Tell us about your journey before Develop Model Management.
I was born and raised in Omaha and I actually started out being an avid volleyball player. I was six foot tall at a very young age. I ended up with bilateral stress fractures from playing too much volleyball and not having any muscle to support my legs. I had to quit and my parents were like, “What are we going to do with this tall, skinny thing?”
They put me into modeling. I still remember the day that I went to my first meeting. I was wearing boots and a sweatshirt; I had my hair in a ponytail and just wanted nothing to do with it because I was an athlete.
I started [modeling] at Nancy Bounds Studios and from there met my best friend Stephen Hall. He was the Director of the Women’s Board at Elite Model Management in Chicago. I called him up one day and asked him for a job. We always joked that I made him give me a job. I started out managing runway bookings. Then, I became the Director of New Faces, where I traveled the world trying to find new models, scout them, develop them, and put them on jobs. I thought I’d be there forever; it was a super cool job.
What led you back to Omaha?
One day, my mom called me out of the blue and said, “You know, I think you should move back home to be closer to the family and open your own agency.” At the time, she had been volunteering for Omaha Fashion Week. While I was away, she would send me the Omaha FASHION Magazines and keep me posted on what was going on.
She flew up to Chicago and we sat down and created a business plan in one weekend. I knew that in order for it to be successful, I would need to be involved in the community. At the time, I had been gone my entire adult life and the only people I knew in Omaha were my friends and family. I didn’t have any professional contacts, but I did have one name in my rolodex that I knew who happened to be Ms. Brook Hudson.
I still have the e-mail that I sent her saying, “I know this is out of the blue and you probably don’t remember me, but my name is Alyssa Dilts and I did your pageant training,” because I also taught at Nancy Bounds Studio, “when you were Miss Omaha before you became Miss Nebraska. I’m thinking about moving back here and opening an agency. Could I come to Omaha and have a meeting with you?” Brook goes, “Oh my gosh. Of course, I remember you!” She always jokes that I was her good luck charm and how she won Miss Nebraska, which is 100% not true.
We had lunch in Dundee and I told her my idea. I quit my job and relocated to Omaha in December of 2011. We took baby steps that very first season; I did some model training and partnered that way. In August of 2012, I was an official sponsor and Casting Director.
How has your partnership with Omaha Fashion Week evolved over time?
When I first started out, the partnership was about how I could get exposure to the agency and spread our name. It was a great opportunity for me to make that connection with Brook and have the agency put its best foot forward while OFW utilized my resume in a mutually beneficial way. Over the years, it has grown into a personal relationship. I had a very narrow point of view of what the agency was going to be when I opened here and it changed quickly.
Once I got into the community and involved with OFW, I saw the passion that Nick and Brook [Hudson] have for helping designers. There are a lot of people that don’t understand why OFW is free and accessible for designers and why hundreds of people volunteer their time for it. It is truly a community-based opportunity and event that is there to support local talent. Being able to feasibly have something that they can do in their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska to get to the next level to realize their dreams in these areas is why we do what we do. It’s for the people.
The evolution of our relationship…it was narrow at first and very quickly became full scope. That’s why I serve on the Fashion Arts Collective Board that the Hudsons created. We partnered together for Omaha Fashion Camp because it starts with the youngest of people, but we serve all ages and all aspects of the fashion community and give them opportunities.
How has the modeling industry in Omaha changed since you arrived?
I always joke it was like the Wild West coming in to Omaha. Models were not being paid for a lot of their work; they weren’t organized; they didn’t really have a voice. Certainly, they were such a huge part of our community and there was the want and the need, but they didn’t have that connection for someone to give them a voice collectively.
I remember times when the designers would all come to the castings and would fight to get their lists in first because that’s who got to work with those models. It didn’t promote a sense of unity. I think being an outsider and bringing the years of industry experience that I have from a larger market gave a new, fresh perspective when I came in.
How does Develop Model Management facilitate growth in the fashion industry?
I do believe it’s not about finding these established models. We want to find new models that need help to get experience to then mold them and show them what is possible and give them that launchpad to success, not only in our market but in other markets, as well.
We [Nebraska] don’t have a big fashion school. We don’t have a big enough industry to support people full-time other than if you work retail, right? The full-time opportunities are elsewhere and we want to give talent the experience that they need in order to be successful and competitive in those larger markets.
OFW and Develop are creating these opportunities for young people to grow and gain confidence. That’s what’s in our DNA as an agency. It’s about the development of the person, the relationship, and the opportunities that they get.
Develop Model, Katelyn Smith, recently walked for BOSS in Milan and on the NYFW Runway for Proenza Schouler. Katelyn began her career on the Omaha Fashion Week Runway and has since traveled the fashion scene with Develop Model Management.
Can you tell us about the progression of Katelyn’s career?
Katelyn is one of many, many successful models and we’re proud to tell her story because it is unique and crosses so many different points of our community. The very first time she graced the Omaha Fashion Week Runway was when she was involved in Nebraska’s 4-H program. She made a dress out of duct tape and modeled that. I met her at the agency during a Casting Prep Workshop and started representing her.
The thought was, even though she was still in school, we wanted to see if she would have a good launch into fashion in other markets. I had the privilege of chaperoning her in New York because she was underage. We must have gone to more than 20 different castings and multiple fittings. During the time that we spent together in New York, I got to know her as a person and she’s genuine, kind, hardworking, and hilarious. Nothing compares to seeing Katelyn’s face light up when she finished walking. I got to be the one that told her, “You booked this. We’re going to Milan next.” I got to see those reactions from her.
One of my career highlights was when we were standing backstage at the Proenza Schouler show while they were photographing looks and Anna Wintour is inches away from me. Literally, I shared the same air with her.
Last year when we were in Milan, it was such long hours that I flew my mom over to help. That was full circle with my mom being the one that saw this for me, because I didn’t see it at all.
What keeps you motivated as you navigate owning your own business?
There are highs and lows every day; that’s what comes with owning your own business. It’s finding the good moments, the ones that make you laugh or get you excited about the industry, that makes it all worth it. Those are the times that keep you going through the hard stuff.
Even sitting on my desk right now is a thank you note from a model I signed back in 2012; one of our very first models. She said, “Dear Alyssa, where do I begin? You’re such a blessing and bright light in my life. I wanted to take the time to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I would not be the woman I am today if it were not for you. I cannot wait to continue to make you proud in my next chapter of life. You mean more to me than I can put into words. Love your girl for life.”
There are the ones that are lifers, and those girls that will be a part of the agency and a part of my life forever because we’ve forged life-long friendships. What keeps me going are my models and the relationships I’ve built with them.