The Unlikely Fashionista: Army Veteran Duane Topping Isn't Your Average Fashion Designer

Fashion designer Duane Topping.
Fashion designer Duane Topping. Patrick Baldonado
When you look at Duane Topping, with his grizzly beard, large build, tattoos, leather vest and jeans, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t “fashion designer.” But as one of his signature black T-shirts with bold graphic slogans proudly announces: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Topping has been designing women’s clothing since 2016. He’s been a regular at Denver runway shows. But becoming a fashion designer was something he says happened by accident.

In 2012, he retired from the Army after serving three combat deployments and spending 29 months in Iraq. He came home with a severe case of PTSD and no direction. “I spent about four years in the dark," he recalls. "I was the first guy in the bar and the last guy to leave."

In an attempt to get his life back on track, he went to school and had an epiphany. “I realized I could be whoever I wanted to be,” he says. “I’ve always loved fashion. When I was deployed, I would find the care packages for the female soldiers and take all their fashion magazines!”

He tapped into artistic interests he had before his time in the military, bought a sewing machine, and announced to his wife that he was going to teach himself to sew. That same night, he sat down and made a purse. “It was upside down and didn’t work, but it was a start,” he laughs. A year later, in 2017, he made his debut at Denver Fashion Week.
click to enlarge A Duane Topping design. - DUANE TOPPING
A Duane Topping design.
Duane Topping
Topping’s discovery of his individuality began to translate into a mission and message through his designs. His clothing consists of simple silhouettes, but the details make the designs stand out: an unexpected slit with a pop of color, a bold cutout, a slice of zipper. “The details draw you in and make you want to get to know the person,” he explains. “I try to design in a way that each piece will look different depending on who’s wearing it.”

The goal of Duane Topping clothing is not only to be stylish, but to help people realize they can be whoever they want to be and express themselves through the designs. “The first model I made clothes for, I made an outfit that allowed people to see her as who she was, because she didn’t see herself in that positive light,” he says. “I just make the wrapping; they're the gift. I want people to see the gift that they are.”

While Topping himself knows he doesn’t dress the way some might expect of a fashion designer, he has fun challenging those first-impression judgments with a wink. His T-shirts often sport slogans such as, “Feminist AF” and “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like.” He proudly reports that at his fashion show appearances, he’s been mistaken for the doorman, the HVAC repair guy and a homeless person.

At the end of his fashion shows, when most designers come out and give a modest wave to the crowd, Topping takes a different approach, running down the runway like a rock star, high-fiving the crowds and mugging for the cameras. “It’s my wrestling entrance!” he says mischievously. “I went to a few shows before I launched my brand, and I remember watching the designers come out. It just seemed like they were holding back. I just felt, when I come out on the runway, people are going to remember me. I’m going to be true to who I am.”
click to enlarge Hit the road in clothing by Duane Topping. - DUANE TOPPING
Hit the road in clothing by Duane Topping.
Duane Topping

He says he never felt pressured to change his image for the fashion industry, and doing so would be hypocritical to his message: “I think it’s important for people to see that consistency. I’m not going to change who I am while I tell people they get to decide who they are.”

As Topping prepares for a runway show on Sunday, September 26, for Latin Fashion Week Colorado, he says that being part of a fashion show that showcases Latin designers is important to him. “My daughters are half Latina, so that’s my connection,” he says. “It’s a way to show them that that side of their culture is as important as my side. What I love about what I do is that it’s an opportunity for me to give platforms to people who are marginalized, particularly women of color and those outside of a size two. I pride myself on that diversity.”

Inspiration for his latest collection came from moving his office to the 16th Street Mall and studying people on the street. “I really watched the movement of how people walk and how that expressed a mood or an attitude," he says. "I wanted to accentuate that underlying power and the specific movements of the person.”

While Topping’s enthusiasm and positive energy come across when he’s talking about fashion, he admits that he still carries his PTSD with him, and it sometimes creeps into his designs. “A lot of the pieces in my second and third collection were about how I felt emotionally bound up, so there are leather straps and chains. PTSD never goes away. But I like the outlet of fashion. If I have a bad day, I can go to the studio at 3 a.m. and just create. A lot of people don’t have that option.”
click to enlarge Topping's clothing is inspired by movement. - DUANE TOPPING
Topping's clothing is inspired by movement.
Duane Topping
He hopes that by showing how he uses his creative outlet as therapy to cope with trauma, he can inspire others to do the same and find their own path. He shares his story not just through his clothing collections, but also through motivational speaking and mentoring in local schools.

“People look at me and see a biker," he says. "But I get to choose that I’m more than that. I’m more than a veteran or a guy with a mental health disorder. I’m a fashion designer, a feminist, an artist, a father. I want people to know they can choose their own identity. I want people to say, ‘Look at this old biker. If he can follow his passion, so can I.’”

Latin Fashion Week Colorado will present runway shows at 5 p.m. Saturday, September 25, and Sunday, September 26, at the Denver City and County Building, 1437 Bannock Street; tickets are $30 to $75. COVID-19 rapid tests will be available at the entrance for those who are not vaccinated. For more information, visit Latin Fashion Week Colorado.
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Kastle Waserman is a freelance contributor to Westword covering music and culture. Prior to Denver, she lived in Los Angeles and worked as a staff editor/reporter for the Los Angeles Times covering music, nightclubs, lifestyles and fashion. She’s been published in the New York Post, Women’s Wear Daily and Fodor’s Travel Books.
Contact: Kastle Waserman