Models, from left to right: Nicole Yuengling, Gabby Fe, and Janice MacGregor”
Break Free, a runway show collective of designers — LadyCat, Zephyr, Jacqueline City Apparel, 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. Disabilities activist and model Janira Obregon, 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 have never spoken publicly about their struggle with substance use disorders and their mental health struggles, who have been able to find new courage to do so through the showcase and through this platform,” says Alexandra Nyman, the organizer and founder of Break Free who designs under the LadyCat moniker. Inspired by her brother who lives with Bipolar Disorder Type II, Nyman has spent years melding her dual passions for elevating mental health awareness, and designing.
“For me, that’s the huge win, and that’s the whole purpose of this — to create a community of creatives, designers, models, spectators and journalists to be able to share themselves authentically.”
Co-sponsored by Recovery Centers of America, Break Free sold out its 250-plus seats and secured an ample donation to 10,000 Beds, which raises funds to send individuals suffering from substance abuse to rehabilitation centers.
Every aspect of the February 14th show was rooted in advocacy for mental wellbeing and recovery. For the participating designers, “I wanted to make sure they had a connection to either mental health or substance use disorders, whether it be they had a loved one that suffered or that they personally did or their brand either donated to an organization, or it was a core value of their brand,” Nyman says. During the casting process for the models, “We asked them to share a personal story about their connection to the mission of the showcase and that was taken into consideration,” she notes.
Nyman describes her own showcase, titled Therapy Revisited, as a nod to both her brother, and her own mental health journey. “This was about me coming to terms with my own mental health issues and realizing, Alex, you do have an anxiety disorder, you do have depression,” she says. “A lot of times when I’m designing I’m trying to communicate where I am in terms of my mental health.”
Break Free has received a smattering of press coverage, and Nyman is the subject of an upcoming documentary from Zillard Productions. Thus far, though, Nyman hasn’t heard a peep from anyone in the fashion industry outside of her show.
“I haven’t heard anything from the CFDA, and I don’t think I will,” she says of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Her greater hope is that individual designers begin to reach out.
“It would be great to hear from other designers to speak up in support of mental health awareness and to speak up about substance use disorders within the industry, especially since there is such a stigma attached to it within the industry,” she says.
“I think there are designers that are really trying their hardest to break through the noise. We have the Christian Sirianos of this world, the Brandon Maxwells of this world who are really using their platforms and their voices to bring the change they would like to see. And then there are the designers who are just following the traditional model. This is how it’s been, and this is how it will be.”
Nyman is steadfast in her belief that things have to change, and she plans to take Break Free on the road to other cities and shows.
She cites Dr. Deni Carise, the chief scientific officer at Recovery Centers of America, who struggled with a substance use disorder during her modeling career in the ‘80s. Carise returned to the runway for Break Free. “It took her 20 years to be able to get back on the runway. She never thought she would have the opportunity to walk in New York Fashion Week.”
And she points to designer Kate Spade, who took her own life in 2018.
“She was days away from going to a behavioral health center after her sister had been begging her to go and was going to go with her to get treatment for her mental health disorder. And Kate felt that because of her brand, which she no longer owned but that had her name, because it evoked such joy and cuteness, she could not go get help,” says Nyman, who is also editor in chief at Soberocity, an organization that connects people living a sober life.
“As a society we need to continue to evolve. I’ve seen the power of sharing experiences and showing others you are not alone. There is so much power in that and we need to be doing that in the fashion industry.”
Acknowledging “the door’s been cracked open,” Nyman says she’s open to collaborations of all kinds.
“Anybody in the design world that’s been impacted by addiction and mental health, I would love to hear from you, talk to you and make an alliance. Just keeping the conversation going… that’s the most important thing at the end of the day.”
This article originally appeared in Forbes.com in the Hollywood & Mind column written by Cathy Applefeld Olsen. The Hollywood & Mind column lives at the intersection of entertainment and wellbeing, and features interviews with musicians, actors, sports figures and other culture influencers who are elevating conversations about mental health.