightful blog, Postcards from Omaha, and of a book she hopes to complete by year’s end.

There’s a nice symmetry to her story as well:  Now that this accessories maven is well ensconced in Omaha with her lifestyle boutique, Trocadero, she’s helping prepare young Nebraska women with designs on having career sin fashion and style in New York City realize their dreams.

 

 

 

 

Alice’s wonderland:

Former InStyle accessories editor Alice Kim brings NYC style sense to Omaha’s Trocadero

©by Leo Adam Biga

As appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Alice Kim’s story of leaving New York City for Omaha has gotten much play.

In 2007, the then-InStyle magazine accessories editor acted on her admittedly “weird,” long-held preoccupation with Omaha by moving here and opening the Old Market lifestyles boutique, Trocadero.

“My store is in some ways InStyle come to life,” she says.

Her experience recommending the best of this or that gives Trocadero customers the benefit of her branded, expert, insider’s advice.

“I have that kind of finger on the pulse of what people want.”

Still, her store has struggled amid the recession and conservative Midwest buying habits that don’t mesh with her somewhat frivolous merchandise.

Cognoscenti, however, regard this Big Apple sophisticate as a style maven and tastemaker. Her exclusive, discriminating suggestions for just the right hand bag, pair of shoes or home decor item is heeded.

She cops to not being a salesperson but says, “I can always convince somebody that this is a great something or other.” Her spin, she says, goes something like: “’It’s a total New York brand, it’s not sold everywhere, it’s at a great price point.’ And all of a sudden there’s a story and they’re like, Really? And they buy it.

“It’s like sharing industry secrets,” she says. “I feel I have a unique angle, which is really telling people about the stuff that we as editors love.”

Everything she sells or endorses, she says, “I stand by.”

 

 

 

 

If her style sensibility were a tag line she says it would be “practically perfect,” adding, “It’s always going to be practical and it’s going to close to darn perfect.”

She has the professional chops and personal élan to articulate her discerning aesthetic without sounding smug, whether selecting things to sell in her shop or for her own wardrobe or excising the dull dross from a client’s closet.

“I feel very confident in my skills,” she says over sushi at Hiro 88 West. “I’ve always known how to style.  I think a lot of it is innate. It’s just having the eye. It’s like being a good editor. But, of course, I’ve been trained. When I arrived in New York, from Pittsburgh, in 1992, I certainly was not a fashion diva then and I certainly didn’t look the part. I was doughty.”

She’s a long way from doughty today, though she felt that way while pregnant last year with her first child. Since the birth of her daughter Annabel she’s pined to retire her formless maternity clothes and return to some chic wear, such as the classic black dress she wore at lunch, accented by pearls.

“I don’t want to look messy anymore,” she says.

Kim is marrying Annabel’s father, entrepreneur Adrian Blake, this summer. She’s also step-mom to his two children as the two households recently merged.

Even before her pregnancy, Kim says she’d gotten lazy about her look and gained weight thanks to Omaha’s more sedentary lifestyle. Actually, she says her casual phase began near the burned-out close of her frenetic New York career.

“There were times when towards the end of my working days I just didn’t care anymore. I was just so busy. I’d wear flip flops because I was hoofing it all the time, walking from the garment district back to the office with bags of accessories. I wasn’t going to teeter in high heels.

“I was on the New York fashionista diet [champagne and finger food[. I was definitely much thinner when I lived in New York.”

 

 

 

Then there were those times, she says, “when I wanted to get dressed up, so then I’d wear a beautiful jacket with a dress and heels. It really depended on my day. If I knew I was going to be in the office all day then I would wear something nicer because I wouldn’t have to be schlepping around town for shoots and samples.

“When I first started the store [Trocadero],” she says, “I wanted to look nice — to be representative of fashion in New York in Omaha. I probably worked harder (at it) and then gradually just became more casual.”

For a year she bought her clothes at Target as a concession to mommy practicalities. Besides, she says, good style “doesn’t have to be super expensive.” Balancing being a new mom and fashionista at 41 means remaking herself, so she’s back to shopping at Von Maur to outfit herself more appropriately.

“I’m in my 40s — I really can’t keep dressing like a teenager. It’s just having to embrace that I’m an adult. I feel better now because I have grown-up clothes. I can look equally fine walking to the kids’ school or coming to lunch here or going to the supermarket.

“My thing is cardigans.”

Her lifetime hunt for the perfect black leather motorcycle jacket continues.

Making one’s self or home polished, she says, is all about investing in a few high quality things and making them pop with the right accessories.

“I think my house reflects my store, which is always about the accessories, the details, the accent pieces. Like I have this plain, white, Danish-modern couch. What makes it interesting is the hand-painted, embroidered pillows on it.”

When it comes to clothes, she says as clichéd as it sounds, “you start with a little black dress and the way you accessorize it is what gives it its style.”

It’s about transformation. Like opting to live out her version of the American Dream in Omaha. After a whirlwind start, she began doubting her life makeover, but now that she’s found her man and become a mother, she says, “I feel content.”

Her magnificent obsession is the subject of her blog,” Postcards from Omaha,” and a book she hopes to finish soon.

Trocadero is located at 1208 1/2 Howard St. in the Old Market. For more information call 402.934.8389 or visit shoptrocadero.com.

 

Living the NYC Fashion Dream 

©by Leo Adam Biga

As appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

With all the fabulous things Alice Kim ‘s done in New York City and now her entrepreneurial foray in Omaha, she says what she’s proudest of is helping people.

At InStyle she says she found great satisfaction “helping small designers get nationwide recognition.”

The fashion business is all about networking, and Kim worked hard cultivating and nurturing relationships with designers, photographers and publicists.

At Trocadero she’s parlayed old contacts and made new ones. She’s also availed herself as a go-to resource for young people with designs on their own NYC fashion careers. Several area women who came to her with their aspirations ended up as Trocadero interns. Each is now pursuing life in the Big Apple.

They credit “Alice’s Fashion Finishing School” with preparing them.

“It was a great experience to learn from someone that had actually been in the industry and really knew what it was about. She’s been a great mentor and a kind of guardian angel,” says Hannah Rood, an account executive with LaForce-Stevens. “We learned so much about things like sense of urgency and attention to detail that have carried over into what I’m doing now.”

“Alice’s influence continues to impact my life,” says Kathleen Flood, an associate editor and blogger with The Creators Project. “When I was working for her, she was not only a boss and mentor, but a friend, and even an older sister figure at times.

“Now that I have my own interns, I’m starting to teach them little tricks she taught me.”

“She definitely expanded my vision of success … and has truly guided me to where I am today,” says Ellie Ashford, a freelance public relations assistant at Polo Ralph Lauren.

They all refer to doors Kim helped open for them. The Omaha transplants say they’re keeping a pact to stay connected.

As for Trocadero as a launching pad, Kim says, “I feel like I’ve created a special space that people really consider to be a home away from home. I offer myself as much I can.” Before she’ll recommend an intern to a New York contact, she says, “you have to prove to me you’re ready for the big time.”

Kim enjoys following her former interns’ progress. “They’re all leading their own lives and having their own adventures. They’re doing it — they’re doing what I did 20 years ago. They’re living the dream.”

Lucile’s Old Market, Mother Hubbard magnificent obsession: From one eccentric to another – Mary Thompson on her late mother Lucile Schaaf

November 28, 2010 2 comments

For better or worse, the following story for the New Horizons is a reflection of what I do as a writer when allowed the opportunity to tell a story at length.  I don’t claim that there’s anything special about my work, but if it is distinguished by anything, it is my interest in tapping into stories of passion and magnificent obsession, which is very much how I think of the subject of this piece – the late Lucile Schaaf.  I then take that interest and try to express it to the best of my ability.  I always wanted to tell this particular story, that is Lucile’s story.  I never met the woman, but I heard tales about her and then I got to know one of her daughters, Mary Thompson, who is quoted extensively in the piece.  I earlier profiled Mary in a story you can find on this blog entitled, Extremities.  Mary’s mother, Lucile, the profile subject of the story below, was a kind of patron saint of the Old Market, the historic district in Omaha, Neb. that has been transformed from the former wholesale produce center to the cultural hub of the city.  To get to the heart of a story like hers requires some space, and New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt is about the only one left around here that accords me the space I need to tell a story like this at the length I believe I need to communicate its layers and nuances. The Old Market was made by people like Lucile, eccentric visionaries who did their own thing and followed their own muse.  There are many more Old Market stories I would like to tell.  Writing this piece also only confirmed my very intentional niche as a journalist who tells the stories of people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions.  Like I said at the top, for better or worse it is my brand as a writer and it is what keeps me doing what I do.

My story about Lucile’s daughter, Mary Thompson, who is much quoted here, can be found on this blog.  It’s entitled, “Extremities.”

 

Lucile looking out a window of her Old Market residence

 

Lucile’s Old Market, Mother Hubbard magnificent obsession: From one eccentric to another – Mary Thompson on her late mother, Lucile Schaaf

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

As once upon a time stories go, the late Lucile Ann Schaaf’s saga is a fractured fairy tale that like the pint-sized woman embodied herself, is made up of quirky twists and turns that leave you scratching your head or smiling.

When she passed away in 2009 at age 91, Schaaf was variously remembered as a mother, grandmother, entrepreneur, collector, preservationist, Christmas fanatic, and someone for whom the color orange was a personal brand.

After her marriage ended in divorce, Lucile, her children grown and flown the coop by then, asserted her independence and curiosity in a series of enterprising and creative adventures. Earlier in life, the former Lucile Duda exhibited an adventurous streak when, fresh out of Central High School, she left home to attend Scripps College, a women’s school in Claremont, Calif, where she studied art and architecture at a time when women pursuing higher education was a rarity.

Given the moxie it took to leave home for the west coast, it’s not surprising that years later she thought nothing of journeying all around the Midwest in search of architectural remnants from buildings and homes under the wrecking ball. Lucile developed a network of contacts in the demolition and salvage field that tipped her off to projects that might contain objects of interest. Whenever she got a lead on something, whether furniture or ornamental design elements, she set out to acquire it. Daughter Mary Thompson often accompanied Lucile on these treasure hunting jaunts.

“Mother became acquainted with a gentleman called Rock the Wrecker. I worked for him for many years driving a pickup and hauling all kinds of stuff. I would go to sites and I would help salvage and bring stuff back for Mother, and Mother and I would go on trips to demolition sites to gather materials. I carried wrecking tools behind the seat in my truck. Mom and I would take off and drive down to Kansas or over in Iowa or up to South Dakota if Rock would call to say, ‘We’ve got something, come get it,” said Thompson.

“We went to Des Moines (Iowa) one time time to get some marble clocks. It was rush hour and there were fire engines all over the place and when we finally got to the building it was on fire, but we got our stuff. Another time we drove to Coffeyville Kansas and we picked up an 18-foot chandelier, put it in the back of my El Camino and drove it back home.”

Then there was the time Lucile got it in her head that she had to have a double decker bus for sale two thousand miles away. This was in January. So, Thompson and her mother flew to High Point, N.C. and the intrepid duo drove the bus back to Omaha in the dead of winter.

“The whole trip was hilarious because we had all kinds of problems and everything else,” Thompson said of the experience as if were a big lark. “It was 20 below zero when we pulled into Omaha, wearing our snow mobile suits.”

But why a double decker bus?

“We used it for tours around the city,” said Thompson. “We’d take ladies groups, school groups. My kids were going to Jackson Elementary School at the time and anytime there was something the school needed to go to everybody from Jackson went in the double decker bus. They thought that was pretty nifty, and it was.”

 

Mary Thompson holds her 15-year-old cat Mollie in the second-floor office space of her home. Thompson is a reformed hoarder who appeared on TLC’s show “Hoarding: Buried Alive”. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz/World-Herald News Service

 

Lucile’s daughter, Mary Thompson

 

The bus and tours were examples of Lucile and Mary, who closely resembles her mother, doing something just for the fun of it, no matter how impractical.

“That’s exactly right,” said Thompson,

Whatever Lucile thought up, her family fell right in line.

“We never questioned her or anything she did,” said Thompson. “It seemed, ‘Well, Mom did it, it must be right.’”

Thompson inherited Lucile’s sense of adventure and compulsion for collecting things. But where Mary’s collected most everything at one time or another, Lucile’s stockpiling was more focused on assembling stores of antique architectural details and Christmas decorations.

Said Thompson, “Her collecting was like anything, once you start, you can’t stop. You find a coin you’re really intrigued with and so you think, I’ll start collecting more coins like this, and pretty soon you’ve got an entire collection. If it’s a gorgeous stained glass window, well there’s another one, and so you get yourself to the point where pretty soon you’ve got a fabulous collection.”

For Lucile it meant acquiring everything from stained glass windows to bannisters to fancy doors to fireplace surrounds to built in wall units, and just about anything in between that caught her eye or captured her fancy.

“It just became more and more and more and more,” said Thompson. “People brought it to her too.”

The operating principle Lucile came to live by, said Thompson, is that “if it’s something that still has some life in it, it’s good, let’s not destroy it, let’s not put in the landfill. So she started acquiring all this stuff and saving it. It just goes back to the old adage that one person’s trash is somebody else’s treasure. That’s the fun of it ”

“Work with what you have” was one of Lucile’s favorite sayings.

In this sense, said Thompson, Lucile’s emphasis on recycling things and preservation was well ahead of the curve.

Lucile’s obsessive collecting accumulated so many objects that she turned her passionate hobby into a business. Needing a place to store everything, she bought an abandoned Danish Lutheran church near downtown Omaha and converted it into an antique shop that she called Steeple Studios.

According to Thompson, “At one time Mother had the largest collection of antique architectural details between Chicago and San Francisco and people came from all over the country because they knew she had all this stuff.”

Lucile brought her business acumen and appreciation for history to the Old Market, where she became one of the pioneering merchants and denizens of that then fledgling enclave. In the late 1960s she was one of the early shop owners and one of the few residents in the former wholesale produce district that most city leaders and developers viewed as a wasteland.

Jeff Jorgensen and Joe Montello, whose Tannenbaum Christmas Shop in the Old Market occupies the same bay Lucile did business in at the southwest corner of 10th and Howard, got to know her as a benevolent landlord and neighbor. Montello had worked for her at The Place. They respected her as an Old Market original.

“She was definitely one of the first people who saw the potential of the Old Market,” said Jorgensen, adding that she recognized the area as not only a burgeoning commercial center and cultural-arts oasis but as a historic district in need of preservation. “I think what motivated her was finding new value in old things. It’s what made her such a natural to be an Old Market pioneer.”

Lucile put her money where her mouth was as owner-operator of The Place, a gift shop that expressed her eclectic tastes. She later had the Christmas Shop, a one-stop decorations and collectibles store, and The T Room sandwich shop. Lucile laid the brick walkway in front of her Howard Street bays. She was also active in the Old Market Business Association.

“I always thought she was pleased to see a Christmas shop continue here within her domain,” said Jorgensen. I think the fact that Joe worked for her and was involved here meant a lot to her too.”

She purchased adjoining buildings between the southwest corners of 10th and Howard and 10th and Jackson and converted them into her personal residence. What once housed Frank’e Cafe, the Pickwick Bar, Pioneer Uniform, a flophouse and a whorehouse, among other enterprises, became this lovable eccentric’s home. A walled-in courtyard or secret garden was created in back to offer a tranquil, private sanctuary amidst the Market’s hustle and bustle.

Schaaf was a recognizable figure in the Market or wherever she went because of her penchant for dressing entirely in orange, no matter the occasion. It’s hard to find a color photo of Lucile that doesn’t picture here in her flaming shade of choice.

There is an orange room in the Old Market residence. At one time Lucile had it entirely done over in her favorite color, complete with decorations and clothes, beautiful things, plain things, but in all instances orange things.

Antique dealer Vic Chickinelli hired her once and when he went out one day he came back to find she had painted the walls and shelving a bright orange. If Chickinelli asked her, as many did, Why orange?, her comeback would have probably been what she always said when people questioned her about it:

“Is there any other color?”

“She decided that that was the color of her life,” is how Thompson explains it.

So identified was Lucile with the color that she came to be known affectionally as the Orange Lady. At her Old Market shops she not only greeted you in full orange regalia, from head to foot, but took to wearing a clock around her waist set to ten minutes to four, or tea time, a reference to the tea party in Alice in Wonderland, a story she loved. She also loved throwing tea parties.

 

 

All in all, she fit right in with the other free spirits, artists and bohemians populating the Old Market.

“It was a good place for her,” said fellow Old Market pioneer Roger Durand, a designer and architect who opened a head shop there. “She was a real character, she was a real original, and she was a very colorful personality. Back in the early days it really took an adventuresome spirit to try and establish anything down there. It was an uphill struggle.”

For 30-some years Lucile’s 10th and Howard building was as much a warehouse for her collection of salvaged architectural remnants as it was a residence. Her dream was to incorporate these myriad details into the decor.

Working with an old-school master craftsman, Walt the Carpenter, the project made progress but then Walt took a bad fall, breaking his leg, and then her arthritis began slowing her down. However, she remained active enough to teach a water aerobics class at the YMCA.

Another daughter, the late Stephanie Schaaf, took it upon herself to fulfill Lucile’s dream. She hired a team of craftsmen to install, in some cases repurposing, hundreds of items — ranging from chandeliers to doors to stained glass windows to wrought iron gates — throughout the 7,300 square foot structure.

A kindred spirit of Lucile’s, Omaha architectural recycler Frank Horejsi, also described as an “urban miner,” said he liked what Lucile was doing with the place and he assisted Stefanie with getting the project done.

“If they had problems, I was kind of a go-to guy. It’s neat to see that old historic stuff incorporated. It’s a neat place.”

The result is a mosaic of a home of mixed and matched elements:

• Griffons from the original First National Bank Building adorn the exterior sides of Lucile’s place facing 10th Street and Jackson Street

• Crown molding from the old Cornhusker Hotel gilds the foyer

• Skylights from the Packers National Bank bathe the foyer in natural light

• Mahogany walls and stained glass cabinets from the City National Bank appoint the dining room

• Murphy bed doors from the Morris Hotel serve as ceiling panels above the dining room

• The great room, where receptions or dinner parties are held today, utilizes office doors from the City National Bank as wall panels, some with the names of the executives who toiled away behind them

• Telephone booth walls from the City National cover the ceiling

• The solid oak fireplace and leaded glass window in the sunroom hail from the Wilcox house in Council Bluffs

• Massive cabinets come from a physician’s home in Norfolk, Neb.

• French doors come from an opera house in Carroll, Iowa

And so it goes, on and on.

 

 

Roger Durand said the home is an expression of “the architectural odds and ends she found unusual uses for, and in aggregate they create sort of a world of Lucile.”

Before she moved there, the space was long abandoned, its insides an empty shell.

“What people sometimes don’t comprehend is that there was nothing here, it was a blank canvas, and it was my mom’s vision in putting things together and making it a whole unit that brought it to life,” Thompson said with admiration.

Almost everything in Lucile’s Old Market retreat originated elsewhere, salvaged off-site and brought there, like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Only Lucile knew how they were supposed to fit together.

“She could find things and just know exactly where she was going to put the pieces in,” said granddaughter Amy Waskel, whose mother, Stefanie, became Lucile’s caregiver and legacy keeper.

Not everything Lucile collected at the Old Market place was used. There was so much inventory left over that an estate sale was held over two weekends.

 

 

The Old Market residence was not Lucile’s first salvage project. Thompson said her mother built a cabin near Merritt’s Beach using almost entirely recycled materials. There was apparently a recycle streak in the family’s DNA because Thompson said her grandparents built a farmhouse out of reclaimed materials long before that.

“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” is how Thompson puts it. “Mom had the ability to visualize something not for what it was but for what it could be, and I feel I’m blessed with that also because if you look at my house you see how I intertwined everything into it.”

Mary’s Little Italy area home and another she owns next door overbrim with the surplus of her own collecting habit. Her affliction for acquiring and holding onto things was portrayed earlier this year on TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” reality television series.

There is a like-mother-like daughter pattern at play in the family. Other ways Mary takes after her mother is with a flair for entertaining and a wardrobe fixation, not with a certain color per se, but with hats. Mary’s fondness for hats grew to a collection of hundreds. So identified is Mary with her crowns of glory that she’s known as the Hat Lady. Until “Hoarding” she was perhaps best known as the Tax Lady for all the returns she filed for people as an IRS agent and AARP volunteer.

Mary doesn’t mind being known as a hoarder now that she’s taken steps to declutter her life with the help of professionals, friends and family, including a “Stuff” sale at the Bancroft Street Market in September.

For a long time, said Mary, her mother’s Old Market residence was overrun with artifacts that sat unboxed and uncovered, subject to the effects of not just dust but of the many critters, mostly cats and dogs, she kept. Mary’s also a cat lover.

“Stuff had been heaped in piles for so long,” Thompson said of her mother’s place.

Lucile was renowned for how elaborately she decorated her previous home in the Gold Coast neighborhood, but for the longest time the Old Market residence was more a storage and work space then a living space — more potential than realization, awaiting the day when Lucile’s vision for it would be complete.

“It wasn’t a pretty house like she was used to,” said Waskel. “Moving in here she just got down and dirty. That’s why finishing it was so important and that’s why it’s fun showing it off now and why it’s going to be fun decorating it for the holidays.”

Even though Lucile’s gone now, Waskel said she and other family members feel her presence watching over them, noting their every move. “She knows we’re not going to do it as well as she did. The joke within the family is that she’s going to be sitting there going, ‘You should do this.’ She was a perfectionist.”

Despite never decorating the place for Christmas, Lucile’s main floor bedroom was trussed up for the holidays once she became bed-ridden in 2004, and even then she liked calling the shots.

“We would decorate her room for her,” said Waskel. “We would put up a little Christmas tree for her and she enjoyed that because she enjoyed telling people how to do it and it never being right — well, not to her standards.”

An incongruity about Lucile was that she could be a stickler about everything being just so, yet she could live like an Old Mother Hubbard surrounded by artifacts strewn loosely everywhere. Her Gold Coast home was impressive, said Mary, yet Lucile shared the place with her cats and even a pet rooster. Things only got more unkempt in the Old Market.

Waskel said Nebraska Educational Television did a story on her grandmother as an example of “how not to save your antiques — like this is what you don’t do. We have a lot of damage to wood. Some of the stuff is just so far gone. The whole back area was just full of wood and dust and dirt. A lot of it was junk.”

She said it took countless man hours to clean up the mess.

“We had to finish everything,” said Waskel, who helped Stefanie in completing Lucile’s dream. “And we’re still working on it.”

Waskel, who as event coordinator at what is now called Lucile’s Old Market is tasked with booking events there and maintaining the cavernous space, has a new appreciation for all that her grandmother and mother did.

“I’m here everyday and there’s not nearly the work to do that my mom did or that my grandmother did and I still feel overwhelmed and go, How the hell did they do it?”

Lucile’s is still in the family, only now as a singular rental showplace that hosts weddings, dinners and all manner of private parties and receptions. Tours are available by appointment. Old Market Gallery Walks generally include a stop there. And it’s a featured spot on the December 11 Holiday Lights Tour

 

 

The woman for whom the building is named never saw the project completed as her eyesight declined severely in old age. Due to her diminished vision she became somewhat reclusive near the end of her life. For a long time though she was a public figure whose passions grew into magnificent obsessions enjoyed by thousands.

First, there was her fixation with Christmas displays. For the first half of her life she contented herself with the usual yuletide garnishes. But when she moved into the big home at 38th and Dewey Avenue it’s like a switch went on and she felt inspired  to trim the multi-story edifice from top to bottom, complete with fully dressed trees, wreaths, garland, candy canes, stockings, Santas and lights.

It all started with a Christmas tea organized by Lucile.

Mary Thompson remembers how what began as a small, semi-private affair for mothers and daughters grew into a public extravaganza:

“My older sister’s class was invited and we made little cut-out white bread finger sandwiches with butter and powdered sugar over them, and Mom had us stand in a receiving line to meet everybody. It became a Christmas tradition. Every year a little more was added. Pretty soon it got so that during the month of December Mom had the house decorated from top to bottom, and every year it got bigger and better.

“We invited people from church and school. Others heard about it and came. We would all dress up. The last Christmas tea we had became an open house and we probably had about a thousand people. People came from all around.”

The Christmas House became a destination stop, complete with tours.

By the time Lucile stopped putting on the Christmas tea in the 1970s, she and her soiree and decorations had become so well known, said Thompson, that “people that wanted to get a hold of Mother would address mail to the ‘Christmas House, Omaha, Neb.‘ and it actually came to the house.”

Lucile didn’t stop at decorating her home. She also took charge of decorating the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church and the big Xmas tree at the old Union Station (Durham Museum). Then there was the Christmas Shop. It’s why Lucile was known as the Christmas Lady.

“The whole situation became such a passion for Mom,” said Thompson. “This was her outlet.”

Whether people knew her as the Orange Lady or the Christmas Lady, Jeff Jorgensen said “she enjoyed both of those roles very much. She made an impression on lots of people she came into contact with. She really wasn’t eccentric at all but if you thought she was I think that probably made her very happy.” On reflection, Jorgensen added, “Maybe she was a little.” Or as Joe Montello once described her: “She wasn’t afraid to be unique in her own way.”

The phrase “let your freak flag fly” refers to the uninhibited Luciles of the world.

The decorum at the fancy tea parties was sometimes shattered by a silly or peculiar happening, like the time Lucile’s pet rooster, Lucky, turned party crasher.

“One time this woman was sitting on the couch with her coffee and cake and there comes Lucky out of the kitchen. It looks around and comes over and takes that cake right off the lady’s plate,” said Thompson.

Another time, a visitor got more than she bargained for on a tour.

“When my two kids and I were living at Mother’s home our rooms were up on the third floor, and since the bedrooms were all decorated we slept in the 7-by-12 walk-in closets,” said Thompson. “This one time I put the kids to bed and Mother phoned from downstairs that these people were on their way up. So I stepped into my closet, closed the door and sat on a chair waiting for the tour to come through. I’m sitting in there when this woman opens the door — and the look on her face was priceless. I just said, ‘Hello,’ and she stepped backward, closing the door behind her. I could hardly wait for them to leave so I could run downstairs and tell Mother.”

They had a good laugh over that one.

Faux pause aside, Thompson said Lucile had a lot of Martha Stewart in her.

“She was a gracious, grand hostess, and she set a beautiful table. She was a fabulous cook. My sister and I learned all these culinary skills from our mother. These are things we did automatically and we didn’t even think about it.”

Lucile never got to play grand hostess at her Old Market residence, but she approved of opening it up to parties and took vicarious pleasure in the first events held there a few years ago. And even though by the end she couldn’t see much besides light, she helped guide her daughter Stefanie and her granddaughter Amy in finishing out the place. All concerned are satisfied the interior is a close approximation of what Lucile intended.

Until opened as a rental space, the building’s street-level windows were boarded up, peaking the curiosity of passersby, who could only make out tantalizing tidbits. Some peepers climbed the gates for a glimpse inside a second floor window.

Thompson said some naturally mistook the residence for an antique shop. Only family, friends and area merchants and residents knew the truth. Now that it’s a much-in-demand rental space, the reputation and history behind it, and the story of the woman who made it possible, Lucile Schaaf, are becoming more widely known. Yet Amy Waskel said most first-time visitors remark “we had no idea this was here.”

“The whole thing just started with, ‘I’ve got these things, I’ve got this place, I’ve got this box, I’ve got all these things inside it, let’s put it together. It was thinking outside the box,” said Thompson, “and look at what she’s got, she’s got a box of fabulous things and wonderful memories. I’m hoping one day it’s a museum. I think more people could enjoy it if we could do more with it. But it’s an old building and it needs a lot of things done to it.”

Old and imperfect as it is, Jorgensen said, “it’s perfect for the Old Market. I mean, it’s adaptive reuse, it’s work-with-what-you-have, it’s an example of finding new faces for old places. That’s what she did. She found new life for a building and an area that needed a new reason to exist. Lucile had that vision for what it could be.”

The Mercer family of Omaha, headed by Samuel Mercer, led early efforts in transforming the former City Market into the Old Market. Mercer Management, which Sam’s son, Mark, heads, is still the primary property owner and developer there. Mark said his father felt that he and Lucile “shared a desire to see the Old Market buildings restored and reanimated by local individual businesses. He always had a cordial and friendly relation with her.”

Artist and arts administrator Ree Kaneko, who first got to know Lucile during the Old Market’s emergence in the late ’60s-early ’70s, said, “the Lady in Orange was a wonderful soul.”

Jorgensen said not having Lucile around is “a major loss.” But her world lives on at Lucile’s Old Market, 510 South 10th Street. To book an event or arrange a tour, call 341-3100 or visit http://www.lucilesoldmarket.com.

Art for Art’s Sake: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 12th & Lea...

Image via Wikipedia

This was one of three stories I did during my incredibly short-lived stint writing for Star City Blog (www.starcityblog.com). The subject of this piece is an anchor institution in the cultural hub of Omaha, the Old Market, the former wholesale produce center that’s been preserved and its century-old warehouse buildings repurposed as galleries, shops, eateries, apartments, and condos. The Bemis is housed in one of those warehouses. The Bemis always seems ahead of the curve when it comes to the art scene, and after a few wandering years it has rebounded stronger than ever.  It’s a visionary place and in a very short article here I try to give a flavor for what makes it a dynamic space for artists and for visitors alike.  I would like to write a more in-depth piece about it, perhaps next year when it celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Art for Art’s Sake: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally posted on Star City Blog (www.starcityblog.com)

 

At the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha’s historic Old Market district, the phrase Artists Matter is reality, not slogan. Going on 30 years now, the Bemis has been Omaha’s conduit to the modern art world by nurturing exceptional global talent.

Its renowned International Artist Residency program brings diverse artists to live and work there each year. A busy exhibition schedule of 20-plus shows presents work across a wide range of media by visiting and local artists. Admission is free.

Progressive live music performances occur at the Bemis and its adjacent installation/work site, the Okada. Community art projects serve as catalysts for collaborations between artists and the public. Art talks promote artist-audience dialogues.

The Bemis Center is housed in the 19th century McCord-Brady building at 724 South 12th Street. The five-story, 110,000 square foot structure is among the Market’s many landmark red brick mercantile warehouses repurposed as a cultural facility.

The Bemis got its start in the nearby Bemis Bag Company building. Four artists formed the center in 1981, including internationally renowned ceramicist Jun Kaneko and Ree Schonlau, now Ree Kaneko.

The center’s hub is its coveted residency, which began as a summer artist-in-industry program. It was still a new concept then. By the mid-‘80s, the Bemis operated year-round. The last two decades has seen an “explosion” in artist colonies nationally, said Bemis executive director Mark Masuoka.

 

 

From then till now, the center’s hosted nearly 700 artists from 34 countries. At any given time six to eight artist fellows are in residence, each with a spacious live-work loft. Artists, who receive a $750 a month stipend, plus supplies, stay from a month to three months. New fellows as of August include painter Myung-Jin Song from Seoul, South Korea, photographer Cybele Lyle of Oakland, Calif. and interdisciplinary artist Michael Beitz from Buffalo. They joined artists from Florida and Philadelphia.

Former fellows who’ve made Omaha home include Christina Narwicz, Littleton Alston, Terry Rosenberg, Jim Hendrickson. Steve Joy, Therman Statom and Claudia Alvarez.

Masuoka said interest in the program keeps rising, with 1,000 applications for 24 available spots each year. The Honolulu native said a planned expansion will accommodate additional artists. He goes back with the Bemis to the ‘80s, as a Jun Kaneko assistant and artist-in-residence. That history, plus art management stints in Las Vegas and Denver, gives him a perspective on what makes the Bemis special.

“The Bemis continues to amaze me as an organization, not just because of what we’ve been able to accomplish but because we’ve stayed true to our mission,” he said. “The more we grow and mature as an organization what becomes evident is that we really understand what artists need and provide support for that activity.”

He said the Bemis is rare in granting artists the freedom to create or research or just be.

“It comes from our having been founded by artists. Because of that, we really understand what artists need and we’re prepared and willing to do whatever it takes as an organization to tell artists, yes,” said Masuoka. “I think many times in our society and within even the art field there are so many reasons not to pursue a project or not to support an individual artist. What we continue to strive for is to find ways to support artists. At the core of it is why the organization exists — to help artists realize or actualize their ideas. I think it makes Bemis unique not just in the country but in the world.”

Lincoln collector Robert Duncan is part of a star-studded board that includes the artist Christo.Residency program manager Heather Johnson said the Bemis provides “a gift to artists.” That includes the sanctuary of their second-floor live-work studios, usually off-limits to the public. “It’s meant to be a place for artists and their process. We don’t make any expectations or assumptions or judgments about their process and what that should look like or shouldn’t, so it’s very self-directed, and artists love us for that.”

“That gift of time and space we talk about is critical,” said Masuoka. “It advances careers, it advances ideas, and it sort of reinstills and reconfirms to artists that they’re important to our culture.”

Masuoka said the only requirements of fellows is to make a presentation and to donate a piece. Otherwise, the Bemis culture is hands-off.

 

 

Bemis curator Hesse McGraw, who’s worked at galleries in New York City and Kansas City, Mo., said, “What distinguishes the Bemis Center from other arts institutions is that what drives it is the activity of artists and the work they’re doing right now. We really try to think of it as a laboratory for artists. The residency program is focused on supporting an open process.”

McGraw, who curates shows in the center’s three main galleries, said, “The exhibition program tries to carry that sensibility through to the presentation of the work.” He said the Bemis encourages artists to do what they couldn’t do in a different context or setting. “We really try to find ways of supporting them, whether curatorially, logistically, financially, to build-out projects significant in their career and in their practice.”

All this creativity brings a dynamic energy to the space and to the community, challenging the status quo and thereby enriching viewers.

“It’s an expression of this attitude about finding new ways and having the ability to look at things differently,” Masouka said. “Artists see things differently, they look at possibilities other people don’t see, and through that you increase the imagination about what is possible. Programs like the Bemis Center support individual artists, nurture creativity, but also really showcase the value of what artists bring to our society.”

The Bemis is intentional in fostering artist-led discussion through events like its First Thursday ArtTalk lecture series and cutting-edge exhibitions.

“The exhibition program is an opportunity to have conversations and dialogue with the public about contemporary art and its relationship to anything in public life or the city or a myriad of social and cultural issues,” said McGraw.

The current Hopey Changey Things group show (through Sept. 4) is an ironic riff on American society as expressed in photographs, videos and installations. McGraw said pieces variously posit an apocalyptic vision for wiping the slate clean, an absurdist’s view of our current cultural moment and a radical pragmatism for reinventing places.

“I think things we’re particularly excited about now are artists working across disciplines and at some level of social engagement,” he said. “I feel like it empowers audiences to think about contemporary life.” Always, he said, the Bemis looks “at how can we utilize the projects to create a perpetual sense of surprise” within the “intensive introspection and ecstatic spectacle” of contemporary art.

A venue for doing that is the Bemis Underground, a subterranean but warm space connecting local and visiting artists with each other and with the community via exhibitions, talks, art trivia quizzes and even potluck suppers. “It sort of ties everything together,” said manager Brigitte McQueen. “It’s very welcoming down here. The openings have huge traffic.”

Together with the adjacent Kaneko – Open Space for Your Mind and nearby studios, galleries and theaters, the Bemis Center continues being a mainstay in the Old Market art scene.

The Bemis is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For exhibition and event details or to schedule tours, visit www.bemiscenter.org or call 402-341-7130.

A Passion for Fashion: Omaha Fashion Week emerges as major cultural happening

September 21, 2010 3 comments

Karachi Fashion show

Image via Wikipedia

Omaha‘s emerging fashion scene just concluded its annual coming out party, Omaha Fashion Week.  This story was a preview that appeared in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com).  Ironically, I’ve written extensively about Omaha Fashion Week without ever having attended it. I’ve interviewed most of the key players behind it, many of the designers featured in it, and I’ve viewed video excerpts from it, but I’ve never actually been there.  Not because I haven’t wanted to, but circumstances just haven’t afforded me the opportunity. Besides, I’ve never been invited by organizers, this despite helping build a brand for it through my work.  This year, I had expected to do some reporting on scene, but an assignment never materialized.  Maybe next year.  Everything I’ve learned about the event tells me that fashion is the next big thing to come out of the Omaha cultural stew pot that’s already nourished strong literary, theater, film, and music scenes.  To see more of my writing about Omaha fashion, check out my post titled, My Omaha Fashion Magazine Work.”  It features the articles I did for the new Omaha Fashion Magazine (www.omahafashionweek.com).

 

A Passion for Fashion: Omaha Fashion Week emerges as major cultural happening

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

 

More than an event, the September 13-18 Omaha Fashion Week is a networking asset for the local design community. In only three years, OFW has become a cultural mainstay and hot ticket on the city’s burgeoning creative scene.

British transplant Nick Hudson‘s passion for Omaha’s entrepreneurial and creative class led him to co-found OFW and the Halo Institute, both of which grew out of his Nomad Lounge in the Old Market. As chic Nomad evolved into a performance art, exhibition, fashion forum and social networking site, Hudson realized the creative-entrepreneurial set needed support. He, along with Nomad marketing and events director Rachel Richards and photographer/designer Dale Heise, launched OFW to coalesce Omaha’s energetic but then unfocused fashion design culture.

 

 

Nick Hudson

 

 

Similarly, Hudson and Creighton University College of Business officials formed Halo to connect entrepreneurs with targeted resources, strategies and counsel.

Halo and Nomad, located in adjoining early 20th century buildings, are each incubators for young, entrepreneurial talent.

Fashion Week links designers with stylists, make-up artists, models, photographers and boutiques, parties who previously lacked a formal hook-up. OFW and its week-long September event bring this fashion forward community together in a nurturing environment that serves as a springboard for collaboration and opportunity.

There has been such a need for these designers, stylists, makeup artists, models to have a forum and I think Omaha Fashion Week provides that stage, that platform, that opportunity. It’s really filled a void,” said operations director Caroline Moore.

OFW’s small, indoor runway shows culminate in the grand, outdoor finale held in the urban canyon right outside Nomad.

Things began rather humbly. Hudson admits it was a struggle to find enough designers and models in year one. “We didn’t really get the word out very well. We sort of scraped it together. We couldn’t really get many sponsors. I just sort of wrote a check for the whole thing. We begged and borrowed equipment to make it happen on a budget the best we could.” Makeshift or not, he said the final product “looked really impressive. It was one of those magical things when you tap into something and it’s better than what you ever imagined.”

Last year saw everything double, in terms of budget, designers, models, volunteers and attendees. The scale has increased again in year three, with 37 designers slated to show collections, hundreds of models signed up to sashay down catwalks and upwards of 6,000 to 7,000 viewers expected to turn out the entire week. The weeknight runway shows are expanded and the weekend runway finale is primed to be bigger and glitzier than ever.

”We have been blessed with an overwhelming amount of talent this year, said Richards, OFW event director. “From designers to models to sponsors to hairstylists to spectators, all of Omaha wants to be a part of this premiere event.”

“It’s definitely grown in scale, and the opportunities have been broadened for those who are participating,” said Moore. “There’s a lot of people excited about this momentum happening and wanting to get on board, even as volunteers, and that is just wonderful. We need all of those people on board to grow the event.” Moore said the breadth and depth of designer lines has increased: “There’s everything from extreme and unique couture-type pieces to marketable off-the-rack items.”

Richards broke fashion week down by the numbers: “Each night fashionistas and their friends can view between three to five designers Monday through Friday with a fundraiser for the Women’s Fund of Greater Omaha on Thursday. Local artists will be donating their time and talent to our Jane Doe project. Eight life size mannequins will be painted, sculpted, et cetera, and be on display throughout the entire week in Fifth Avenue-inspired windows designed by interior designer and vintage expert Melanie Gillis.”

 

 

Rachel Richards

 

 

Weeknight runway showsstart at 8pm. A cocktail reception precedes each show. Following the September 16th show, a DJ-hosted dance party is set for 10 p.m. at Nomad. Tickets are $5 at the door.

All of it is prelude to the September 18th bash.

The runway finalewill be taking place between 9th and 11th and Jones Street on Saturday night,” said Richards. “The runway will grow from 130 to 260 feet with 75 VIP tables surrounding the catwalk. Over 150 models will walk the 260-foot runway as an expected audience of 5,000-plus watch the 15 designers’ designs pass before them.”

VIP ticket holdersare invited to an exclusive pre-party inside Nomad from 6 to 7:45 p.m. The big show kicks off outdoors at 8. A VIP ticket also nets red carpet access, front row seating, valet parking and a swag bag. VIP tickets start at $100. Reserved tickets are $40 and general admission $20. “We wanted to make it even more VIP and glam for these guests,” said Richards.

Moore said a local vendor area will be new this year. Organizing it all is a year-long process. But OFW is about more than a single week. It’s an ongoing initiative to support and highlight the design scene.

What I see happening is Omaha Fashion Week becoming a voice and an expert in the Omaha community for fashion and a facilitator for fashion design and creative conversation in Omaha,” said Moore. “It’s also a way for designers to have a very low risk, high return opportunity to showcase their collections. Most fashion weeks charge designers to participate, but this is an open, no-cost opportunity.”

In line with its missionas what Moore calls “a relevant, go-to source for fashion information,” OFW has a year-round presence via: the social media it’s plugged into; a new publication on the local fashion scene; and a series of breakout events.

There’s a lot of social media buzz, certainly,” said Moore. “People follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We get e-mails. Lately, people moving to Omaha have been contacting us saying they want to get involved.”

Designer Eliana Smith is a fresh new face in Omaha, by way of Salt Lake City, Utah and Argentina, who will show her fall collection during the September 16th runway show. She’s impressed with the support OFW provides.

“What an amazing programthis is that a designer can get so much help,” Smith said. “That is so rare. It’s like having a best friend holding your hand and helping you out. It really gives opportunity to new and upcoming talent, so what a great place to start out as a designer. They’re there for you, helping every step of the way. If you need photographers or models, they’re like, ‘We’re on it.’ What a treasure it is to have that.”

Native Omahan Emma Erickson is coming back to show her line for the runway finale. The Academy of Art University in San Francisco graduate will present her work mere days after showing her school’s textile collaboration at New York Fashion Week. Until now, Erickson said, Omaha hasn’t had much of a fashion scene, but OFW “is a really big opportunity for young designers who need some nourishment or feedback. It’s a huge thing, and it’s free.”

New this year are workshops leading up to Fashion Week. Presenters include experienced designers and entrepreneurs sharing tips with emerging designers on how to develop and market their brand and grow their business. Another new segue to Fashion Week is Vogue’s September 10 Fashions Night Out, a celebration of local-national design trends at select boutiques. The night culminates at Nomad with the unveiling of Metro Magazine’s Faces Model competition winner and the new SpiritofOmaha.com website.

The winner of OFW’s new Idol with Style competition will perform at intermission of the runway finale. Moore anticipates there will ultimately be an annual spring and fall fashion week. OFW held its first spring (preview) in March.

As a new vehicle to promote local fashion, OFW debuted Omaha Fashion Magazine over the summer. The free publication is distributed to metro salons, boutiques, specialty stores. The next issue is due out in March.

It’s all added momentum for what Hudson calls “the biggest Midwest fashion event by a sizable margin. The community should be proud of that. We’re really committed to keep growing Fashion Week, keep making it more professional, keep making it a better event.”

My Omaha Fashion Magazine Work: Omaha Fashion Week may be showcase for the next big thing out of Omaha

September 4, 2010 5 comments

Last minute posing!

Image by Mary P. from Pretty Good Things via Flickr

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

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

 

My Omaha Fashion Magazine Work:

Omaha Fashion Week may be showcase for the next big thing out of Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Staking Out a Scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Dressed Up and Somewhere to Go

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

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

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

 

 

Rachel Richards

 

 

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

What are the upper limits for an Omaha fashion designer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Nick Hudson

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

With the Help of Some Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Thomas Sena

 

 

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

Taking Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Top of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles

Art Missionaries, Bob and Roberta Rogers and their Gallery 72


Nan Mason, American painter, 1896-1982, at wor...

Image by Smithsonian Institution via Flickr

If you saw the odd little old couple on the street you would never guess they were serious art connoisseurs. But get them in their element, at a museum or at a gallery opening, and get them talking art, and then there would be no doubt that Bob and Roberta Rogers were much more than some stereotypical representation of narrow minded, buttoned down old fogies. Then you would see them for who they really were — savvy, sophisticated art collectors and dealers whose open minds saw them champion all sorts of edgy art.  Together, they owned and operated perhaps the most respected private gallery in Omaha.  They made their Gallery 72 a fixture on the local art scene.  When Roberta died Bob carried on for a while on his own. Then his son John joined him. By the time Bob died, the gallery was fully in the hands of John, who moved the business to an emerging arts hub on Vinton Street in South Omaha. My story about the couple originally appeared in the New Horizons.

 

Art Missionaries, Bob and Roberta Rogers and their Gallery 72

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

For the longest time, Bob and Roberta Rogers of Omaha were models of conventionality.  He did the 9 to 5 office routine. She stayed home to raise their two sons.  Their lives revolved around work, family, home, church, school.  Then, in middle age, a funny thing happened.  The 1960s arrived with a bang and they found themselves drawn to the decade’s vital counter-culture movement.

Unlike most of their generation, who resisted the tumult, the Rogers embraced the era’s provocative art, film, music, literature.  They were especially taken with the Pop Art scene and the groundbreaking work of artists like Andy Warhol. Their new found passion led to a whole new way of life.  She began hanging out at Old Market head shops.  He started breaking out of the corporate mold by opening a donut business.  And although not artists themselves, they became ardent art admirers and collectors.  So much so, they started their own gallery in 1972.

“We learned so much about art by just looking at it.  We just got to looking.  And we both got interested in doing something creative,” Roberta said in the sweet, meandering accent of her native Mississippi.  “In both of our cases we were finally getting around to doing something we should have done when we were younger.”

Better late than never.  Twenty-six years later their Gallery 72 at 2709 Leavenworth Street is a respected venue presenting and selling contemporary works by top American and foreign artists.  They feel a life in art was somehow meant for them.

“I think this is to a certain extent something you almost get a calling for,” Roberta said.  “What we wanted to do was to bring the kind of art people should be looking at and collecting in Omaha — really good contemporary art.  That was our mission.  I guess we wanted to be art missionaries, and any true missionary doesn’t think too much about the consequences or they wouldn’t become missionaries.  It was awful tough getting started, but we survived through various ways and sundry miracles.”

 

 

Bob Rogers

 

 

Their mission has taken them far beyond their gallery walls.  They have long been fixtures at local art shows.  She has been a Joslyn Art Museum docent and a presenter of art educational programs at area schools.  He has advised galleries, museums, corporations and private collectors.  Their undying devotion to art has won them many admirers.

“A lot of people get into gallery work because they know a little bit about art and may have a good eye, but they still look on it as a business,” said Joslyn Art Museum registrar Penelope Smith.  “Bob and Roberta look on it as a vocation.  They really believe in the art they’re exhibiting and they really care about it.”

The couple has acquired a reputation as astute art appraisers, collectors and exhibitors as well as enthusiastic art lovers. Their contributions to the visual arts in Nebraska were recognized with the 1990 Governor’s Art Award.

“I don’t know of anybody within the state that has more personal passion for and commitment to art and artists,” said George Neubert, director of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln.  Neubert, a sculptor, has shown at Gallery 72. “It’s a full range of support and nurturing they provide, whether it’s at one of their famous potlucks, where they gather together a wonderful strange mix of people interested in art, or whether it’s selling works to museums for their collections.”

Omaha painter Stephen Roberts notes the “very warm atmosphere” the Rogers extend to artists like himself and the fact “they show things they really love.  I think sales are really secondary to them.”

Married 54 years, the Rogers are such stalwart partners in their life and vocation that you can’t think of one without the other.  “I think it was fate that I met Bob,” Roberta said.  “I’d had several young men that were interested, but they didn’t care for the same things that I liked.  We just both liked the same things.  We’ve always done nutty things.”

If nothing else, they prove appearances can be deceiving.  A casual glance at their storefront gallery, across from St. Peter’s Catholic Church in downtown’s Park East area, suggests a curio shop.  But on closer inspection it is a showplace whose spare neutral interior is a perfect backdrop for the paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures displayed there.  The unassuming Rogers are Omaha’s mom and pop art missionaries all right, and so much more.  These forever youthful codgers are full of surprises.  She’s an effusive Southern sprite with a biting wit.  He’s a gruff stoic curmudgeon with a stubborn free-spirit. Together, they’re quite a pair.

Their apartment above the gallery is a single-level New York-style loft whose tall windows overlook St. Peter’s.  Nearly every available inch of  space is covered by art from their extensive, eclectic personal collection.  Book shelves bulge with volumes on art.  A huge industrial cabinet and table double as a kitchen pantry and dining surface, respectively. Magazines and newspapers are strewn everywhere.  Potted plants adorn one corner.  It is a home resonating with the energy of lives lived well and fully.

Although slowed by age — he’s 79, she’s 83 —  their intense feeling for art remains undiminished.  To understand the depth of that feeling, one must return to when their lives were transformed.  They credit their sons, John and Robert, with introducing them to the vital art scene emerging in the ‘60s.  Robert attended the Kansas City Art Institute at the time.

“He came back and told us about all these exciting things going on,” Roberta said.  “Those were the days when the modern old masters were struggling young artists.”

Innovative modern artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg and Frank Stella “changed the history of art forever,” Bob said in the low, flat rumble he speaks in. Adds Roberta, “When I found out about people like Stella and Oldenburg and great foreign movies by Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini and music by Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and the Doors, it was like I was finally coming alive.  It almost seemed like we were waiting for something to come along,  and when we discovered all these wonderful things, we were ready.  It seems like I had been just kind of existing up till then.  As I tell people, I think I was really born in the ‘60s.”

Bob was equally inspired by the fervor of the times.  “There was a tremendous amount of energy in America that we don’t have now,” he said.  What many of their generation viewed as a threat, he and Roberta saw as an exciting new experience full of personal growth opportunities.  Instead of rejecting youth, they followed their lead.

“In those days all the parents were screaming about ‘my children won’t talk to me,’ but I never felt we had that problem,” he said.  “We never had a void in our relations.  We let our sons educate us.  They brought us into the 20th century.”

The Rogers, though, were hardly art neophytes.  Each was brought up to appreciate the finer things.  That mutual interest was a point of attraction when they met during World War II.  But even after they married, circumstances left little time or money to pursue their shared passion.

She grew up in a series of Midwestern and Southern towns, moving with her family wherever her father’s civil engineering job with the Illinois Central Railroad took them.  Her mother was an arts devotee and Roberta often accompanied her on cultural outings.

 

 

 

 

“My mother had friends who were artists, so I got a feeling for what they were trying to do. My mother recognized these things were necessary.  She loved music.  She loved the theater.  And when we were in a place where we could go, why we went.”

Roberta’s many travels even brought her, as a teen, to Omaha, where she and her family lived during 1928-29.  She attended Saunders School (since closed) and lived in the Austin Apartments near the Joslyn Castle. She recalls seeing Al Jolson in the first motion picture talkie, “The Jazz Singer,” at the Riviera Theater (now The Rose) and taking the streetcar to attend Saturday afternoon matinees as well as repertory plays at the now defunct Brandeis Theater.

Bob, an Iowa native, fed his artistic muse dabbling in theater at Northwestern University, where he majored in business administration to please his father, a sales manager at John Morrell meatpacking company.

“My father had a dream that I was supposed to carry on what he was doing,” he explains.  “Well, he overlooked the fact that every human that’s born is different.  His idea of what I should do in my life was 180 degrees from what I wanted to do, but you couldn’t tell your father that.  If I could have kicked over the traces I would of got a job in the front-office of the Chicago Cubs baseball team.  I was a baseball fanatic in those days.  If that hadn’t of worked out I probably would have gone in the technical end of the theater in Chicago.”

But like a good son he followed his father’s wishes and obediently punched the clock at Morrell even though he felt stifled there.  Then the war came and with it his active duty in the Army Quartermasters and eventually action in Europe.  His stint in the service also led him to Roberta.  It was while stationed at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss. that their lives intersected in 1941.

“We were living in Gulfport at the time.  My father had a little house up in the piney woods about 18 miles from the Gulf Coast.  There was a place where soldiers with a weekend pass could get away from camp and swim and go to movies” Roberta recalls.  “Every Saturday night the ladies in Gulfport had a dance at the community center.  A band came over from Biloxi to play.

“They recruited all the young unmarried women in Gulfport to come.   It was Labor Day weekend and most of the troops from Camp Shelby were over in Louisiana on maneuvers, and so it was one of the few times there were about as many men as there were women.  And that’s how Bob and I got to talkin’ and all.  I liked him.  He was a nice quiet young man.  As we got to know each other and visit more and all, why we just found out we had a lot of common interests.”

The only potential obstacle was their families’ diametrically opposed politics.  Her people were staunch Democrats.  His, dyed-in-the-wool Republicans.  Fortunately, her father was a Northerner by birth and a Republican by nature.  The match could go on.

After an 18-month engagement the couple married in 1943 in San Bernardino, Calif., near the training center Bob was assigned.  After the war he resumed working for Morrell.  It was around this time his father died, and as Bob says, “I really didn’t feel like I had to fulfill his dream anymore.”

He then went from job to job, searching for his niche, but always ending up frustrated.  His job with a packaging services firm led the couple to Omaha in 1958.  Soon he got fed up again and tried a drastic change.

“Bob was seeking.  He felt getting into the donut business was really a creative kind of thing and so we started the Mr. Donut shops here in 1964.  It took off pretty well but then after several years we began to have problems with getting good help,” she said.  “Then Bob just asked one day, ‘What would you think of opening an art gallery?’  And I said, ‘I guess it would be okay.’  We both knew it was going to be an uphill battle with art in Omaha.  But the boys were raised and we decided we could sink or swim or starve in an attic and start our own art gallery.”

Unlike today, galleries were rare then in Omaha.  Still, there was no looking back.  “Once the bug bites you, you’re bitten. That’s the way it is,” she said.  They sacrificed everything for the project, opening in a strip mall on 72nd Street, hence the name.

“We pared our living expenses way down,” she said. “But it didn’t work out too well out there… and so we sold the house we were living in and we looked around for a building.”

They found the building they occupy now, formerly offices of the Association for the Blind, and after renovating it, re-opened the gallery in 1974.  She said their mission has remained constant:  “It was to show the best of contemporary art, because we live in a contemporary world.  Another thing we felt was that the work had to be of museum quality.  In all these years we’ve only had one show where everything in it was not of museum quality.  And we’ve never gone into making a living off of crafts and jewelry. Just art.  We felt like that would be lowering our standards.”

With the advent of area artist cooperatives, the gallery shows fewer local artists than in the past.  The art market has also changed drastically since Gallery 72 opened.  “Then you could get a good fine art print by the best artist for $150.  Now that these artists have become so much better known their prints come out at $3000 or $4000 or $5000 each,” she said.

Three woodcuts the Rogers acquired years ago (by Francesco Clemente, William T. Wiley and Pat Steir) have risen in value many times over.  “I sold a little bit of stock I had and with that and a few dollars Bob put in we got the three of them wholesale.  They were real bargains.  Any one of ‘em is way more valuable than the dividend would have been.  And I feel like I’m getting a good dividend just because I look at ‘em all the time.”

Bob said the law of supply and demand accounts for such steep price increases.  “There’s a limited amount of these things, and a ton of people who want it.  People are always asking me, Do you think this will go up in value?  Well, I never sell anybody art for an investment because there’s very little way you can tell for sure.”

Roberta said the true reward of art is not the money it brings, but the satisfaction it affords.  “Art is something that when it gets in your blood, your mind, your being, it just adds so much to your life and how you feel about yourself.  When you look at a piece of art you’ve got a relationship with this artist’s mind.  It’s like a conversation.  It says something to you, you say something back, and it becomes a visual dialogue.”

Bob, who makes all decisions concerning which artists to show, said too often people fret over the meaning of a work rather than just respond to it instinctually.  “Don’t analyze anything,” he suggests. “If you went to the artist and asked him, he probably wouldn’t be able to tell you, or if he did, it’d be something he made up.”

For him, the best art provokes thoughts and feelings that broaden your mind. One’s likes or dislikes, he said, have “a lot to do with what you’re willing to accept” and what “you’ve been exposed” to.  As far as his and Roberta’s preferences, they both like geometric abstraction.  He prefers minimalist art more than she does.  Although their tastes do diverge, they say they never argue over a piece or artist for the gallery.

To stay abreast of art and cultural trends, he reads art and news publications daily.  He finds artists for the gallery in several ways.  “

One of the best sources we have is the artists we work with,” he said.  Seeing exhibitions is another.  In May Bob attended the annual Navy Pier show in Chicago, featuring some 200 galleries from around the world.  The couple used to make the rounds in New York, but can’t any longer due to physical/ financial constraints.  Now, she said, “We bring the world to us. We’ve brought artists from Spain, Cuba, New York, Chicago, the West Coast.  It’s made life very interesting.”

The Rogers know their gallery has limited appeal. That’s why they’ve tried developing their own market, largely through word-of-mouth.  “And that’s difficult to do,” Bob said, “because the average run of people will buy a picture of a butterfly, but they would never buy a Claes Oldenburg painting or print of a clothespin sitting in the middle of Philadelphia.  So we have to develop the kind of people that will relate to that.”

Many of their best customers are art-savvy residents who’ve moved here from either coast.  The Rogers are known for hosting fun, informal potluck dinners, occasions they use to develop potential clients and to give guests a forum for “exchanging ideas.”

“People who don’t know each other, know each other when they leave.  And so far we’ve never had a food fight,” Roberta said with a smile.

The couple has no plans to retire.  “You don’t retire in art, you die in art,” she said.  “It keeps us young.”

Besides, their mission continues.

“There’s so much to learn about art,’ said Roberta.  “There’s so many different styles and types.  And whether people come in and buy or not, we feel like our role is to educate them.”

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