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A year ago, JLynn Hausmann was nervously awaiting her first fashion show.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate and Butte, Neb., native had started a premium denim line not long before. Her first collection, which she was launching at Omaha Fashion Week, included jeans, skirts, blazers and one dramatic denim gown.
Hausmann wasn't sure what exactly a designer was supposed to do at a fashion show, or what the audience would think.
“I was just getting my feet wet,” Hausmann said.
In the short year since, through a mix of hard work, aggressive networking and a bit of luck, Hausmann has shown at Los Angeles and Phoenix fashion weeks and she's been invited to show in New York and Miami. Zappos and Amazon have begun carrying her line, as have many boutiques, including Skyz in Omaha.
She expects JHaus to be available in major department stores soon, and maybe in her own storefront in a few more years.
Hausmann dressed 7-year-old cancer survivor Jack Hoffman for the ESPY Awards, and rising country music star Kacey Musgraves has worn her designs, too. Hausmann is about to launch another line, JH.
Omaha Fashion Week, as it turned out, was just the beginning.
Hausmann is one of a growing number of Omaha Fashion Week alumni who are finding success in the mainstream fashion world.
British Vogue has featured the work of swimwear designer Michaela Cawley, and Sports Illustrated has featured the bikinis of Erin Thomas. Last fall, Jane Round, another designer who got her start at Omaha Fashion Week, designed a collection for the online retailer Hello Holiday, which was co-founded by fellow OFW veteran designer Megan Hunt.
Kate Walz, a 16-year-old designer and a junior at Millard North, was invited to show a collection at an off-site show during New York Fashion Week in February after a producer stumbled upon Walz's Facebook page.
Walz also filmed a pilot for a reality television show about young fashion designers. The pilot never aired, but during filming, she met the people who run the prestigious Fashion Camp New York for budding designers, which she attended earlier this summer.
Walz hopes the eight collections she's designed for Omaha Fashion Week will help her gain entry to a prestigious design school like Parsons School of Design in New York City.
“It is remarkable the success they've seen in such a short time,” said Omaha Fashion Week producer Brook Hudson, who runs the event out of the basement of her Dundee home with the help of a small staff and her husband, founder Nick Hudson. “It's so cool. We're really proud.”
Monday marks the beginning of this year's fall event, which has showcased the work of regional and local designers each February and August for the past six years.
Designers say Omaha Fashion Week is valuable for many reasons. It's as well-organized and well-produced as many larger, more established shows. It's an opportunity for designers to network with other designers as well as with stylists, photographers, and hair and makeup artists. It's welcoming and unintimidating. And perhaps most importantly, designers don't have to pay for a spot in Omaha Fashion Week, which in other cities can cost thousands of dollars. That's intentional, Nick Hudson said in an interview last year — it's important to him that the event be accessible to anyone who has the talent to participate.
But that doesn't mean Omaha Fashion Week is a low-budget affair: This year's shows will cost about $350,000 to produce, Brook Hudson said.
“Honestly, it's like a social service to Omaha almost,” Cawley said.
Nick Hudson invited Cawley, who grew up in Omaha, to participate in one of the first shows after reading a story about her swimwear line and her work as an assistant to fashion icon Daphne Guinness. That line, KKINI, grew out of a homemade bikini Cawley wore to New York's Soho House. A woman saw her there, complimented her suit and ordered one for herself. Word-of-mouth sold a few more, and, soon after, Cawley packed a suitcase full of swimsuits and hit the pavement, visiting boutiques and luxury hotels she hoped might carry her new line.
From the time Cawley met the Hudsons, she could tell they were passionate both about giving local designers a platform and about growing the fashion industry in Omaha. Cawley signed on.
As her brand has grown — while it's still a small company, KKINI is available in boutiques around the world — Cawley has returned to Omaha Fashion Week each year. And she's remained close to the Hudsons, whom she now considers both friends and valuable contacts.
“I just think that they give everyone that they believe in a full-hearted chance,” she said.
Thomas, founder of the swimwear line Toxic Sadie, participated in Omaha Fashion Week for the first time in August 2011. She had been sewing bikinis for herself and for her friends for nearly a decade, and she'd participated in a few small swimwear shows in Florida. She applied for Omaha Fashion Week when she felt she was ready to try a larger show.
The collection went over well, and the show made Thomas realize that she needed to do more to promote her line. She reached out to sales representatives and found some willing to take her on. More boutiques began to carry her line. She then hired a publicist, who helped get her swimwear into the hands of magazine editors and fashion bloggers. Earlier this summer, she filmed a segment for MTV, which will air in the fall. Thomas is not showing at this Omaha Fashion Week, but she plans to do some other shows.
Omaha Fashion Week has been a launch pad for more than just designers. Nicole Keimig, who has modeled in many OFW shows, recently returned to Omaha after working in Asia for seven months. There, she modeled for Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Nylon Magazine, among others.
Keimig hadn't given much thought to modeling until she learned that models get to travel. She signed with a local agency and went to an OFW casting. That first season, three designers asked her to walk in their shows. Keimig was 15 and nervous. Her walk was not very good. But she quickly learned that she liked the excitement of the runway.
“It's scary right before, and then I get this huge adrenaline rush,” she said.
Eventually, Keimig signed with Develop Model Management. She worked on her walk. The longer she worked with Omaha Fashion Week, the more designers requested her. She began to model more challenging pieces — huge, dramatic ball gowns, complicated avant garde pieces. She became more comfortable and less nervous. Keimig, now 18, hopes eventually to work in Europe and to spend more time in Japan.
Alyssa Dilts, who founded Develop Model Management last year, spent years working as a model scout in Chicago before returning to Omaha, where she grew up. Soon after she got back, she started volunteering with Omaha Fashion Week, helping models learn to walk and generally navigate the runway, and also coaching designers to think early on about hair, makeup, styling and marketing. She also offered space in her downtown office for pre-show fittings.
It's been a mutually beneficial relationship. Working with fashion week has also helped Dilts attract clients; she's signed several models who either she spotted or someone told her about at Omaha Fashion Week.
Brook Hudson said she hopes Omaha Fashion Week and its nonprofit arm, Fashion Institute Midwest, continue to help designers find success beyond Omaha. A mentoring program that pairs new designers with more experienced ones is in the early stages, and she hopes Fashion Institute Midwest eventually can provide financial help to designers so they can afford better fabrics and other materials. The institute also has looked into helping designers with manufacturing, though that's still at least a little ways away.
Eventually, Hudson hopes a number of Omaha Fashion Week alumni with nationally and internationally recognized brands return to their old stomping grounds to show the new crop of designers that it's possible to reach success, even in a cutthroat industry, even for someone from a city that has never had a reputation as a fashion mecca.
“We're thinking, 20 years down the road, what's this going to be like?”
The schedule and the designer lineup for the week is as follows.
Monday: Children's Wear
-- Hollie Hanash for Ruffled Runway, Stacy Sipp for Beloved, Yolanda Diaz for Little Miss Fashion, Aubrey Sookram for Markoos Modern Design, Susan Ludlow for Designs by Suey
-- Jenny Pool, Kristen Vanhessche, Sabrina Jones, Tiffany Headley for Haus of Donna Faye, Angela Balderston for Get Plastered!
-- Terry Buckner for NueVintage, Caine Westergard for Caine, Buf Reynolds, Joi Katskee for Joi Joison, Maximillian Suiter for Max Millian, Sara Gadeken for Sara Marie
Aug. 22: Evening Wear
-- Jillian Fellers, Juantiesha Christian for SuShe by J. Tracy, Hannah Olson for Hannah Caroline Couture, Leah Casper for Casper Couture, Fella Vaughn for Fella, Kate Walz
Aug. 23: Men's and Swim
-- 8 p.m.: Michaela Cawley for KKINI, Borris Powell, Borsheims, Patrick T. Cooper, Paulie Gibson, John Bartlett for Younkers, Christian Shuster for christianMICHAEL
-- 10 p.m.: VESSEL by Dan Richters and Buf Reynolds