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

August 5, 2015 2 comments

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

The next Omaha Fashion Week is August 17-22.

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

©BY LEO ADAM BIGA

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

Hooton Images

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

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

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

Banking on potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting up to speed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tailoring financial services to designer needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are also many common issues designers face.

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

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

There’s no guarantee any designers will make it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 2, 2014 2 comments

Fashion writing keeps coming back into my wheelhouse.  What’s interesting about this is that I never suspected fashion writing could even be in my wheelhouse given my less than fashionable wardrobe and my own disregard for elements of style in the way I dress.  Don’t get me wrong, I like to look nice as much as the next person, but I’ve never spent much time or effort considering or cultivating a personal look or style for myself and I don’t pay much attention to buying fashionable brands.  But in the last half dozen years I’ve found myself writing a fair amount about fashion.  Part of that is a function of the fact that I am a cultural writer and fashion is a part of the cultura fabric, so to speak, of any metropolitan area.  And so just as I write about film, television, theater, literature and many other aspects and streams of Omaha’s cultural life, I have found myself writing about fashion.  Still, I likely wouldn’t have begun covering the fashion scene were it not for falling in with some of the very people who have nurtured the fashion scene here.  That association led me to write about Omaha Fashion Week just as it was taking off and before I knew it I was penning stories about Omaha fashion, past and present, for Omaha Fashion Magazine and other publications.  You’ll find those stories on this blog.  The following story for Metro Magazine profiles four designers who are a part of that emerging scene.  Has any of this work about fashion made me more fashion conscious in the way I dress?  Not really.  But I do have an enhanced appreciation for what individuals do in the fashion world, whether designers or models or hair and makeup artists.

 

 

metroMAGAZINE

the designers

Omaha’s Emerging Fashion Culture

BY LEO ADAM BIGA
Now appearing in Metro Magazine

Though far from a fashion center, Omaha’s always been home to people involved in the design, merchandising and consumption of fashion. While still not a couture capital, the city’s seen the emergence of a fashion culture giving local designers more opportunities to get their work seen and fashionistas new talents to support. 

Helping lead this revolution is Omaha Fashion Week and the professional platform it provides independent fashion designers to showcase their work. The companion Fashion Institute Midwest nurtures aspiring designers and supports the region’s fashion ecosystem through training, resources and business incubation.

OFW designers are a diverse lot but all embody a passion for fashion and creativity that is part of their DNA. The four designers profiled here create highly distinct collections that are personal expressions of themselves. Each has been immersed in fashion for as long as they can remember, Each has been embraced by the local fashion community. They are part of a burgeoning creative class scene and design-style conscious movement that’s changing the perception of Omaha from fashion desert to oasis and from nondescript Midwest town to exciting hub for sophisticated fun.

They will be among the featured designers during the March 4-9 OFW event at the Omar Building, 4823 Nicholas Street.

 

Meet the designers:

 

Kate Walz at work

 

 

Kate Walz
Seventeen-year-old Millard North High School junior Kate Walz has already shown her chic designs in her hometown, in Kansas City and in New York City.

She did her first OFW show at 13 and has now presented eight collections there. She made it to the Big Apple when she debuted her fall collection in an offsite New York Fashion Week show. She’s also Spokes Designer for Fashion Camp NYC, a day camp for teens wanting fashion careers.

All in all, she’s just the kind of promising young talent Omaha style-conscious, fashion-forward patrons hope to put over the top.

Walz doesn’t get caught up in her fast rise or bright future because she’s doing what comes naturally to her.

“My mom says I’ve been drawing dresses since I could hold a crayon. I first started sewing and draping at 8 in 4-H. I participated in the fashion and sewing competitions and found success, winning the title Grand Champion against all the high school kids. When I was 12 I started making my own patterns and selling my garments at Bellwether Boutique in downtown Omaha.”

She describes as her “biggest mentor” Bellwether’s late owner, Jessica Latham.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am in my fashion career if she hadn’t let me start selling my designs in Bellwether. I value the advice she has given me the most.”

Walz says she appreciates OFW showing her “what it’s like to be in a professional environment,” adding, “They’ve given me exposure and experience I haven’t found anywhere else.” Fashion Institute Midwest workshops, she says, have taught her pattern grading and pitching her brand. The Institute sponsored her New York Fashion Week trip.

She absorbs all she can from more experienced designers.

“My biggest inspirations are some of Omaha’s local designers: Buf Reynolds, Dan Richters, Jane Round, Megan Hunt, Audi Helkuik. They all have given me such great advice. It’s an honor to get to work alongside some of them.

“Really all local designers have been great mentors to me. The OFW team has also been a big help in directing me in the right path for both my design work and business decisions.”

Walz says she’s “tried all different kinds of looks” for her women’s wear line while “searching for my signature voice,” adding, “What I try to achieve as a designer is a balance between being conceptual, conventional and cohesive. Reoccurring characteristics in my clothing are femininity, attention to detail and a vintage vibe.”

She embraces Omaha’s growing fashion scene.

“The exposure has opened so many doors for us local designers.”

At a tender age she had to prove herself to doubters, though she finds widespread acceptance today.

“One of my biggest challenges has been people not taking me seriously because I am so young, although it’s not much of a problem anymore.”

Walz counts her greatest triumph being selected Spokes Designer for Fashion Camp NYC.

“They flew me to New York for 10 days to mentor fellow fashion campers from all over the world. I also had the privilege of meeting people at the top of the industry.”

After high school she has her sights set on attending Parsons The New School for Design.

“It is my dream to one day open up my own boutique in New York and eventually have my clothing carried in high-end department stores.”

Follow her at http://www.katewalz.com.

Aubrey Sookram

Hartington, Neb. native Aubrey Sookram has created a boutique children’s brand, Markoos Modern Design, that’s carried on the popular shopping site for moms, Zulily.com.

Her passion for fashion began as a girl.

“I wore a uniform to school on a daily basis all the way through high school,” she says “I definitely took casual days and dress-up days as an opportunity to express myself.”

Her creativity comes out in multiple ways.

“It actually took me a bit to decide what medium I was going to focus on. I adore interior design. I also like power tools. I will try creating anything at least once.”

She’s been intentional about making fashion a career.

“I have a degree in marketing with minors in merchandising and fashion design from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I taught myself to sew.”

Ideas for her children’s wear designs come from various sources for this wife and mother of three.

“I love vintage Dior and the simplicity of modern designers like Ralph Lauren, Halston and Kate Spade. I like clean design. A lot of my designs are a hybrid of retro and modern styles. I find inspiration in everything from architecture, fine arts, designers old and new and pop culture. Right now I am finding a lot of inspiration from music and movies from my youth.

“My new fall collection is based on a movie from the ’90s. Stay tuned.”

Her penchant for eclectic combos helps her work stand out.

“I love to mix patterns, colors and textures.  Many designs start with fairly classic silhouettes but seem to morph into something more modern. I adore bold color.”

This entrepreneur appreciates the support she and other designers find through OFW.

“Omaha Fashion Week has been an incredible confidence booster and resource. I have gotten the chance to work closely with other children’s designers, such as Hollie Hanash and Yolanda Diaz. All the designers are supportive of one another. They’re a source of endless wisdom and practical knowledge.”

She says a fashion designer from here can be a success nationally but many hurdles must be cleared.

“The logistical issues are daunting. There is a limited number of fabric stores in the metro, so one can expect to travel to larger cities for fabric sourcing and production. As my business has grown, this problem has as well.”

Then there’s the time and money it takes to market your work.

“You can design the most amazing line but if no one knows about it you may as well pack it up and head home. Finding the right marketing streams is so very important and when you are starting out you need to do it as frugally as possible.”

Undaunted, Sookram says she’s moving into production. “I am working to get into boutiques and stores throughout the country and will be continuing my relationship with Zulily.com. I am always keeping my eyes open for new opportunities.”

Shop Sookram at http://www.etsy.com/shop/MarKoosModernDesign.

Fella, aka Wayne Vaughn

No matter where Fella, aka Wayne Vaughn, lived growing up in an Air Force family he indulged his love for clothes. His immersion in things couture went to a whole new level when at 14 he got the opportunity to work and hang out backstage at an Ebony Fashion Show.

“Being that close to those beautiful garments I knew then I wanted to design clothing,” says Vaughn, who has a Fella line of men’s and women’s clothing, costumes and wedding dresses. He paints, dyes and weaves some of his own fabrics..

In his late teens he lived in the United Kingdom, where he graduated from Lakenheath High School in Lakenheath, England. After his father was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb., Vaughn studied his craft at UNO and UNL, steeping himself in textiles, clothing, design, art, art history and costume design.

In 20-plus years as a designer he’s developed a look that emphasizes color, assorted patterns and interesting textures. He counts as influences Ralph Rucci, Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen. His extensive travels offer further inspiration.

His own work increasingly expresses thematic concerns and narratives. He says he imagines storylines about the women who wear his clothes and why they need his designs, His last collection’s colors were red and black and took their cue from a 19th century woman he concocted. He says of his muse: “She just got some new fabric from India and gave it to her dressmaker for a new wardrobe. The woman just had a new beginning and she needed clothing to party in.”

Vaughn’s new fall-winter collection is winter white gold with pops of color and incorporates Eskimo and Russian influences.

He’s now collaborating with two Omaha area designers, hatmaker Margie Trembley and crocheter Susan Ludlow, on his new collection.

Vaughn gets his work seen at private viewings and trunk shows. Maude Boutique in mid-town Omaha carries his clothes. He says OFW gives him yet another “great platform to showcase my vision of fashion.” The exposure from OFW events, he says, helps him “gain more of a customer base.” He says his last collection sold especially well and netted him a new batch of clients.

For anyone trying to make it as a fashion designer in Omaha, he says, the key is “getting your name out and letting people know that a custom-made garment may not be as expensive as they think.” He says designers like himself can help in creating “a tone for your life.”

Looking ahead, his goal is to be in more boutiques and to have his own string of Fella shops.

Sample his work at fellavaughn.com.

 

 

Jeffrey Owen Hanson and designer Caone Westergard at OFW

 

Jeffrey Owen Hanson

At 20 Jeffrey Owen Hanson of Overland Park, Kansas has achieved recognition few people realize in a lifetime. He was 13 when his original abstract paintings got so popular he began donating them to charitable auctions, where to date his work’s raised more than one million dollars for various causes. He then branched off into hand-painting dresses designed by Caine Westergard. Their collaborations adorned the OFW runway, thus linking him to the burgeoning fashion scene here.

Hanson’s success is remarkable given that he accidentally stumbled upon his gift and that he deals with a serious visual impairment. He has a genetic condition, neurofibromatosis, that resulted in an optic nerve tumor. The tumor that he nicknamed CLOD left him with severe vision loss. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation. None of it interfered with Hanson becoming in-demand philanthropic artist.

A real clothes horse, he refers bold colors in his own wardrobe and in the hand-painted gowns he creates for his Jeff Hanson Collection.

The self-taught artist sees the world in vivid colors despite a limited field of vision he describes as “seeing through Swiss cheese.” Yet he’s grateful for his condiiton because it’s led him to use color and texture in ways that make his vibrant, tactile art singularly his own.

As a child, he says, “I painted on rocks and I did dot art and that type of thing.” His mother says ,”He did the kinds of crafts and arts things kids always do but really is art wasn’t anything special,”

At her suggestion he began painting notecards for something he and his friends could do when he had visitors over while recovering from treatments. His creations immediately stood out. He sold his early watercolors on notecards from a lemonade stand outside his house. He gravitated to making acrylics on canvas sold in galleries and auctions. Commissions for his work now flood in every week.

Much of his approach seems intuitive though his impressionistic landscapes are often inspired by places he’s visited.

High contrast colors characterize his work. “I just think I have a good eye for color,” he says. And a feel for texture. “Almost all of my paintings have really thick modeling paste spread all over to give texture,” he says.

He often incorporates materials into his work, even making woven canvases, to add layers of depth and form. Always though his work exudes the most iridescent tones. “The colors I like to use are bright colors, like lime green, pink, purple. Bright happy colors.” The buoyant colors are a direct reflection of his joyful personality.

For his work as a fashion artist he now collaborates with a seamstress on dress designs that complement his art. Once a gown is designed, the drape of the fabric is analyzed and then hand-painted and signed.

OFW shows have given him a new market for his hand-painted gowns and commissioned paintings.

His story, now told in a book, has found him hailed a People magazine “Hero Among Us” and featured on CNN’s “Impact Your World.” Huffington Post readers voted him “Top Kid Making a Difference.” Prudential gave him its national Spirit of Community award.

Check out his work at http://www.JeffreyOwenHanson.com

For OFW show details and tickets, visit omahafashionweek.com.

Omaha Fashion Past

February 4, 2012 4 comments

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

 

 

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

 

 

Omaha Fashion Past

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in Omaha Fashion Magazine

 

Fashion Divas

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fashion Culture, Then and Now

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

Mary Anne Vaccaro

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fashion illustrator Mary Mitchell

 

 

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

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

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

Changing Times, New Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A runway show at Omaha Fashion Week
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