September is all about fashion, fashion, fashion. There’s a fashion week in New York, a fashion week in London, a fashion week in Milan, and a fashion week in Paris, each occurring right after the previous, a phenomenon sweeping what seems to be everyone’s TikTok and Instagram feeds.
But September is also the month dedicated to National Suicide Prevention Awareness, and with some of the great designers of our time – Alexander McQueen, for example — falling victim to suicide, the fashion industry is not exempt from the conversation.
Designer Alexandra Nyman wants to lead it.
As the Editor-in-Chief of Soberocity, a platform dedicated to sober living, and the designer of her own brand LadyCat, Nyman is marrying her passions for both worlds — mental health and fashion — with her groundbreaking fashion show event, Break Free NYFW.
“For me, one of the most profound things is being able to be an outlet for people to share their stories and their experiences and to help them feel empowered,” Nyman told Out. “It’s hearing the stories of others who have gotten to the other side that makes the most impact.”
On Saturday, September 10 (World Suicide Prevention Day), designers, activists, models, and educators all came together in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to break free from mental health stigma and open up a discussion on suicide prevention and substance abuse.
The showcase featured four designers, each with their own unique tie to the cause: Project Runway’s Helen Castillo; mental health and body positivity activist Renee Cafaro; up-and-coming designer Ashley Alt; and Brooklyn-based designer Dynasty Casanova.
“I’ve shown at New York Fashion Week, and many show experiences felt so exhausting and overstimulating,” Castillo said. “I felt the opposite at Break Free, everyone, including the models and volunteers, were there to encourage one another.”
Nyman was first introduced to the importance of mental health awareness when she saw her brother struggle with it firsthand, a byproduct of growing up gay in an ultra-conservative Christian family.
Prior to realizing she, herself, was bisexual, Nyman recalls her priest's solution for “gayness” was a tale as old as time: a form of “pray away the gay.”
“As long as you fight those urges, the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is still yours,” she said of her priest’s teachings. “But if you act on them, the fiery depths of hell will, unfortunately, take you away.”
So as it goes with many LGBTQ+ youths discovering themselves in über religious settings, Nyman’s brother quickly found himself in a dark place — one that led to multiple suicide attempts.
“He felt this overwhelming sense of dread that wouldn’t go away,” Nyman shared. “And this led to his first major attempt,” a tragically common outlet for LGBTQ+ folks lacking support. (According to Save.org, LGBTQ+ people are eight times more likely to attempt suicide if they are lacking support amongst family and friends.)
Luckily, Nyman’s brother had her.
“In our small town in Pennsylvania, there really weren’t any services for this. That’s kind of how I got thrust into learning about mental health.”
In addition to educating herself, Nyman looked to fashion as a form of healing, creating a collection that would help fundraise for The Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to suicide prevention among LGTBQ+ youth.
“It got me thinking– What if I was able to do my own showcase, using the voices of designers and models, and we were able to put together a scholarship program to send individuals to a rehabilitation center?”
Fast forward to Saturday, and her ‘what ifs’ became a reality with her second NYFW event, this time, honoring September as National National Recovery Month and National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
As an inclusive space for both fashion lovers and those affected by mental health struggles, all of the event’s proceeds went to the Break Free Foundation’s scholarship fund in partnership with 10,000 Beds, a nonprofit dedicated to recovery and to help those seeking treatment for substance abuse.
Nyman’s call to action for others in the industry is simple: “Walk the talk.”
“Everyone and their mother loves to support mental health in May. And then we also see it in June when everyone makes their Facebook profile rainbow,” Nyman said. “I would like to see more designers, more brands actually, authentically care, to really walk their talk.”