Interview: Matt Swinney, Founder of Austin Fashion Week

In just five days, little ol’ Austin, Texas will throw its very first Fashion Week. From July 13-19, local salons, designers, boutiques, and lounges will host a movable feast of fashionable wares, complete with trunk shows and a local Fashion Awards ceremony. Like SXSW, the events are all over town and the schedule is pretty damn extensive, with stores and designers debuting new lines and hosting sample sales. In true Austin fashion, our vintage stores will be a big part of the festivities, which sets us apart from Fashion Weeks elswhere in the world.

AFW’s founder, Matt Swinney, was kind enough to pop by Austin Eavesdropper to dish on all the haps.

1. First things first, Matt: What are you wearing?

Seriously? Actually, I’m wearing uber-preppy plaid shorts and a very stinky polo shirt, because the glamour side of this job is getting to distribute Fashion Week pocket guides and posters to hundreds of people in 100+ degree heat. Loads of fun.

2. Matt, you’re the founder of Rare Magazine as well as Austin Restaurant Week. Tell us about your background in those capacities, and how they prompted you to start Austin Fashion Week?

Rare certainly gave me the connections to even THINK about being able to pull this off. I’m so proud of my time there and the relationships I’ve built — some days, it literally makes me a little verklempt to think about the quality of human beings I get to work with on a day-to-day basis. I should probably tell them more often, but the level of respect I have for boutique and salon owners, along with the local artists that make things like Fashion Week possible, is through the roof. Restaurant Week gave me the confidence to know that I have the ability to pull off a huge-scale event, and Austin Fashion Week is certainly that.

3. How long has Austin Fashion Week been in the works? Were there any early conversations that inspired you to take this on?

You know, not as long as you’d think probably. Working on Austin Restaurant Week and helping to make that successful gave me an understanding of what it takes to pull off similar events (on a scale perspective). I’ve always wanted to do a big event driving tons of foot-traffic into local boutiques. In Austin, the sheer number of local boutiques and salons here is unlike any other American city, on a per capita basis. People need to not forget to walk in the doors of those retailers, lest they’re not there when you really need them. Doing this in a down economy is even more important in my mind.

4. This next statement is going to shock a lot of people: Austin, Texas is different than New York City. It’s even more different than Milan and Paris. Why did you feel it was important for Austin to have its own Fashion Week?

Austin doesn’t equal New York? I don’t believe you! Kidding aside, I think most people from so-called “cosmopolitan” cities like the ones you mentioned probably don’t even register Austin as a “fashion” city, and those that do probably look down their noses at us. But, so what? I KNOW designers in Austin, I KNOW boutique owners, I KNOW salon owners, and you know what? They have more talent in their pinky fingers than most people, so who cares if we’re just a small little hick town in the middle of Texas? For me, it’s about educating every Austinite about the level of talent here. I’m not saying we necessarily WANT to be any of those cities you mention (we don’t), but how are we ever going to get there without trying to raise the bar by having our own version of Fashion Week?

5. How do you see Austin, Texas fitting into a larger fashion community?

It absolutely fits. See Kendra Scott. See Anthony Nak. See Cat Swanson. See Jenny Hart. See Jen Perkins. See Austin Craft Mafia. ALL of these talented men and women (and many others) have put us on the map.

I’ve had people ask me to define “fashion in Austin.” What I love about it is that we are fashionable almost because of our lack of fashion. For us (I’m speaking generally), it’s not about what’s “hot” or “in.” For us, it’s about what we feel comfortable in. Hell, it’s 1000 degrees here, so of course we’re going to wear flip flops to work! That doesn’t mean we don’t have fashion. It just means we’re comfortable throwing a $5 vintage tee with a $300 pair of jeans. I think that’s admirable. When I’m in Dallas, I have friends that literally would not walk out of the house in a baseball cap on and no makeup. Here? That’s Saturday at Kerbey Lane with all the “fashionistas” of Austin. In Dallas? That’s not “fashion” — that’s WORK!

6. How will our fashion week be different than other, older fashion weeks elsewhere in the world?

Well, most Fashion Weeks are about celebrating big-name designers and new collections through fashion shows. While I think that’s something that we’ll do in the future, the big downside to that is it doesn’t get people moving through the fabulous boutiques. For me, it’s important to introduce designers AND boutiques and salons.

7. Who are some of the special guests that will be present at AFW?

Kayne from Season 3 of Project Runway will show some pieces from his newest collection at the Austin Fashion Awards. We’ll also be hosting 6 designers who just finished up in the Fashion Merchandising School at UT. There’s another REALLY big surprise guest that I can’t tell you about yet, but I can tell you there will be a seriously cool pop up shop coming to town the 2nd half of Fashion Week. The lovely and incredibly talented Jenny Hart from Sublime Stitching will emcee the Fashion Awards show.

8. What are the big highlights of AFW that people absolutely should not miss?

Oh gosh. I think the Fashion Awards are going to be ridiculous. I think it will be a party people talk about until next year’s show. I think the pop up shop (to be named soon) is a can’t miss. And, I just hope that people look at the entire events list and really make an effort to support as many of these participants as they can. They’re just too talented as a group.

9. Who are some of the people and companies in Austin that are helping to make AFW possible?

The 2nd Street District has been an amazing partner. The retailers in the District have really stepped up to make Fashion Week possible. All of our media partners are amazing, but specifically Mix 94.7 and Time Warner — they’ve both been with me through thick and thin. The newest addition to our team (by “team” I mean Launch787 and Clink) is the Wyatt Brand. David and Kristen and their team have been immensely helpful through this process.

10. Give us a brief sneak preview of the AFW Red Carpet Fashion Awards.

Alpha Rev. The Octopus Project. Mike Relm (have you checked him out? seriously). UT Fashion Designers. Kayne. Jenny Hart. The Soldier Thread. Ume. All in Dell Hall at the Long Center? That sounds like a PARTY to me. Ever wanted to go to the Grammys? The Oscars? Well, think of this as our version of those….we’ll try to live up to that!