Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Men’s mental health hits the runway for Minnesota Fashion Week

The curator stands with three models around him
The curator of MAN DOWN, Gayle Smaller Jr., stands with three models who will walk the runway Thursday night, Salah Noor, Colbey Wadsworth, Brahima Ann.
Sheldon Powell of the Honeybear Collection

It’s Minnesota Fashion Week, and men’s mental health is hitting the runway on Thursday night.

The show is called MAN DOWN, and curator Gayle Smaller Jr. is partnering with local nonprofits to raise awareness — and funds — for men’s mental health, which often flies under the radar. According to the American Psychological Association, over 30 percent of men will suffer from depression at some point in their life, and stigma around men’s mental health means many won’t seek treatment.

Gayle Smaller Junior is the curator of MAN DOWN and one of the producers for Minnesota Fashion Week. He joined MPR News guest host Emily Bright to share the inspiration behind the show, and what change he hopes to see come about.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

EMILY BRIGHT: Well, happy Minnesota Fashion Week to all who celebrate. Men's mental health is going to be hitting the runway tomorrow as part of that Minnesota Fashion Week event. The show is called Man Down. And curator Gayle Smaller Jr. wants to use fashion to bring awareness to men's mental health, which often flies under the radar.

According to the American Psychological Association, over 30% of men will suffer from depression at some point in their lives, and stigma around men's mental health can be a roadblock to seeking treatment. Gayle Smaller Jr. is the curator of Man Down and one of the producers for Minnesota Fashion Week. And he is here now to share the inspiration behind the show and what changes he hopes to see. Gayle, thanks for joining us.

GAYLE SMALLER JR: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me. How are you doing today?

EMILY BRIGHT: I am well. How are you?

GAYLE SMALLER JR: I'm doing well. Thanks for asking.

EMILY BRIGHT: Well, it's a big week. So why did you choose a fashion show as the avenue to talk about men's mental health?

GAYLE SMALLER JR: Yeah. I get that question all the time truthfully I saw an opportunity in that a lot of Minnesotans attend fashion shows, right? And I think folks don't actually know that, but there's a huge fashion community here. And recognizing that I saw the opportunity to engage a captive audience in a much needed conversation, I hopped on that truthfully.

EMILY BRIGHT: Art is great for sparking good conversations. So what are some of the big mental health issues that you've seen men struggle with or that you yourself have dealt with if you want to talk about that?

GAYLE SMALLER JR: Yeah. Of course, right? I think a lot of men that I engage with, both my friends, family members, myself, depression, grief, suicide ideation are things that we don't often talk about with people, right?

EMILY BRIGHT: Right. What does a healthy conversation about men's mental health look like?

GAYLE SMALLER JR: Oh, a healthy conversation. I think a healthy conversation around men's mental health, first of all, looks like having the conversation at all. I think we often don't engage in this conversation because there's this idea in society or this term in society more so that men are supposed to man up and just suck it up and do what they're supposed to do regardless of how they're feeling or navigating the world.

And I think that a healthy conversation really makes space and room for men to be able to actually feel what they're feeling, to be able to process the emotions that they're navigating, and to be able to get support when they feel like they can't navigate these things by themselves.

EMILY BRIGHT: Well, what are you hoping to accomplish by putting on this show, or what takeaways do you want people to have from it?

GAYLE SMALLER JR: Yeah. I think the biggest takeaway for me is really for the guests and the folks in the audience to really understand that this is a much needed conversation, to really look at their loved ones, their family, their friends, specifically the men identified folks that they uplift and support, and ensure that they make space for them, right?

Check in on them. Ask them how they're doing. Know that even when we as men say that we're fine and all right, which we often do all the time, that there's always something going on, just like any other human being has their own emotional experiences.

EMILY BRIGHT: You know, I think we should mention your day job is working as the associate director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Well, that's a lot different from fashion. So how did you get into the fashion world?

GAYLE SMALLER JR: Yeah. I think that while it's very different from fashion, I'm still doing equity, and inclusion work and the reasons why I'm doing the fashion, right? Which is where I find my passion mostly. So it really came out of-- so growing up, I always kind of had this love for clothing and fashion. One of my grandmothers was a seamstress and like sewed my mother's prom dress together, which I happened to be born at that time. So I didn't know anything about it, but I knew that it happened.

And one of my other grandmothers was a major thrifter and a garage sale attendee. And just seeing both of these women kind of navigate their lives, and their love for clothing, and dressing, and putting us in clothes like me, their grandson, or my mother, or my father. It kind of just grew out of that. But I also recognized that I grew up right in a very different economical environment that didn't really allow for that to happen. And more so, I had to learn to work to make sure that I was uplifting me and my family out of the situations that we were just in given the society and the world that we were in.

And so I just really focused on getting my degree, going to college, getting my masters, and finding a career that would ensure that financially, I was all right right. And once that happened, then the door kind of opened for me to be able to explore these other passions and worlds that I wanted to be a part of. So I just began attending fashion shows here in the city. And then I started to volunteer, and network, and meet people, and shake hands, and just show who I was and meet who they were. And from there, doors started to open.

EMILY BRIGHT: You said your grandmother is a wonderful seamstress. Do you sew? Do you make your own clothes?

GAYLE SMALLER JR: Not yet. I do not know how to sew, but I have asked a lot of the friends who are designers that I've met through my involvement in the fashion community to eventually teach me. So there are plans to learn. And it's because truly, when I see some of my friends who are designers come to these events or just when we hang out and they've made their own clothing, and it's so unique, and so beautiful, and so much more-- what do I say? Themselves. It inspires me to want to learn how to do that.

EMILY BRIGHT: Yeah. Well, my sewing skills are just good enough to know how incredibly hard it is to do.

GAYLE SMALLER JR: I can sew on a button, which people told me is a huge thing. I can sew on a button.

EMILY BRIGHT: You got to start somewhere. So let's talk about some of the fashions that will be on the runway please.

GAYLE SMALLER JR: Absolutely. So we have 14 amazing designers. All very, very different in their own aesthetic, as well as one jewelry and accessory designer who will be partnering with a few of the designer garments that will be on the runway. So we had-- go ahead.

EMILY BRIGHT: No, no, no. Just please. This radio is such a visual medium. Here's your chance to paint the scene with words, so we know what we're going to see.

GAYLE SMALLER JR: Yeah. So this season, the Man Down theme is the green edition, really focusing on the color green and what that means to mental health. How we see the color green as a significance of spring but also thinking about regrowth, rejuvenation, new opportunities, and all of that. And so I really asked all the designers to think about that in their collection.

So you're going to see a lot of different uses of the colored green on the runway. Some designers have collections ranging from 10-pieces, four-pieces, and really get to see an array of different things ranging from some very, very strict menswear garments, like pants and shirts, to some very androgynous and gender noncomforming garments as well. It's going to be a very explosive runway I think.

EMILY BRIGHT: I love it. So I know Fashion Week is about celebrating local fashion as a whole. What's unique about the Minnesota fashion scene?

GAYLE SMALLER JR: Absolutely. I think what makes Minnesota's fashion scene very unique is its commitment to inclusivity. So I've gotten the opportunity through my involvement in fashion thankfully to travel and to go to New York and see other experiences. And one of the things I love about being here in Minneapolis, in Minnesota specifically, is that I see models of all sizes, genders, ages, ethnicities, races on the runway, and it's beautiful, right?

And I see those same models in photo shoots and networking at these events and really being integral to this community. And I think that that's something that is still not happening in other larger fashion markets and communities because of the commitment to still the old way of modeling, right? The traditional tall, thin--

EMILY BRIGHT: Rail thin.

GAYLE SMALLER JR: --model. Rail thin model and what that looks like. And I really appreciate that Minnesota challenges that very specifically.

EMILY BRIGHT: Well, I hope you have a fantastic event with great fashion that sparks some good conversations tomorrow night.

GAYLE SMALLER JR: Thank you. I look forward to it. It's going to be a really fun time, and I hope folks can come out and have a good, good time with us.

EMILY BRIGHT: Thanks, Gayle.

GAYLE SMALLER JR: Thank you.

EMILY BRIGHT: Gayle Smoller Jr. is one of the producers for Minnesota Fashion Week and curator of the Man Down fashion show which you can see tomorrow 5:00 PM at the Luminare in Minneapolis.

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