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Design community built Omaha Fashion Week

Design community built Omaha Fashion Week — which begins Monday — from the runway up

In the years before Omaha Fashion Week, designers held their own shows wherever they could, sometimes in dilapidated buildings downtown.

Back then, aspiring designers did as much sawing and hammering as they did sewing and stitching. If someone else wouldn’t host a fashion show, they took matters into their own hands.

“Nobody else was doing it,” said Buf Reynolds, one of the designers of that era and now director of talent for Omaha Fashion Week. “If any of us ever made a dime, it would have been a miracle.

“The community in Omaha was just dying for something like (Omaha Fashion Week).”

So in 2008, Nomad Lounge hosted the first Omaha Fashion Week, funded by Nomad owner Nick Hudson and fueled by designers like Reynolds in Omaha’s fashion underground.

About 2,000 spectators watched from all angles that September evening to get a glimpse of the spectacle on Jones Street. Graffiti artists painted on drop cloths. Models strutted down a 100-foot catwalk. It was a bizarre scene for downtown Omaha at the time.

“They had people hanging off the parking garage,” said Logan Finn, a volunteer who has been involved with every year of Omaha Fashion Week. “They had tables on each side. It was crazy.”

Over the past nine years, Omaha Fashion Week has grown from a wild, one-night party with 12 designers into a structured, carefully planned organization. One that’s designed not only to produce a fashion week, but also to develop budding designers.

The event is marking its 10th summer show with a six-night run of shows beginning Monday. And as Omaha Fashion Week enters the land of double digits, the show has a special guest.

Fern Mallis, founder of New York Fashion Week and one of the most influential figures in American fashion, plans to visit on Friday and Saturday. She’ll judge the Omaha Fashion Week finale show and she plans to help the show’s organizers refine the organization as it looks to the future.

It has come quite a way from the party on Jones Street.

Co-founder Hudson gave away free tickets for that first year and invested tens of thousands of dollars to get the show running.

There were events beyond the runway show — such as a 15-minute speed design competition pitting designers against one another — but the runway show was the marquee event.

By year three, the number of applicants had grown to 96. Soon, modeling calls were overfilled and they had to turn people away. Now, designers and models are cut every season, despite the expansion to six runway shows in August and another six in late winter.

Veterans from the show have worked for Nordstrom, Coach and Kate Spade, among others. A few have graduated to “Project Runway.”

“(Omaha Fashion Week) has the perfect balance of a fashion community that feels like a family, while also giving you the intense and competitive experience that has helped me achieve so many things,” said Molly O’Brien, who was a recent competitor on “Project Runway Junior.” O’Brien also has shown at fashion weeks in New York and Vancouver.

Since its inception, Omaha Fashion Week has implemented several programs to help designers improve skills, gain business acumen and make connections. Since moving into the Omaha Design Center in 2016, the show has begun to host a Shop the Runway event the day after the finale to give designers an opportunity to sell directly even if they don’t have a website or a storefront.

This year, the show is trying something new to spur development. It’s separating its designers into two tracks: emerging and featured designers.

Emerging designers, those relatively new to fashion design, will show on Monday and Tuesday night. The selection and mentoring processes were driven by professionals in education, design and business. Designers on this track will be awarded prizes geared toward skill development and education. They’ll also receive mentoring along the way.

Featured designers, veterans of Fashion Week, will show on Wednesday and Thursday night. Those designers are selected and groomed by professionals in design, manufacturing, entrepreneurship and branding, with the focus on helping designers grow their businesses.

“We had just been building a show so designers have a platform,” Reynolds said. “We’re at this point now where there are a lot of designers who are looking for what’s next after they’re doing the show.”

As Omaha Fashion Week looks to the future, organizers are trying to stitch the fashion community closer together, nurturing those with big dreams and the talent to make dreams happen. By providing a stage, a mentor and a little seed money, they’re ensuring that when Omaha’s next gifted designers go searching for a catwalk, they won’t have to build it themselves.

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