By Khaleel Herbert

Sidran Institute in Maryland estimates 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives and up to 20 percent of these people will develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In 2012, after serving almost a decade in the army, Duane Topping retired and returned to his wife, Jamie and daughters. But in the aftermath of serving three tours in Iraq, Topping was diagnosed with PTSD. Finding solace through therapy and medication was futile.

Before PTSD set in, Topping was an artist who enjoyed painting, sculpting and cartooning. He developed an interest in fashion and he refers to it as “living art.” In a June 2018 Ted Talk video in Denver, Topping says behind his tattooed biker exterior he has a soft side. He taught himself to sew with a brand new sewing machine in 2016, and since then, he’s developed his own fashion design company, Topping Designs LLC in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

On November 4, Topping Designs performed in Denver Fashion Week’s Local Designer’s Fashion show. DFW’s Spring 2017 show has been Topping’s first show and he’s been coming back ever since. DFW has called Topping Designs a veteran because this was Topping’s 4th appearance in DFW. Topping Designs has also appeared in Baltimore Fashion Week in fall 2017, the New York for Art Hearts Fashion and others. Topping Designs will also appear in the San Diego Fashion Fest in mid-November.


Models for Topping Designs LLC. Photo by JJ Constantine

Fashion helped Topping cope with his PTSD in a unique way and he hopes Topping Designs will continue to reach new heights in the upcoming years.

I watched your TED video and was intrigued. I want to know how you were able to tap into the artist inside of you after retiring from the Army.

 That was a long and dark journey. I’ve always been an artist, so that part of me has always been inside. I think the trick was to convince myself I could still tap into that identity. We often get bogged down with the labels people place on us and find ourselves playing that role. For me, it took a tremendous effort to look past that labeling and really reach back to before the darkness and reconnect with that artist. The struggle wasn’t about Am I an artist. It was, Could I still be an artist.

In your TED video, you spoke about how you were into painting when you were younger. What ultimately inspired you to fall in love with fashion?

I think it was a natural progression. Painting was a representation of the beauty around us. Fashion is living art. The people who bring my fabric to life are the soul of that beauty that surrounds everyone. I painted landscapes when I was younger and a mountain painting stays a mountain. But with fashion each piece takes on a new life with each person who wears them. To me that captures the evolving nature of art. Fashion gives my artistry breath and life. That’s exciting for me.

Since therapy and medication didn’t work, how did fashion help you contain your PTSD?

I found my peace in the creative process of fashion. Fashion is fundamentally about self-expression and within that world, I am able to be me. I think when you can bring out who you are, beyond the aesthetic of your looks, and beyond the labels of whatever box you’ve been placed into, that becomes a very tangible way to show there’s more to people than what we see.

For me, my clothes are that tangibility of my identity. The creative process provided me the tools to face my demons and now it has evolved to something beyond myself–I can tell others’ stories too.

What kind of clothes do you design?

Primarily women’s clothes. I always try to pair the contrast of power and femininity. I think the contrast of light fabrics and structure is representative of who I am, but also the depth of the character in the world. I keep my looks simple in that way the customer can bring a little of themselves to the garment and make it theirs–make it an extension of their identity because that’s what fashion is–an extension of who we are.


Model for Topping Designs LLC. Photo by JJ Constantine

What’s your process for designing clothes?

It’s different every time. My inspiration has always been about an individual. When I started it was about my journey and my story. Now that has grown to include the stories and strength of other people. We all have our demons. We all face a world that would rather push us down than elevate. I try to express that journey and that inner strength of people with fabric. I truly believe in the diversity of beauty.

How does your wife help you with Topping Designs?

It’s difficult to truly enumerate what Jamie does for Toppings Designs. While I focus primarily on the creative aspect, Jamie fills those gaps on the business or administrative side. However, one of the biggest responsibilities that Jamie carries is being that sounding board for the artist in me. That support and ability for me to voice ideas during the process is invaluable. She also takes charge with styling for runways and photoshoots. I don’t often think beyond the finished garments. We wouldn’t be nearly as successful if we both weren’t on this journey.

How did you feel when you found out you were participating in this year’s Denver Fashion Week?

Adelisa Brakmic

Model of Topping Designs LLC. Photo by JJ Constantine

It’s always an honor to be a part of DFW. For us, this is where we began and to be asked to return is humbling. In some ways it says we must be doing something right, and to still be seen among the fantastic young talent this season is truly an awesome feeling.

What’s the biggest takeaway you want people to have when they buy/wear your clothes?

Our foundation message is simply to be yourself. Our hope is people will connect to our message and wear our clothes their way. Inspiring people through the garments to shed their labels and face the world with a fresh perspective is what we work toward.

Where do you see yourself and Topping Designs 10 years from now?

We hope to see it everywhere. (Laughs). But truthfully we take it a day at a time. Obviously we are purposeful in everything we do. The only true long-term goal though is to remain relevant and to still be inspiring and be inspired.

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