Hollywood & Mind: This NYFW Designer Is Making Mental Health Advocacy Fashionable

In 2019, during a Milan Fashion Week show that featured Gucci models strutting down the runway in what looked like haute couture straitjackets, model Ayesha Tan Jones walked the runway with her palms raised in protest. A message was written on them: “Mental health is not fashion.”

Fast forward three years, and a show during the just concluded new york fashion week flipped the narrative, intertwining fashion and mental health advocacy in a way that aimed to honor and raise awareness of mental wellness, both inside and outside the industry.

Entitled Break Free, the program featured a collective of designers: LadyCatzephyr, Jacqueline City Clothes, love disorder, wu-sah, and Adorn Your Clothes—and models. Among them, breast cancer survivor Christine Handy walked for Nyman with her mastectomy scars on display. Disability activist and model Janira Obregón, who had cerebral palsy, rolled down the runway in a chair. TikTok models and sisters Sarah and Emily Stone-Francati walked in support of Emily’s life with Down syndrome.

“We had people who had never spoken publicly about their fight against substance use disorders and their mental health problems, who were able to find a new courage to do so through the showcase and through this platform”, says Alexandra Nyman, organizer of Break. Free who designs under the name of LadyCat. Inspired by her brother who lives with bipolar II disorder, Nyman has spent years merging her dual passions to raise awareness of mental health and design.

“For me, that’s the big win, and that’s the whole purpose of this: to create a community of creatives, designers, models, viewers and journalists to be able to share their authenticity.”

Cosponsored by Recovery Centers of AmericaBreak Free sold out its more than 250 seats and secured a large donation to 10,000 beds, which raises funds to send people suffering from substance abuse to rehabilitation centers. The stand-alone showcase served a variety of colorful mocktails; its soundtrack included that of Anberlin stranger waysPVRIS’ My death and of Wrabel The villagewhich Nyman says “embodies everything the show stands for.”

In fact, every aspect of the February 14 program was based on promoting wellness and mental recovery. For the participating designers, “I wanted to make sure they had a connection to mental health or substance use disorders, whether they had a loved one who suffered or they personally did or their brand was donated to an organization, or it was a core value of their brand,” says Nyman.

During the model selection process, “we asked them to share a personal story about their connection to the show’s mission, and that was taken into account,” he says.

Nyman describes her own showcase, titled Therapy Revisited, as a nod to both her brother and her own mental health journey. “It was about coming to terms with my own mental health issues and realizing, Alex, you have an anxiety disorder, you have depression,” she says. “A lot of times when I’m designing, I try to communicate where I am in terms of my mental health.”

Break Free has received a bit of press coverage, and Nyman is the subject of an upcoming documentary from Zillard Productions. Until now, though, Nyman hasn’t heard from anyone in the fashion industry outside of her show.

“I haven’t heard of the CFDA, and I don’t think I will,” he says of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. His biggest hope is that individual designers start to get closer.

“It would be great to hear other designers speak out in support of mental health awareness and talk about substance use disorders within the industry, especially since there is such a huge stigma within the industry,” he says.

“I think there are designers who are really doing their best to break the noise. we have the Christian Syrians of this world, the brandon maxwells of this world who are actually using their platforms and their voices to bring about the change they would like to see. And then there are the designers who simply follow the traditional model. So it has been and so it will be.”

Nyman is adamant that things have to change, and plans to take Break Free on tour to other cities and shows.

She cites Dr. Deni Carise, scientific director of Recovery Centers of America, who got hooked on drugs during her modeling career in the ’80s. Carise returned to the runway for Break Free. “She took 20 years to be able to return to the runway. She never thought that she would have the chance to walk in New York Fashion Week”.

And he points to designer Kate Spade, who took her own life in 2018.

“He was days away from going to a behavioral health facility after his sister had been begging him to come and he was going with her to get treatment for her mental health disorder. And Kate felt that because of her brand, which was no longer her property but had her name on it, because it evoked so much joy and tenderness, she couldn’t reach out for help,” says Nyman, who is also an editor at head of Soberocity, an organization. that connects people living a sober life.

“As a society we have to keep evolving. I have seen the power of sharing experiences and showing others that you are not alone. There’s a lot of power in that and we need to do it in the fashion industry.”

Acknowledging that “the door has been opened,” Nyman says she is open to collaborations of all kinds.

“Anyone in the design world who has been affected by addiction and mental health, I would love to hear from you, talk to you and partner with you. Keeping the conversation going… that’s the most important thing at the end of the day.”

Hollywood & Mind lives at the intersection of entertainment and wellness, featuring interviews with musicians, actors, athletes and other cultural influencers who are elevating conversations about mental health.

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