X marks the scene

Matt Swin­ney grew Austin’s fash­ion scene one Fash­ion X at a time.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - AUSTIN360 SUNDAY - By Ni­cole Vil­lal­pando nvil­lal­pando@states­man.com

Only in Austin could this story be true. A lo­cal boy grew up play­ing base­ball, got a de­gree in mar­ket­ing, sur­vived the tech bub­ble burst in Sil­i­con Val­ley, then came home to run a real es­tate mag­a­zine. He launched an Austin life­style mag­a­zine, which led to creat­ing a week cel­e­brat­ing Austin’s restau­rants, a mod­ern home tour and an Austin fash­ion week. He would spot­light a grow­ing fash­ion scene, and then spread that fash­ion week to other cities.

This is the story of Matt Swin­ney, founder of Fash­ion X, which is cel­e­brat­ing 10 years of creat­ing Austin fash­ion weeks.

While you can see hi mata Fash­ion X Austin or Hous­ton or Dal­las event wear­ing well-tai­lored suits by lo­cal de­sign­ers, in his of­fice in Al­lan­dale, he’s more likely to be wear­ing shorts and a T-shirt. He still drives a green Jeep, his third … or maybe fourth, and he re­mem­bers a time last cen­tury when you could get any- where in Austin in 15 min­utes and never worry about get­ting stuck in traf­fic or be­ing late — which he hates to be.

He loves the friend­li­ness of the Old Austin of his youth, of which he still can see el­e­ments, yet he’s em­braced the en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit of New Austin. He’s rein­vented him­self and ev­ery­thin g he’s done, and he has big plans to move Fashi on Xfor­ward while not los­ing its Austin roots or his own.

“It speaks vol­umes that he’s an Aus­ti­nite,” says de­signer Linda Asaf. “He has the her­itage of grow­ing up here.”

Be­com­ing Matt Swin­ney

Swin­ney, 43, and his wife, Kara, are “uni­corns,” he says. They’re na­tive Aus­tinites. They met in sev­enth grade at Martin Ju­nior High. He had trans­ferred

there from Pease Ele­men­tary School, which he at­tended be­cause his mom was a sin­gle mom work­ing down­town and Pease had free af­ter­school care. Kara Swin­ney was bused there. They were dat­ing by age 15 when they were at Austin High School.

“We’re those peo­ple,” he jokes.

Col­lege took Swin­ney to Trin­ity Univer­sity in San Antonio, where he got a de­gree in mar­ket­ing. He and Kara set­tled in Hous­ton, where she was in school study­ing phys­i­cal ther­apy (she’s now a prac­tic­ing phys­i­cal ther­a­pist at the Rise School), and he took a job with the firm Arthur An­der­sen, where he worked with tech clients. “I was one of a few peo­ple in the Hous­ton of­fice who was not in oil and gas,” he says. It might have been a good thing. It was 1998. Soon the En­ron scan­dal was be­gin­ning to un­fold in Hous­ton.

In 2000, he had a chance to re­lo­cate to San Fran­cisco and work for a new startup that cre­ated on­line auc­tion soft­ware. Money was be­ing thrown at new startup tech com­pa­nies with­out many ac­tual re­sults. Swin­ney rode out the wave of an of­fice that grew quickly and shrank just as quickly. Clients were promised tech­nol­ogy the com­pany couldn’t de­liver, and Swin­ney would have to clean up the mar­ket­ing mess left by some­one long gone. On one oc­ca­sion, he was flown to Lon­don to have the board of a com­pany yell at him about the soft­ware not work­ing. He was read the riot act, he says. “The whole time I’m sit­ting there think­ing, ‘If I can talk this guy off the ledge, why am I work­ing for some­one else?’”

Ev­ery­one in the Bay Area was be­ing laid off and ap­ply­ing for the same jobs at the time; the Swin­neys de­cided to come home to Austin.

Swin­ney’s fa­ther-in-law is a real es­tate at­tor­ney in Austin and was in­ter­ested in start­ing a lux­ury real es­tate mag­a­zine, For Sale by Owner. Swin­ney ran it for a few years, but he says “it didn’t fuel my blood.” Pub­lish­ing did, though. He thought there was a real need for a life­style mag­a­zine “that felt more like Austin” than what was avail­able at the time. He launched Rare.

“It did very well” ini­tially, he says.

He brought in a part­ner in 2006, then started Austin Restau­rant Week af­ter Kara Swin­ney vis­ited New York with friends and ex­pe­ri­enced that city’s restau­rant week.

The mag­a­zine and the restau­rant week were fun, but the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try was chang­ing, and his re­la­tion­ship with his part­ner was chang­ing. “It was no longer fun. ‘I’m out,’” he says. His part­ner bought him out and ran Rare and Austin Restau­rant Week for a few years be­fore both ended. (Cen­tral Texas Food Bank later re­launched Austin Restau­rant Week).

The next ven­ture

The lessons of Rare and Austin Restau­rant Week taught Swin­ney that he was re­ally good at pro­duc­ing events. He also knew he had a city full of sup­port­ers and hadn’t burned bridges in this town. “I can start some­thing else,” he re­mem­bers think­ing once the part­ner­ship ended.

He launched a new event com­pany, 787, with the idea of Austin Fash­ion Week, and found a new part­ner in Steven Tat­ton, who had Sure Fire Me­dia and Pro­mo­tions. The two met when Swin­ney booked some of the artists Tat­ton rep­re­sented for a Rare mag­a­zine event.

“He had a lot of ideas about busi­ness, and I had a lot of ideas about busi­ness, and the con­ver­sa­tions were easy,” Tat­ton says about his first meet­ings with Swin­ney. Tat­ton re­mem­bers that Swin­ney had a sense that the small spe­cialty mag­a­zine in­dus­try was go­ing to go away. “He was look­ing for the next best thing,” Tat­ton says.

“He started de­scrib­ing for me how a reg­u­lar fash­ion week would work and how an Austin Fash­ion Week would work,” Tat­ton says.

It would be geared to­ward bou­tique own­ers, and it would be done in a dead time of the year. Swin­ney knew he couldn’t com­pete with all of the es­tab­lished Austin events of spring and fall with this new event. In­stead he chose late July and early Au­gust. It was a cal­cu­lated risk be­cause now he was talk­ing about do­ing a red car­pet event in 100-de­gree heat, but me­dia out­lets look­ing for events to cover would no­tice it.

Tat­ton re­mem­bers that first event in 2009 at the Long Cen­ter and ev­ery­one pitch­ing in to move chairs. It had the feel of “let’s try it and see if it works,” Tat­ton says. Lead­ing up to it, there was a lot of doubt, Tat­ton says. “When you’re do­ing a new event, there’s al­ways a sense of, ‘Well, it might or might not work.’”

Swin­ney, how­ever, is an eter­nal op­ti­mist. “He’s one of those guys who has su­per­pow­ers that he’s not aware of,” says Lance Avery Mor­gan, editor of the So­ci­ety Diaries who was run­ning Bril­liant mag­a­zine when Swin­ney was run­ning Rare. “He’s en­thu­si­as­tic. He brings it to the run­way. He brings it to the de­signer, to the ven­dors, who want to be at­tached to his brand.”

As the first event hap-

pened, the bou­tique own­ers got be­hind Austin Fash­ion Week. “No one had taken an in­ter­est in them be­fore,” Tat­ton says. … “They showed up and their friends showed up.” As did some peo­ple re­ally in­ter­ested in high fash­ion.

Swin­ney says he made an ef­fort to spend the money he needed to make it look good, like there was a big bud­get. He didn’t want to be like other failed fash­ion weeks in other towns. That sce­nario plays out like this, Swin­ney says: A cou­ple of cre­ative friends get to­gether and de­cide to cre­ate a fash­ion week with lo­cal de­sign­ers. They try to at­tract spon­sor­ship and maybe a few lo­cal busi­nesses give them $1,000. Now they cre­ate a first-year event that doesn’t have the money be­hind it. The next year, the spon­sors don’t want to in­vest again in some­thing that doesn’t look right, Swin­ney says. “They can’t fig­ure out how to make money,” he says.

Tat­ton says Swin­ney was al­ways fo­cused on the busi­ness model — not just how to make the event suc­cess­ful, but how to earn money for the busi­ness, too. “I didn’t in­vest in Austin Fash­ion Week,” Tat­ton says. “I in­vested in Matt Swin­ney. He has some of the most dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion of any­body I’ve ever met.”

It hasn’t al­ways been rosy. “I’m not sure I knew what I was get­ting into,” Swin­ney says.

There was the year it rained in­side La Zona Rosa and one of the crew mem­bers had to wipe down the stage af­ter each time the pho­tog­ra­phers got their shots so that the mod­els in 6-inch heels wouldn’t slip and slide. And there was the show in which one of the de­sign­ers didn’t have half of their mod­els walk the run­way. Or the show in which the lights went out for about 20 sec­onds and the model stood frozen on stage, not sure what to do.

The early crit­ics re­minded Swin­ney that he had called it Austin Fash­ion Week and with that came the re­spon­si­bil­ity to rep­re­sent the town well and do it right. “It al­ways stuck with me,” he says. “I take it very se­ri­ously.”

Not every idea worked, ei­ther. “There were a lot of events we tried that didn’t move the nee­dle,” Tat­ton says, but those that did re­mained. Three years in, Tat­ton was able to sell his por­tion and move to Cal­i­for­nia to work for Ap­ple. By then, Swin­ney had other in­vestors.

It’s a busi­ness model that re­lies heav­ily on spon­sor­ships as well as ticket sales and de­sign­ers “pay­ing to play,” which is com­mon prac­tice. “I’m run­ning a busi­ness, not a non­profit,” Swin­ney says. “If you want to be a suc­cess­ful fash­ion de­signer, you’re go­ing to have ex­penses to mar­ket your prod­uct.”

De­sign­ers pay about $2,500 to par­tic­i­pate in a run­way show and about $400 to be part of the bou­tique. For that, they get mod­els, pro­duc­tion, mar­ket­ing and hair and makeup. He es­ti­mates it’s about one-tenth of what they would pay to do a small show in New York.

The show is cu­rated; not ev­ery­one gets in­vited to par­tic­i­pate, and oc­ca­sion­ally Swin­ney will pro­vide a schol­ar­ship for an up-and-com­ing de­signer he re­ally wants to give a shot to.

He and as­sis­tant Kylie Boll­witt will dis­cuss the po­ten­tial show par­tic­i­pants. Some­times they take a chance. The big­gest chance he re­mem­bers tak­ing was on Ni­cholas Nguyen with the line Mys­te­ri­ous by NPN. He sub­mit­ted a well-writ­ten ap­pli­ca­tion four years ago with just sketches, no ac­tual fin­ished de­signs. Swin­ney ques­tioned him about what the fab­ric was and how was he go­ing to have the de­signs made. Nguyen’s plan was to have his fam­ily in Viet­nam, who man­u­fac­ture cloth­ing for a liv­ing, cre­ate 10 looks.

They were amaz­ing when they showed up but had been made to fit a woman in Viet­nam, not the Amer­i­can mod­els walk­ing the run­way. Be­hind the stage, fel­low de­sign­ers helped Nguyen rip apart and put back to­gether his clothes to fit the mod­els.

“(De­sign­ers) have ego, but that ego gets checked at the door of the show,” Swin­ney says. They were all think­ing, “It could to­tally have been me,” he says.

Even with all the crazi­ness that is the back­stage at a fash­ion show, de­sign­ers know what they are go­ing to get with Swin­ney.

“He’s one of the few peo­ple who is con­sid­ered su­per trusted,” Asaf says. “You know he’s go­ing to do the right thing. He has great in­tegrity, he’s con­sis­tent. He’s a su­per pro, and you know that if you work with him, you’re go­ing to have a great ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Swin­ney uses his knowl­edge of me­dia and trans­lates it to fash­ion, Mor­gan says. “He un­der­stands how (de­sign­ers) work and how they evolve. In the style and fash­ion world, things can be a lit­tle finicky.”

Where do we go from here?

Five years af­ter the first show, Swin­ney felt like Austin Fash­ion Week was do­ing well enough that he could start mov­ing it to a more de­sir­able time of year — spring­time. He also be­gan to ex­plore do­ing it in Dal­las, where a Dal­las Fash­ion Week had been done be­fore, but the name had a bad stigma that needed to be over­come.

He made the bold move to call it Fash­ion X Dal­las and also change Austin Fash­ion Week to Fash­ion X Austin (though the Austin Fash­ion Week name has been hard to shake). He worked with lo­cal Dal­las folks to bring a show that was right for Dal­las.

Two years ago, he ex­panded to Hous­ton. “Even though they rep­re­sent each city, there’s al­ways an un­der­cur­rent of Austin,” Mor­gan says.

This past sum­mer, while tak­ing 8-year-old son Cash­ion on a tour of Ma­jor League ball­parks, Swin­ney put to­gether a busi­ness plan to find new in­vestors so he can ex­pand to an­other 10 cities in the next five years. He’s also ex­panded Fash­ion X Austin to in­clude fall events, in­clud­ing an up­com­ing show to high­light South Asian de­sign­ers and an­other show for dog fash­ion.

“We know how to scale it,” he says of fash­ion week.

Yet Swin­ney’s heart will al­ways be in his home­town and its fash­ion scene. The Austin fash­ion in­dus­try has grown up with Austin Fash­ion Week.

Swin­ney has worked with the city, state and State Depart­ment to bring at­ten­tion to the in­dus­try, to bring new ideas and tech­nol­ogy here.

It’s a move that has paid off. Austin Com­mu­nity Col­lege now has a fash­ion in­cu­ba­tor that is pair­ing tech­nol­ogy with fash­ion to try new things. “We’re poised to be­come one of the lead­ers in the con­ver­gence be­tween fash­ion and tech­nol­ogy,” Asaf says. “Matt is a big part of it.”

“He’s the main per­son in this in­dus­try in Austin to pro­mote in­de­pen­dent fash­ion de­sign­ers,” Asaf says. While there’s a lot of en­trepreneur­ship and cre­ativ­ity in Austin, fash­ion of­ten has been over­looked, she says.

Swin­ney of­ten serves as a con­nec­tor be­tween new de­sign­ers and ex­pe­ri­enced de­sign­ers who can guide the new ones in the in­dus­try and how to get their cloth­ing made. For many Austin de­sign­ers, he says, cloth­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers think, “You’re at point A, you need to get to point D be­fore you can talk to me.”

Part of the key of Fash­ion X’s longevity was get­ting de­sign­ers and bou­tique own­ers on­board early on, pro­mot­ing them and con­nect­ing them to fu­ture clients.

Austin, he says, has a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of peo­ple who are will­ing to pay $89 in­stead of $59 for a blouse to be able to form a re­la­tion­ship with a de­signer. They like the idea that they are sup­port­ing a lo­cal en­trepreneur and wear­ing some­thing that not ev­ery­one else has.

That sup­port has trans­lated into the Swin­neys’ own clos­ets. For shows, Kara will usu­ally wear some­thing made by some­one show­ing that night. Swin­ney’s choices are more lim­ited be­cause of the smaller num­ber of de­sign­ers work­ing in menswear, but he of­ten finds him­self turn­ing to League of Rebels or Ross Ben­nett.

His daugh­ter, Sadie, 11, has taken classes at Austin School of Fash­ion De­sign and showed cloth­ing on the run­way. He says she “comes by (fash­ion) hon­estly. We’re not push­ing her.”

An­other key to Fash­ion X is chang­ing it up each year. He takes a chance on new de­sign­ers and asks fre­quent de­sign­ers to try some­thing new, like the time he got all the de­sign­ers to de­sign in white, which was a chal­lenge for de­signer Gail Cho­van, who up to that point had only de­signed in black. She em­braced it and later did an all-white col­lec­tion.

“It’s all about what’s on that run­way and the qual­ity and each de­signer’s vi­sion and choice of what they put on the model’s body,” Mor­gan says. “It all re­ally cor­re­sponds to the vibe of each de­signer. … Matt re­ally un­der­stands how dif­fer­ent they are and em­braces that.”

He’s also tapped new au­di­ences by creat­ing Style Set­ters three years ago to honor stylish Aus­tinites, sup­port their fa­vorite char­ity and get them to in­vite their friends to sup­port them at that run­way show.

As it’s grown, Fash­ion X Austin has out­grown venues or venues be­come un­avail­able, which cre­ate new op­por­tu­ni­ties to do some­thing dif­fer­ent each year. “It keeps it fresh, it keeps it hap­pen­ing,” Mor­gan says. “The first year is so dif­fer­ent than now. It’s like a 1-yearold and a 10-year-old. They’re a dif­fer­ent hu­man be­ing.”

It’s al­ways chang­ing, al­ways evolv­ing, with Matt Swin­ney help­ing it ma­ture to be bet­ter than even he imag­ined.


Fash­ion X pays at­ten­tion to find­ing mod­els who don’t all look the same.


Fash­ion X Austin’s Matt Swin­ney watches the run­way at a 2013 Austin Fash­ion Week show.


Each venue and each de­signer brings a new el­e­ment to Fash­ion X shows.

Matt Swin­ney gets to wear a dif­fer­ent look for each Fash­ion X show.


Part of the chal­lenge of Fash­ion X is trans­form­ing dif­fer­ent venues into a fresh show.

Each year the venues change and the de­sign­ers change, but the so­cial scene at Fash­ion X con­tin­ues to grow.

Matt Swin­ney didn’t come to Fash­ion X with knowl­edge of fash­ion, so he’s re­lied on oth­ers to give him that back­ground.

Kara and Matt Swin­ney first met in sev­enth grade and have been dat­ing since they were 15.

Every show is dif­fer­ent in Fash­ion X.

Matt Swin­ney brings his en­thu­si­asm to every event.

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