Matt Swinney, founder of Austin Fashion Week, will be quick to tell you he’s not your number one fashion expert. In fact, he’ll even admit he doesn’t care to be. So, how can someone with little fashion experience manage to pull off the fifth largest fashion week in the nation ? His answer is simple: he cares about more than just the clothes and collections – he cares about the designers and retailers who make Austin Fashion Week possible and he cares about their future as growing, local creatives.
Birthed from the idea of helping a struggling Second Street District and the local businesses who called the street home, Austin Fashion Week served as a means to not only highlight local talent, but to also establish Austin as a stylish force to be reckoned with. Moreover, Swinney and his partners wanted to establish a year round network that would continue to advance local designers even after fashion week had passed. Now, in it’s 7th year, Austin Fashion Week (or Fashion X Austin), has never looked better. The AFW 2015 line up includes indie and emerging designers from all over the country, star designers that have been featured on Lifetime Television’s hit show Project Runway All Stars, trunk shows and shopping events hosted by locals, runway shows featuring budding Austin-based designers and more.
We got a chance to talk sit with Matt Swinney to talk about the history behind Austin Fashion Week, what it means to the Austin and LGBT community, plans for the future and of course, what we can expect from AFW 2015.
LY: What is Austin Fashion Week?
MS: In 2009, I sold RARE Magazine and the Restaurant Week that was attached to the magazine. I loved the big promotional side of events and helping local retailers. Also, I needed a job. We have so many amazing designers in town and in my mind there was a lot of talent but no one had hugged it and put their arms around it. Fast forward six years later, going in our seventh fashion week and it’s really well respected from an emerging designer perspective. We’ve helped designers like Isabella Rose Taylor get legitimate, national press starting here in little old Austin.
We are not necessarily seen as a fashionable city , but we’re seen as a tastemaker city. This means fashion brands and lifestyle brands are now looking at us in a unique way.
LY: I have noticed that in addition to Austin Fashion Week, you also have Fashion X Austin and Fashion X Dallas. What are the differences?
The term “fashion week” comes with significance and also baggage. So, if I had it to do all over again, I’m not positive I would have named it Austin Fashion Week. There’s a perception that a fashion week equals wholesale buyers sitting in the front row and the reality is, that’s not really how the fashion business works anymore. It does on some level but for mid-size or small designers, that’s not really how the world turns for them. It’s so much more about the blogger community, the Courtney Kerrs of the world have so much more influence especially to the young consumer. It’s really interesting to see that shift and we just want to be on the front edge of that shift. While we have an event that lasts for a week, we really are the voice of the Austin fashion community 365 days a year. It’s our goal to make sure our designers, retailers, and fashion community are the forefront of the year round fashion conversation. When we expanded from Austin into Dallas, we started with this year round concept in mind and launched under the Fashion Fashion X Dallas (Fashion by Dallas). Funny what five or six years of experience will do for you (laughs)
LY: And true to keeping the mission going year round, you now have Fashion Xperts like Ann Kasper and Milton Doolittle. Tell us how these locals are involved with your new vision.
Fashion, to me at least, is head-to-toe and it’s your way of expressing style. In my mind, it’s whatever floats your boat and whatever makes you feel comfortable. I’ve seen lots of women dress conservatively and then bling it out with jewelry. For me, it’s the whole package. It’s funny, jewelry designers especially and accessory designers, less so – they’re kind of the black sheep of the fashion business, but at the end of the day, you’re not fully done until the whole thing is put together. So, yes, somebody like a Milton Doolitte of Benold’s Jewelers is important to fashion – and who doesn’t love diamonds? (laughs)
As for Ann, there are only a handful of people who have really significant fashion experience that live in Austin. I don’t. It’s not my background, I fully admit that on the daily basis. So having people like her here to be able to look at a designer and say “You’re talented, that’s fantastic, but now what? Can you turn this into an actual business?” is great.
LY: So your Fashion Xperts like Ann and Milton are there to support the growth of the designers?
I think in a lot of ways they are. It’s funny, there has been for years, a disconnect between the local designer and the local retailers. I think it’s that everybody lives in their own world and they kind of forget about what is right next to them sometimes. But if I’m Ross Bennett and I want a suit in a store, I have to develop a relationship with that store. Most these designers don’t run through sales reps yet, they haven’t reached that level so it’s really a one on one conversation. Milton is going to be 100% behind a small, local designer who reaches his customer and he’s also going to be willing to say, “You know what, you don’t reach my customer but you do reach Elizabeth’s customer or Eliza Page.” They nurture that young talent.
LY: We saw that you just received a proclamation from Mayor Adler for Austin Fashion Week. Is this because of the local impact on Austin?
It’s hard to measure. We’re not one of those industries where we have economic impact studies being done for us like music would. I sit on the Austin Creative Alliance Board and creatives make up 25% of local economy. Thats a huge number. And it’s the least talked about group. We talk about technology, we talk about government, we talk about UT, we talk about all those things and that’s fantastic but if all of those people, all of those creatives get up and leave, the city literally falls apart, I mean quite literally – 25% of your revenue comes in from that group. And we think of it as SX and we think of it as the ACL festival and that’s absolutely true, but there are all these other pieces that happen for the other 350 days a year. The same person going out to see live music is also really interested in supporting their local fashion designers, is interested in shopping local, is interested in X, Y, and Z. So, to me, it’s nice to have the city recognize us as a legitimate industry because I think it’s taken a really long time. I still hear, “Austin’s a bunch of people who wear shorts and flip flops.” Okay, first , it’s 1,000 degrees outside so it’s survival of the fittest. Second , that’s a microcosm of Austin Fashion. I don’t know about you guys, but over the last 5, 6, 7 years, I wander around and people here actually have a lot of style. Now, is it fashion? I don’t know. But stylish, absolutely.
MT: Tell us about the importance of the LGBT community within fashion week.
Obviously, the LGBT community plays a huge part because it’s a pretty fashionable community. By nature, it’s always been a community that comes to a lot of events and there’s a ton of gay designers. But Austin is such a supportive city. I’ve never been on your side of the fence but, at the same time, I can imagine it’s got to be 100 times easier here than most places and especially in Texas. So, I just see people that can just be themselves and flourish and are loved for that, that they are who they are. And I just don’t see, especially in the fashion world, anybody that gives a damn. And it’s nice.
“It’s just an inclusive community and I think the fashion business is really fun from that perspective.” – Matt Swinney
“It’s just an inclusive community and I think the fashion business is really fun from that perspective.” – Matt Swinney
It doesn’t just go to sexual orientation, it goes to race, it goes to all of those things. I know there’s an exodus. We’ve seen all the reports of the African American community leaving Austin and I look at our events and I think, this is actually more African American people than I see on a daily basis at our events. It’s just an inclusive community and I think the fashion business is really fun from that perspective. We think of it as these segmented groups but fashion is one of those groups that isn’t segmented really at all. And across gender lines too, for that matter. It’s still a little bit of a boys club at the highest levels of fashion, ironically. But like most of the young, emerging designers are actually women.
MT: Austin Fashion Week is going into it’s 7th year. In what ways have you seen Austin Fashion Week grow?
Massively. That very first year, we started it differently. It was a misnomer from day one. We started it as a retail driven event. So, it was a bunch of retail shops hosting local designers in store. It was basically just a series of trunk shows. We did that because we didn’t have any money and two, because it was 2009 and the economy was awful. Second Street District businesses were closing left and right and we were trying to drive traffic in. That worked but at some point, that’s not very interesting.
A lot of people in Austin have literally never been to a runway show before and so for us, it was really about education the people of Austin too. We had to really make the Austin community dip their toes in the water and understand what they’re seeing and make fashion not feel intimidating because it totally is. I get that. But what’s not to like? You like going to art galleries – how’s that different? Look at it through the lens of art.
We’re getting national press, we’re seeing big bloggers and editors paying attention to what we’re doing in Austin, we’re seeing these emerging designers that have real talent starting to turn the corner. Seeing those success stories, at the end of the day, outside of putting food on the table, is why we do it.
MT: What initially drew you to the idea of a fashion show?
I have zero fashion background so when I started this side of it, I came at it from a business standpoint, which has been really important because there are a lot of “fashion weeks” around the country that last for a couple years and then they fail. So, I wanted to take on the business side of it. I don’t know anything about the fashion business but I don’t really need to know anything about that. I’ll put people around me who understand that. I’ll run it as a business and if we do that, we can support these designers in ways that they don’t understand. That was sort of the original concept. I had so many friends who were running retail shops and a lot of them were failing and they were little designers who were having to work six jobs just to make their jewelry in their attic in the evenings. I saw the business opportunity and knew people who needed help. To me, that’s a pretty good place to start from and if you start there and figure out how to raise some money to get it paid for, then you’re off to the races.
MT: What can attendees expect from AFW 2015?
This year we actually backed off on our number of events. We’ve played with this over the years and last year was our apex. We produced some stupid number of events and what ends up happening is you’re kind of jack of all trades, master of none. So, we backed off and decided we’d do a kick off the first night. That’s really a social event more than anything. We do a Brunch on Saturday the 11th that benefits The Rise School of Austin, which is our partner nonprofit and that’s at Searsucker. Then, we move to Austin Music Hall on Thursday for three nights and that’s all runway. The first night is “Discover.” It is ten designers all from outside of Austin. So it’s our opportunity to bring talent from outside here that wants to reach our influence and crowd, but also a great opportunity for our designers, our fashion community and you and me to kind of see what happens elsewhere.
Friday night we do an event called Stars. We started this last year. We have great relationships with a lot of project runway contestant and our criteria is you either have had to won a season or been on All Stars, so Daniel [Esquivel] shows at that one, Jeffrey Sebelia, we’re bringing Melissa Fleis, she’s an LA designer, Amanda Valentine, she’s from Nashville, she got this very boho chic vibe about her. It’s a pretty star-studded event. The final night, which used to be the Austin Fashion Awards, [has been] rebranded and is called Finale. We will still give awards, but it’s not going to be the most important piece. We turned that final night into a celebration of local talent so it’s all Austin-based designers.
Interview by: Lynn Yeldell & Megz Tillman
Photos by: Devaki Knowles
For L Style G Style – storytellers of the Austin LGBT community.
For more information about each of the Austin Fashion week events and how to win a pair of VIP Tickets, check out these individual event pages:
AUSTIN FASHION WEEK: KICKOFF Friday, April 10
AUSTIN FASHION WEEK: DISCOVER Thursday, April 16
AUSTIN FASHION WEEK: STARS Friday, April 17
AUSTIN FASHION WEEK: FINALE Saturday, April 18