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Omaha Magazine

Forging Fashion

Jan 18, 2024 11:55AM ● By Chris Wolfgang
OMAHA’S GROWING REPUTATION ON THE CATWALK AND BEYOND b2b feature february march 2024 omaha fashion week

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

It’s been 15 years since the first Omaha Fashion Week (“OFW”) shut down Jones Street downtown with an enormous catwalk. Since then, the biannual event has emerged as the fourth largest fashion week in the US.

“There is an actual fashion ecosystem that exists here now,” said Brook Hudson, the former OFW producer, who led the organization since 2011 and stepped down in December to oversee the OFW Investors Circle, a grant program for designers.

“It’s thriving, and there are opportunities for young people—people of all ages, actually.”

Omaha has indeed become an incubator for fashion design. OFW attracts designers from all over the world—Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe—and each show receives upward of 500 modeling applications. Aspiring designers can find educational opportunities at Metropolitan Community College and University of Nebraska at Omaha. Even South High School has a four-year fashion program.

But is Omaha capable of moving beyond incubation when it comes to the fashion industry?
Designers like Jared Hall would certainly like it to be the case. The founder of 3AM Luxury, Hall has seen his leather bags shown in fashion weeks around the world—Dubai, Monaco, the south of France—and published in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. As this article was going to press, the designer shared that fellow Omaha native Amber Ruffin, an award-winning writer for television, planned to carry one of his exclusive designs on the red carpet for the 75th Primetime Emmy Awards on January 15 in Los Angeles.

“I get asked, ‘Omaha, where is that?’” Hall shared. “Then you mention Warren Buffett or Terence Crawford, and people say, ‘Oh, yeah.’ They recognize those names, but they don’t recognize how much other talent we have here. There’s a lot of creativity here.”

Unfortunately, there’s not always sufficient local infrastructure to support a garment industry. After trying to find a manufacturer in the Midwest, Hall eventually found a company in California capable of producing high-end bags with the quality leather he wanted for his product line.

“We have a fashion ecosystem. We have a fashion community. But in no way do we have a vertically integrated fashion industry here,” Hudson said. “I would really like to see us develop manufacturing in Omaha.”

Omaha has never been a textile manufacturing giant. Targeted web design enables some manufacturers to look like they’re established in Omaha (the garment industry equivalent of “Find hot singles in your area!”), but a little digging often reveals that while they may have a Nebraska business address, it’s actually in Florida or California. Overseas production is still tough to compete with—China is, perhaps obviously, the largest exporter of textiles and apparel. But achieving manufacture at the absolute cheapest rate possible is not necessarily the end goal for every designer.

“Our designers talk about it all the time,” Hudson said. “Literally every pitch we get in our selection panel has a mention of sustainability. You hear that worldwide, with all designers. What do we do with all these clothes going into our landfills? How do we use more sustainable practices in how we dye our clothes and how we get our fibers?”

For Hall, a fashion brand founded in and grown from Omaha is an opportunity to reach a hand out to the next generation. “I think any time somebody gets a glimpse of success, it’s important to somehow give back to your community,” he said. “I feel like if I can build this brand big enough and well enough, it can help our economy.” 

The status bag designer isn’t afraid to think big, picturing a flagship store in Omaha, bringing on other designers, and expanding beyond leather goods.

“That has to be the future,” Hudson said. “Otherwise what are we doing? Let’s make this an actual top-to-bottom industry here.”

It’s probably not going to happen by emulating what the fashion industry has done worldwide: focusing on cheap production labor. But Omaha’s approach to fashion has hardly been conventional, with its free-for-designers fashion week and its grassroots “I’ll do it myself if I have to” attitude.

It’s not like America is completely unequipped for fashion production. The US is the third largest exporter in textiles and the world leader when it comes to textile research and development. Perhaps the secret to more affordable American garment manufacturing is in America’s wealth in technology and automation—industries to which the Silicon Prairie is no stranger. Of course, prudent investors will still be correct to point out that cheap overseas labor presents less of an immediate upfront cost than outfitting a factory in the US with the latest production technology. But keep in mind that the conversation around fashion as an industry in Omaha will never be about competing with fast-fashion brands such as Shein.

“I’m not talking about an ambitious factory that’s going to produce tens of thousands of runs of garments,” Hudson clarified. “I’m just looking at, ‘How do we take this designer’s sample collection and do five garments in each size?’” A run of 10 designs—a decent collection for an independent designer—in just sizes 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, with five garments in each size, becomes 400 garments. Those aren’t fast-fashion numbers, but they’re well beyond what one person could produce on their own.”

“I’d rather work with a smaller manufacturer than a bigger one right now,” Hall added. “They can provide the attention that I’m looking for. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle when you’re not manufacturing on the levels of Coach, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Hermès. For me, it’s important to have that close relationship and attention to detail. So if I grow, you grow.”

“Omaha is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this,” Hudson said, “more so than maybe any other market in the US, given the push for sustainability in the industry. Designers and consumers are much more interested in sustainability and trying to avoid fast fashion and instead buying local.”

What, exactly, makes Omaha competitive for growth in the American fashion industry?
Hudson can give you a list. “We’ve got a much lower cost of living. It’s relatively inexpensive to buy property. Keeping production domestic cuts down on your shipping costs,” she enumerated. “We also, interestingly, have a lot of people coming into the city who have worked in textile factories in Mexico.” 

The Omaha Design Center, the production company behind OFW, fields requests for donated sewing machines from Omaha’s refugee community for new residents who want to make and sell clothes. “They already have the skills and are often either unemployed or under-employed,” Hudson said, “so you’ve got an awesome, reliable workforce that’s uniquely qualified and centrally located. All the pieces are there. We just need to put it together.”

Hall, whose background is in supply chain logistics and industrial purchasing, admitted that “the clothing market is very, very, very tough.” But he added, “I’m from Omaha, Nebraska. I was born here. It’s very important to me to be in Omaha and be recognized as an Omaha brand. When we think about designer bags, we think of Hermès and brands like that, but why can’t an American brand be in the same conversation? We have what it takes to be recognized on a more global scale in the ranks of fashion.”

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This article originally appeared in the February/March 2024 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, 
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Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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