Growing up in eastern Colorado, Stephanie Ohnmacht started sewing her own clothes at an early age, hoping the outfits she made looked so professional that her teacher wouldn’t know they were handmade.
“I had my one outfit that I was super proud of,” Ohnmacht recalled. “And the teacher was like ‘Oh, did you make that?’ And I was so disappointed because I didn’t want the teacher to even have thoughts that maybe I would have made it because it looked so good and cool.”
Ohnmacht’s outfits have become more sophisticated since then and now appear in stores and on runways under her Stephanie O. ready-to-wear label, which she launched in 2010. Last year Ohnmacht, 39, appeared in the Tim Gunn reality show “Under the Gunn,” and this year she’ll be one of the featured designers at the Urban Nights fashion show Aug. 22.
The fashion show, now in its third year, benefits Urban Peak, an organization that helps homeless youths in Denver.
Ohnmacht spoke about her upcoming fall collection, managing the business side of a clothing line and whether she thinks it’s possible to be a full-time fashion designer in Denver.
Q: How would you describe your design style?
A: Tailored and feminine are the two big ones for me. It’s for the everyday woman, so you’re not going to see anything crazy from me. If it wouldn’t look good on me, I’m most likely not going to sell it to you either. I am kind of my own muse in that aspect.
Q: You were on Tim Gunn’s reality show, “Under the Gunn” last year. Are there any lessons you took away from that experience?
A: You know there’s a couple lessons from it that I still try to implement. One lesson was, if you’re not going to wear it, you shouldn’t design it, right? It seems like such common sense but sometimes you get into trying the push the boundaries that you kind of lose your perspective.
At the end of the day, it came down to the people I met and stories of where people came from to get there. We’re still friends, all the cast members. We talk on e-mail and Facebook. So actually I’m learning from them now about how they’re managing their businesses, what they’re doing, that kind of thing even more so than what I got out of the show.
Q: You’ve maintained a full-time job ever since you started your clothing line. (Ohnmacht works in the engineering department of a telecommunications company.) Why have you kept this job?
A: The clothing business is a very expensive business that doesn’t pay back quickly. The minute you put money into it, you may make that sale but you need that sale to pay for the next thing and the next thing, and the next thing always costs more than the last thing cost. Without having a full-time job to help pay for it, I probably would have quit earlier because I would have had to — it wouldn’t have been worth it. But I have the job to put the money into it so I can keep it going longer and help it grow organically.
Most fashion businesses, it’s either one of two things: They have an instant success on their first collection and everything’s awesome, or it takes them five to seven years to become something. And during those five to seven years, you have to create your collections every year with low sales and so you certainly feed the beast. And the goal is that hopefully it will pay back at some point.
Q: Do you think it’s possible to be a full-time fashion designer in Denver?
A: I get a lot of naysayers who keep asking me when I’m going to move. But I’m like, ‘I don’t have to move. I can do this.’ And my full intention is to always stay in Denver and do it in Denver. I believe it’s possible. Ten years from now I may tell you I was crazy. But I believe it’s possible, and I’m working to achieve that. And there are brands that have figured out how to make it work. The whole business is a lot about tenacity and perseverance, and you keep trying and trying and trying. So that’s what I’m doing.
Q: What are your thoughts on the state of the fashion community in Denver?
A: The community is getting bigger. It’s always been a very supportive community. So as it’s gotten bigger, that hasn’t really changed. There is more infrastructure to help support them with the Denver Design Incubator, the Fashion Design Center. There were four new factories that came up just last year.
The community is not only growing, it’s also become more of a community because there are more venues in which people can talk to each other. So there are events going on or other things going on where it gets the community together so you don’t feel like a loner out there trying to do something that can feel completely impossible some days.
Q: You’re debuting your fall collection at Urban Nights. How would you describe the new collection?
A: I would say it’s probably my most modern take on the tailored, feminine look. It’s got a lot of the textures I love. It’s architectural; it’s textural in the fabrics that I use. It’s just more modern and maybe more fashion-forward than my previous collections.
Q: Do you have any previous experience with Urban Peak?
A: I was a volunteer with Metro Volunteers in 2001. And as a volunteer with them, I chose to lead a project every month at Urban Peak to make dinner for homeless teens. So for three years, one night a month I had a group of 10 volunteers make dinner for the kids at Urban Peak. It’s kind of cool that I’ve come full circle doing another fundraiser event, just in a different way, for Urban Peak.
Jessica Iannetta: 303-954-1510, email@example.com twitter.com/JessicaIannetta
URBAN NIGHTS Now in its third year, the fashion show will feature nine Colorado designers: Karen Holloway of Infernal Contraptions Apparel, Amy Cabrera of Lotti Clothing, Eve Jenkins of Parasite Eve, Andrea Li Jewelry, Stephanie Ohnmacht of Stephanie O., Mona Lucero, Andreas Tsagas of A. Tsagas Fur & Leather, Gabriel Cisco Edina of Yocisco and Francis Roces of KimonoDragons and Frank & Stein Co. Also participating are retailers Goldyn, Garbarini, Suitsupply and Common Era.
Tickets for cash bar and general admission beginning at 7:30 p.m. are $75; VIP admission with a patron party, hors d’oeuvres and hosted bar is $250 and begins at 6:30 p.m.; patron tables are $2,500; young professional tables for those under 40 are $1,500. The fashion show program begins at 8 p.m.; after party at 10 p.m.
Mile High Station, 2027 Old W. Colfax Ave., Denver, Aug. 22, urbannightsdenver.org