The private doodles Ciara Fortun used to make have evolved into working sketches for collections she now produces for Omaha Fashion Week shows.
After debuting at OFW with a formal women's wear show in March, she's unveiling a new collection of dresses inspired by her Filipino heritage in August.
The 16-year-old Elkhorn resident and junior at Concordia High School has been fascinated with style since early childhood. But it wasn't until attending her first Fashion Week in 2015 that she realized living in flyover country was no barrier to doing something in fashion.
She attended Omaha Fashion Camp and got inspired by industry professionals working as designers, models, creative directors, stylists and photographers. That led her to sketch out a collection. The designs variously drew on Audrey Hepburn, The Golden Age of Hollywood and Art Deco. Fortun's tastes run to refined and vintage in apparel and music. She often listens to classic jazz while working.
Regarding her personal sense of style, she said, "It evolves all the time. I may look completely different day to day. Today, I'm wearing overalls, but tomorrow I may be wearing heels and a pencil skirt. I'm kind of minimalistic with everything. I don't like a bunch of patterns. It's pretty clean, pretty simple," she said from her second-story home workroom. The space is filled with sketches, magazine spreads, inspirational words, a tailor's dummy draped by a tape measure, a sewing machine, clumps of fabric and a wardrobe rack filled with her handiwork.
She waited until "the last day" to submit her designs and then only after her parents' gentle prodding. Upon being selected to interview she faced a panel of five adults who critiqued her work and asked about aesthetics and aspirations. It was intimidating. She said she learned "you have to really know what your personal style is before you can make something because then you know what your foundation is with fashion."
She waited two excruciating weeks before getting word she made the cut as an invited OFW designer. And that's when reality set. She had to create a wearable, runway-ready collection in four months. The family project involved her parents and younger sister, but Ciara and her father Luis Fortun did most of it together. Though neither has formal training, they have genetics on their side. Ciara's paternal grandmother is from the Philippines, where she sewed. An aunt was a master seamstress and a great-grandfather a master tailor. Ciara's steeped in stories about her ancestral homeland.
Between calling on ancestral skills, watching YouTube how-to videos and Project Runway episodes and sounding out OFW staff, this father-daughter combo figured things out through "lots of trial and error," Ciara said.
A GoFundMe campaign helped with buying materials.
She agonized getting every last detail right, but her dad reminded her, "They're not looking for perfection, they're looking for confidence."
Ciara said the finished dresses ended up "a lot different than what we had on paper. We did a lot of tweaking."
"On the fly," added Luis.
"I was unsure about a lot of stuff," Ciara said, "but then we just went fo it. By rack check I was terrified. I was like, 'What if they don't like any of the stuff and the changes I made?' But they were really good about that. They care more about what you feel was the right choice than what will sell. It turned out well,"
During the process, OFW consultants made suggestions and Luis said, "We took most of the suggestions but some we didn't, and they were actually very complimentary about that, saying it shows Ciara''s okay standing by her own decisions. I was very proud of her."
Dealing with adults has taught Ciara the importance "of being able to hold a conversation" and articulate her vision. "It's caused me to step out of my comfort zone to share what my heart is," she said. "It's great to be pushed to share what you love. It all has a risk factor, but you just have to stick to what you know and love. It's been a really good growing experience, especially in a supportive setting."
"Watching her grow through the whole process has been very encouraging — just taking responsibility for all the things," said her father.
Getting the collection done in time came down to the wire and meant pulling some all-nighters.
The Fortuns were pleasantly surprised by how accessible OFW staff were in answering questions and providing assistance.
"You can go talk to them if you need help with something," Ciara said. "The thing about Omaha Fashion Week is that everyone there is really supportive of the younger generation. They want to bring you through this and show you different steps of making a collection and a brand."
She's found big sisters and kindred spirits in designers Buf Reynolds and Sabrina Jones.
"They're really inspiring. I see them as mentors and people I can look up to."
As a father pressed into duty as a dressmaking production director, Luis Futon appreciates the help OFW provides.
"They do a really good job of framing out major milestones you have to reach in terms of salon, music, model call, rack check. They just don't say, okay, we'll see you in four months. They give you guidance. It's very structured. They kind of walk you through the whole thing and give a lot of pointers and insight."
Ciara's fall collection featured highly structured, muted dresses using neoprene. Her work was well received by patrons and judges at the Omaha Design Center. Her models walked to "Forever Mine" by Andra Day and "New York New York" by DJ Cam Quartet.
By winning her night in March, she earned a $500 prize. In true entrepreneurial spirit, she plowed it right back into buying fabric. She's discovered what all fashion designers here learn — you must look outside Nebraska for the best fabric and pay a premium for it.
Her new collection, for spring-summer, is lighter, brighter and more flowing in its colored satins. Besides the accent on color, another nod to her Filipino lineage is the incorporation of capiz shells.
She may study art in college to keep her creative options open.
"I'm still trying to figure out things."
If she pursues a fashion career, it helps that OFW has her back.
"It's a really good community we've found. If we lived in New York, it wouldn't be that way. It's really cool being part of this unique group that get me."
Fortun, who creates under her Noelle Designs label, is among 27 designers showing during the August 22-27 Fashion Week. Her collection hits the runway August 23.
For schedule and tickets, visit omahafashionweek.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.