Omaha Fashion Week, the Midwest couture festival that pops up twice a year in the most unexpected places, is one of those signifier events that confirms this isn't your parents' city anymore.
It has returned to the much ballyhooed but sill largely undeveloped Capitol District after being there last year. If the 10th Street and Capitol Avenue location doesn't ring a bell, just look for stern looking models in high heels striding purposely down an impossibly long, elevated runway under a giant tent with the CenturyLink Center as backdrop.
OFW's concluding include the debut of ready-to-wear collections on Thursday and evening wear collections on Friday by multiple designers.
Saturday's finale runway show features the spring-summer collections of: Susan Ludlow, Whitney Rorah, Max Suiter, Denise Ervin, Vesela Zarankova, Angela Balderson, Jane Round, Juanteisha Christian, Erica Cardenas and Bryan Frost, Fella Vaughn, Bridget Mahony and Kate Walz. A runway after-party follows.
When OFW started nine years ago it was an outlier experiment catching the entrepreneurial wave of new cultural offerings in Omaha. Just as the Omaha Film Festival, Film Streams, Slowdown, the downtown Omaha Lit Fest, the Great Plains Theatre Conference and Loom Weaves have become art-entertainment fixtures, so has OFW. The creative stews of the Maha Music Festival, Big Omaha, Verbal Gumbo and others have followed.
Whether held in the outdoor caverns of the Old Market, inside a former industrial space in Midtown or a glorified downtown parking lot, OFW is a platform for designers, models, stylists, makeup artists and photographers. Omaha transplant Nick Hudson launched it all out of his now defunct Nomad Lounge to serve as a catalyst for creatives.
"Fashion Week started as a little side project of Nomad but it sort of hit into other things like the Halo Institute in terms of nurturing young entrepreneurs who have a passion for creativity," he says. "The key idea was tying together young talent around a red carpet."
He co-produces OFW with his wife Brook Hudson. They describe OFW as an "incubator" for emerging and established design talent.
"I think the growth that's really interesting and most rewarding is to see our fashion designers become more sophisticated in the way they design and also in the way they conduct their business practices," Brook Hudson says. "I think Fashion Week and Fashion Institute Midwest – the nonprofit arm – have been instrumental in inspiring that type of growth in our designers which helps them be more sustainable."
Various supports are in place to help designers not only showcase their work but to reach their potential and scale their lines.
"I'm just a big believer in being self-sustaining because that gives you control over what you're doing," says Nick Hudson, a serial entrepreneur who is chairman and managing partner of Design Parliament. "I encourage them to be self-sustaining. Some need coaching and education about fashion things and business tactics. A lot of mentoring goes on."
The Hudsons retain fashion industry experts as coaches and consultants. Experienced designers, including veterans of OFW, often advise their younger counterparts.
"I love the fact all the designers help each other. It's a very supportive community," Nick says. "In terms of community involvement, Omaha in different ways gets behind and supports this creative community."
He's largely realizing his vision to grow the local fashion culture or eco-system as OFW attracts more participants and bigger audiences and some area designers and models find success beyond Omaha.
"It started off as an idea I had and then I had a few employees involved and then Brook gave up her job to take over running it full-time and that took it to a different level. And now I feel like we're in this third generation where …"
"It's grown beyond us," Brook says, finishing his thought. "We realized there were a lot of needs designers have that Omaha Fashion Week as a production company couldn't serve. We really wanted to co-design a world class event and so we felt it was time to engage the community and see if it would be interested in meeting that challenge of helping designers with the resources and education. So we started Fashion Institute Midwest to accomplish that goal. It conducts workshops and gives grants.
"The Omaha Fashion Guild is a supporting organization whose members do fundraising and volunteer backstage at our shows. They work at all different levels to help support fashion designers. All these different things are happening and the beauty of it is that people are taking the ball and just running with it."
Sponsors have come on board as OFW has proven that celebrating and supporting fashion has a place in Omaha, too.
"Building up the confidence in our market to embrace that has taken awhile because it does run counter to our agrarian roots," Nick says. "We are salt of the earth people and to think of fashion, well it seems like something that should be on the coasts. Getting people to change their perspective on that is taking time."
Putting on fashion week is a big, expensive operation and the Hudsons have to be creative to stretch limited dollars. Minus any old line family money or foundation funding, Nick says their "scrappy from the ground up" approach must be tactical to beg, borrow, steal and variously call in favors, do trade-outs and repurpose materials.
"But it has to be beautiful because it's still fashion," Brook says, "We've figured cost effective ways to make it look amazing. Lighting and sheer fabric can cover a multitude of sins."
Without a permanent home, OFW must also adapt to the demands of whatever new site the show's staged at. Thus, Brook says, the Capitol District venue has meant "trying to figure out how do we grade medians, take down light poles, get access to water and remove trees in a way they can be replanted." Then there's procuring generators for air conditioning, luxury porta-potties, building a runway and stage, erecting seats, rigging lights and sound, et cetera.
"It's crazy the things we have to think about and do," she says.
Aside from all the physical site aspects involved, she says "a whole line of communication and education goes into preparing a designer for a show," adding, "But by now that runs like clockwork – we've got that down." Behind the scenes, hundreds of volunteers attend to myriad details to create the magic onstage. Teams of dressers, stylists, makeup artists and models are assigned to each designer. Side-by-side with the frou-frou are technicians running lights and sound.
Dealing with everything from extreme weather to runway accidents to wardrobe malfunctions to last minute touchups and casting changes, comes with the territory.
It's all worth it, Nick says, knowing OFW brings "something a little bit different and unexpected in hopefully building Omaha's street cred and making Omaha a more vibrant, interesting place." "We're the face of a new age for how fashion is done in Omaha," Brook says.
The Hudsons insist OFW proves Omaha knows fashion.
Brook says, "Time after time designers from other markets are just blown away when they walk into our finale and see that big tent and long runway. They can't believe this is happening in Omaha. They can't believe how many people show up."
"They're amazed at the quality of the designs and at the supportive community," says Nick.
For show details and tickets, visit omahafashionweek.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.