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Out & About: Showman Matt Swinney promotes modernism, fashion and more

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Matt Swinney, founder of the Austin Modern Home Tour, Austin Fashion Week, Austin Restaurant Week and Launch787

Event developer Matt Swinney had no intention of promoting modernism.

Yet all of a sudden, the founder of Austin Fashion Week, Austin Restaurant Week and Launch787 is among the nation’s most prolific pushers of the clean-lined building style.

His Austin Modern Home Tour, started just two years, already has expanded to 24 cities from Portland, Ore., to St. Petersburg, Fla., and from Minneapolis to New Orleans.

“The biggest surprise is that we can do it,” Swinney, 37, says. “The reality is that our timing is good. Modern architecture is back in the forefront of popular imagination.”

Trim and subtly stylish, Swinney comes from a split home in more ways than one. His father, showman Mike Swinney, runs London-based Hyper Entertainment, which promotes site-based entertainment projects. His mother, Diane Mathews Swinney, is a certified public accountant.

“She’s the rooted, grounded type,” her son says. “She’s the one who picked a stable career.”

Swinney’s sister went the stable route, too, becoming a nurse. “The apple didn’t fall far from either tree,” Swinney jokes.

Athletic but introverted, he, too, played things safe before heading to Trinity University in San Antonio.

“I didn’t become comfortable in my own skin until college,” he says. “The words ‘risk averse’ were deleted from my vocabulary. I became more like my dad.”

After college, he headed to the Bay Area to work for a startup software company. In 2000, he married his high school sweetheart, now Kara Tingley Swinney, a pediatric physical therapist. They have two young children.

After the tech bubble burst, the future promoter caught the media bug working on his father-in-law’s real estate magazine. After selling his stake, Swinney started Rare magazine in 2005. Comparisons to the oblong-shaped Tribeza were inevitable.

“If I had to do it all over again I’d changed the shape,” he says. “We chose the shape because it was cost effective, not because we wanted to compete directly with Tribeza. We wanted a younger, more downtown magazine. Tribeza felt very West Austin then.”

Rare was a hit with the fast urban set, but it was tough finding advertisers geared to that tribe. After the economy tanked in 2008, he sold Rare to his then-business partner, Taylor Perkins, along with another of his creations, Restaurant Week, which promoted local eateries during a slow time of year through low-cost prix fixe menus. A few proceeds went to a nonprofit.

Swinney’s next business, events developer Launch787, was immediately confused with Do512.

“They list events,” Swinney gasps at the old confusion. “We do events!”

Nothing he had promoted would compare to the scale of Austin Fashion Week, set in motion during July 2009. The first long week was packed with events, including runway shows, leading up the Austin Fashion Awards, which improved vastly as it moved from the Long Center for the Performing Arts to ACL Live then to the Austin Music Hall over the years.

Along the way, his team collaborated with modeling agent Justin Brown, jewelry maker Kendra Scott, salon owner Allen Ruiz and radio personality J.B. Hager, as well as with major national designers and photographers.

Early on, Fashion Week appeared to compete with Tribeza’s Style Week.

“They were none too happy,” he says of Tribeza’s owners. “But it wasn’t intentional. I think what (they) have done is great. There’s a lot to go around.”

Swinney kicked off his event in August — against virtually no competition on the social scene — but he’s moving Fashion Week to May in 2013.

“We always planned on making a profit in year five,” he says “It’s getting there. It made a couple of nickels that we could rub together this year. I think it makes other people money. It has helped establish fashion as a realistic industry in Austin.”

The Austin Modern Home Tour came next in January 2010. He partnered with real estate broker Krisstina Wise of the Good Life Team and Ingrid Spencer, former managing editor of Architectural Record.

“Ingrid brought the houses in,” Swinney says. “Architects trusted her. And it became easier when we showed them that we weren’t going to destroy their houses.”

Austin already hosted multiple home tours. Yet there seemed to be a hunger for more.

“They’ll tell you that they want to get ideas for their own houses,” Swinney says. “At the end of the day, people love poking their noses in other people’s houses. I’m the same way. People want to know how the other half — any other half — lives.”

In June 2011, Swinney expanded the modern tour to Houston. He doesn’t bother with insider distinctions between modern, contemporary and mixed-traditional styles.

“I’m not a purist,” he says. “It’s not a museum tour. (It’s) still a way to allow the general public to see incredibly beautiful works of art and (get) inside the brains of people who create it.”

Literary leader switches positions

Clay Smith, who has been the literary director of the Texas Book Festival since 2005, told board members last week that he will be leaving the position and going to work as an editor for Kirkus Reviews.

“I really miss journalism,” Smith says. “At a time when some people say that journalism is fracturing or even falling apart, I can’t wait to get back to it.”

As literary director, Smith was the key person who worked with publishers to bring more than 250 authors to Austin each year for the festival. His role was, in essence, to help curate the festival and its content.

“It’s honestly not that difficult to get a crowd for a Paula Deen or a Tony Danza,” he says. “Yet it’s those writers who not enough people pay attention to and who got large crowds at the festival, that’s what I’m most proud of.”

Earlier this year, Lidia Agraz replaced longtime festival executive director Heidi Smith. Clay, who plans to live in Austin, leaves the festival with some advice for his successors.

“Some writers need hand-holding, and that’s part of the job,” he says. “Writers are used to being alone for the most part. Some of them are not entirely used to the spotlight.”

One more thing: “I want (my successors) to remember that this has become a national festival, but it was founded to showcase Texas writers. We have writers that are not invited by the Miami or Los Angeles festivals. It’s important that they are appreciated and get the spotlight. It makes sense to me and to the writers.”