Veteran and small business entrepreneur, Duane Topping, didn’t let PTSD get the better of him. This episode of “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with Forbes Books dives into how he conquered his challenges and went from army veteran to a debut at New York Fashion Week.
Narrator: Welcome to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com. Beginning in November 2019, US veterans are eligible for Bank of America's small business veteran's discount initiative, featuring an exclusive 25% origination fee discount for their Bank of America small business loan or line of credit. Visit bankofamerica.com/smallbusiness for more information. And here's your host, Greg Stebben.
Greg Stebben: I'm here with Duane Topping. His company is Topping Designs, his website, duanetopping.com. He's on Instagram @duanetopping. Let me spell Duane. It's D-U-A-N-E, Topping as you would expect, T-O-P-P-I-N-G, duanetopping.com and on Instagram @duanetopping. Duane, first of all, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
Duane Topping: Oh, thanks for having me. It's a pleasure, and it's always an honor to be able to really share my story.
Greg Stebben: Well, your story, actually, there's more than one story, I'm going to say. So, first of all, I want to introduce you by saying Duane is a fashion designer, and there is a story about how he got there. But before we even get to your story, Duane, I want to say, first of all, I'm not the most fashion-conscious guy in the world, but when I went to your website and your Instagram and checked out your Facebook account and your Twitter, what I saw there, the photos of the clothing you're making for women, they made me rock back and go, "Whoa." You create some very, very beautiful clothing for women.
Duane Topping: Well, thank you. Thank you so much. Yeah, I think the only one not well-dressed on the website is myself.
Greg Stebben: Well I will also, just as a tease, say that it's worth going to the website to see the clothes and also to see Duane and his t-shirts, because you have a pretty special collection of t-shirts, from what I could see.
Duane Topping: Absolutely.
Greg Stebben: So I think it's fair to say you do not have the typical fashion designer story. Do you want to tell us how you got into the world of fashion?
Duane Topping: It's certainly not a typical story. Just to start off, an overview, I retired from the army in 2012, and, as you can imagine, I did three deployments while I was enlisted. After about 11 years, I retired medically, and I struggled. I struggled reintegrating myself back into the community, back into civilian life. I really struggled with mental illness, and I really struggled with PTSD.
Duane Topping: I spent a number of years running from those demons, and I tried so many of those one-size-fits-all, out-of-the-box treatments that the VA passes off to you. None of them were really working. I went back to school. I went to try… I thought to myself, "Well, I'll be a writer." So I went back, and I went back to school. During that portion, I actually had a minor in philosophy. I took my first philosophy class. I hated it, absolutely hated it.
Greg Stebben: But still got a minor.
Duane Topping: No, actually. So here's the story. So I actually transferred over to feminist theory, and I ended up getting a degree in gender studies. During the course of that is really when I turned my own perspective around and realized, "You know what? I don't have to try all of these out-of-the-boxes things." They weren't working. So, by the last semester, I said to myself, "You know what? I really need to try something new, something different, something really out-of-the-box."
Duane Topping: I've always been an artist, and I've always had this really subdued level or love of fashion. Even when I was deployed, I would be getting the women's magazines and pouring through them and cutting them out and making collages and sending them home and critiquing the garments. So I paired up. I said, "You know what? I'm an artist. I can do fashion."
Duane Topping: So I thought I was going to teach myself to sew. I literally came home one day, and I told my wife ... I said, "Listen, I'm going to teach myself to sew." She turns around and she says, "Well, when are you going to do that?" Well, I held up my sewing machine, and I said, "Well, I'm going to do it right now." So I sat down at a TV tray, and I made a purse.
Greg Stebben: So, before you go on, did you buy the sewing machine that day, or did you already have one?
Duane Topping: I literally bought it that day. On my way home, I said to myself, "I'm going to teach myself to sew." I swung into Walmart and bought my first sewing machine.
Greg Stebben: And made a purse.
Duane Topping: And I made a purse. This was the fall of 2016. Well, I just fell in love with sewing. Yeah, 12 inches is something I could control, and I really found peace in that creative process. As I began to develop my sewing skills, I made a dress for my wife. I got tired of patterns. I started draping, and she says, "You know what? Why don't you just make a collection?"
Duane Topping: So I did. I made a little six-piece collection. I got a photographer, and there's a funny story with my first model. She was actually in my English class, and I came to her after class one day and I said, "Hey, listen, I'm going to try to do a fashion line for women, and I'd like to use you as inspiration. Do you want to model for me?" The poor young woman looked at me crazy, but you know what? She took a leap of faith, and we did that first photo shoot the next spring.
Duane Topping: In 2017, I did my first runway, and we've just exploded since then. We've done New York Fashion Week, two seasons. We've been published in Vogue, been in shows from New York to LA. We just absolutely exploded. So that's sort of the short version.
Greg Stebben: Well, and you know what's amazing is, I'm thinking back on what you said. You started in 2016.
Duane Topping: Yes.
Greg Stebben: That was only three years ago.
Duane Topping: Oh, man, and it's been a wild ride. I tell you, I've really had to learn a lot, and there's been a lot of obstacles along the way. Primarily, I don't look like a typical fashion designer.
Greg Stebben: I will vouch for that. You don't look like a typical soldier, either.
Duane Topping: Well, no, but I retired, and I protested haircuts and shaving. So you can imagine what I look like now, seven years later.
Greg Stebben: Yeah.
Duane Topping: So, yeah, I've got the long hair, the beard. I'm the typical biker. I ride every day. I don't even own a car. So when I would go to shows, even now, I'm mistaken for the maintenance man or I'm the doorman taking IDs, or I've been the janitor. I did a interview with Telemundo six months ago, and they thought I was a contractor there to fix the building.
Greg Stebben: No, you were the guy that designed all of those beautiful clothing that they had B-roll of in the background.
Duane Topping: Well, and it's funny, though, because, in the beginning, I was kind of offended by that. Then I realized, "You know what? It's that contrast that really leaves that mark, that people immediately have to question their perspective."
Duane Topping: So since then, the brand has really evolved, and now I have to remind people that I'm more than the label, just like you are. I'm more than the aesthetic you see, and you can be, too. Don't let people tell you who you are, what you can be, because it's that depth of character in all of us that really makes life beautiful.
Duane Topping: Yes, I'm a biker. Yes, I'm a veteran. Yes, I've struggled with mental illness. But you know I'm also an artist. I'm a fashion designer. I can be a diva. I can be a photographer. I can do any number of things. So there's no holding you back. You're only limited by your own imagination, really.
Greg Stebben: I actually want to read something from your website. I'm talking with Duane Topping. His company is Topping Designs. The website is duanetopping.com. He's on Instagram @duanetopping. Many, many, many beautiful photos of the beautiful ... Beautiful is not even really the right word for the clothing you're designing. What came to me as I was looking at the photos is that there's a sense of airiness and freedom to what you're designing, and I want you to comment on that.
Greg Stebben: But first, let me read something from your website. It says, "While on my path," and, as you shared with us, when you got out of the army in 2012, you struggled with PTSD. "While on my path, I found I could be more than expected, more than a veteran with PTSD. I discovered that I am not a label. I hope you can be motivated through this collection to say, 'Neither am I.'" That's really what I see when I look at the photos. So talk to us a little bit about the inspiration for the clothing. Where is that coming from, inside of you?
Duane Topping: So much of the inspiration for the designs come from my story. They come from my journey. I always take just a little snippet of it. The fall/winter collection that you see on the website now is really a representation of my struggle with PTSD and with mental illness. In the beginning, I felt trapped, locked in the dark, and it was through fashion that I was able to escape that and find a freedom and make my way out into the light.
Duane Topping: So if you look at that collection in its totality, I think you can see that story, because each piece represents a chapter, a sentence, a part of that journey. It starts out with simple lines, but the detailing is ... You've got belting and straps that look very confining, and then, as the collection progresses, it begins to open up. There's some runway pieces that really reflect that notion of freedom.
Duane Topping: For me, the inspiration always comes from some portion of my story, some notion of perspective, some way in which to reevaluate how you not only see yourself, but see the world. I tell people, "You're never going to get people to stop putting labels on you, and the trick is to not start to believe them. You've got to shut those off and start creating your own."
Duane Topping: That's what I'm about, and I think that's what the clothes are about. Each collection is a representation of a part of that journey. Then, as you add them together, at some point, it'll be a story. It'll be my life story, and I think that that drives my purpose, because, even now, while I love the artistry, I love the clothes, I love seeing faces of my customers when they're wearing them, it's still so much about that message of not being a label.
Greg Stebben: What's interesting is you came from a world that ... I've never served, but my impression of the military is it's largely about labels and rank and things like that, and probably necessary in that environment. So one of my questions is, how did your army service help you with the business part of your business, and maybe even the creative part of your business? I'm really interested in hearing if and how the army part of your life has really helped you become who you are, doing what you're doing today.
Duane Topping: Oh, certainly. The army broke me. There's no doubt, and I came out wounded. You can't see all of those wounds, but they're there. But I'm thankful to it, because, in particular, the business side is easy - the discipline, the organization, the motivation to push for a goal and not stop until you complete it. So that's really what I took from the military, in terms of the business side.
Duane Topping: It's interesting. So many people assume that that structured environment is difficult to then match with the creative side. For me, I think one of the things that that structure allows me to do is it allows me to create that purpose that I have in the creative. It allows me to start with a story and then develop the creativity from that framework. Then, that way, the clothes themselves still represent ... Like you did, you can see what I'm trying to do. So that's kind of a nuanced way to see it, but certainly purpose, because the army only tells you purpose, direction, motivation. So you still carry that.
Greg Stebben: My understanding is that being a veteran also helped you raise capital for your business. My understanding is you got a $10,000 loan from a CDFI, the Colorado Enterprise Fund, as part of Bank of America's Veteran Access Loan Opportunity Resource Program?
Duane Topping: Oh, 100%, and I think, without that, we wouldn't be where we're at now. That was very, that was very good. Particularly as a veteran, you come out of the military, and you're sort of left to fly in the wind. There's a lot of things about the civilian world that they don't tell you, because in the military, everything's structured. You know what's coming. In fact, you know what you're going to wear every single day.
Greg Stebben: Yes.
Duane Topping: You know what time you've got to be where you're going to be. Everything is structured. You know who's going to be there, and there's no deviation from that. So when you get out into the real world, the civilian world, so much out there feels like it's left to chance. But it's just because you don't have the knowledge, and it took Colorado Enterprise Fund and Bank of America to really say, "You know what? We appreciate your service, and, honestly, we believe in what you're doing. Let us help you."
Duane Topping: The money was wonderful, and we've been able to utilize that very effectively. But I think more importantly is the support, even after the loan process, because, in fact, just yesterday ... and I sit down with their financial advisors. When I have questions that nobody else will answer for you, they're there to answer that for you, and I think that that's essential for a veteran in particular, because you've come from such a unique environment that really doesn't allow you to acclimate easily to a less structured world.
Greg Stebben: I want to ask you two more questions, Duane, and one of them really builds on what you just said. That is, you came out of the service. You had the struggles that you did. You found something that really enabled you to get beyond that and create a successful business.
Greg Stebben: I'm talking with Duane Topping. The company is Topping Designs. The website is duanetopping.com, D-U-A-N-E Topping, T-O-P-P-I-N-G, dot com, duanetopping.com. You can see many photos of the beautiful clothes that he's designing on Instagram @duanetopping.
Greg Stebben: But the question I want to ask you that really builds on what you said is, when you think about the process you've been through in starting and building your business and getting it to the point where it is today, what advice would you give to fellow veterans who are in a place similar to where you were a few years ago, thinking, "Maybe I could start a business. Maybe I could fuel my passion as well"? What kinds of words of wisdom could you share with them now, knowing what you know?
Duane Topping: Well, knowing what I know now, I think one of the key elements is you have to be able to go out and get those questions answered that you need answered. Don't take that first answer you get and run with it, because, oftentimes, there's many different ways to do things, and there's many entities out there that don't necessarily want to jump right into business with you. The Colorado Enterprise Fund was literally the sixth or seventh bank entity that we had tried to develop some funding.
Duane Topping: So take that military training, that tenacity, that motivation, that purpose-driven, goal-oriented lifestyle that you came from, and carry that through to your business. Don't stop until you get those questions answered in a way that's positive and meaningful to you, because, eventually, you will find somebody who's going to reach out, because, unfortunately, you don't know what you don't know. So you've got to ask those questions, and it is. It's a lot of pride-swallowing, in terms of going into someplace and saying, "Listen, I don't know anything. Can you teach me?"
Duane Topping: I think that's with any business, because not only did I not know the business world, but I didn't know anything about fashion - absolutely nothing. I knew nothing about balance. I knew nothing about construction, the marketing plans, any of that. Then, on the business side, I didn't know retail map. So all of these things, I had to keep asking and keep asking until I was able to get the questions, and don't be afraid to take that help, because, ultimately, small businesses thrive in a community. You have to begin to build that community, and a lot of that takes courage to open up, again, to that community.
Greg Stebben: It's really perfect to hear you say that, because the last thing I want to ask you is really about the larger community. I mean, you came from a world of veterans. We know that lots of veterans start businesses because ... You talked about discipline. I think there’s sometimes it's a challenge to assimilate into the civilian world. But when you own your own business, you have control, and that feels more comfortable.
Greg Stebben: But I'm guessing that, today, you find that you're a role model for all kinds of people, whether they served or not, and I'm just wondering, when you are talking to other small business owners and aspiring small business owners in your community, do you find that there's a big difference in the kind of questions they ask, whether they are veterans or not?
Duane Topping: Actually, no. I really don't, because business ... I'm always surprised. When I got into fashion, I thought to myself, "Well, fashion is a different kind of business. There's so many different nuances, and a lot of this general business information is not going to translate," and it really is.
Duane Topping: But I don't think that there's different questions. I think the problem is that, oftentimes, veterans run into the scenario where, because they don't have experience in the civilian world, they often don't know what questions to ask. So I think that that's the struggle. I think that the problem that veterans run into is just that when they get out there, they know that there's things they don't know, but they just don't know how to ask the question.
Duane Topping: So, in that sense, I think it's different going in. Then, once they develop a fundamental knowledge of the direction they're going, some of the questions start being the same. "How do I get financing? How does that look, in terms of my business? How do I pay that back? How do I guarantee that the business is going to thrive in the future?", these kinds of things. "How do I market my product? How do I market my brand?" or whatever, those kinds of things.
Duane Topping: The questions are similar, even without a veteran. But the problem is I don't think the veteran is given the tools to know that "marketing" is the word that they need to use or things like costing sheets. They have an idea of what the end product is going to look like. They just don't know how to ask the questions, necessarily.
Duane Topping: But that's the nice thing about entities like Colorado Enterprise Fund, is that they will sit down with you and say, "Okay, these are your goals. Let me help you along the way and get you to ask the right questions to the right people."
Greg Stebben: That's really well-said, because I realized, as you were talking, that if you're in the civilian world, even when there's things you don't know, you've seen other people do them, and you've been around the language and the vocabulary and the concepts, whereas when you're coming from the military world, it's a very different world.
Greg Stebben: So, in a sense, you get some advantages, as you talked about. For instance, that's a great place to learn about discipline and things like that. But, on the other hand, there are some disadvantages, which is, in a sense, kind of playing catch-up with the civilian world and how the civilian world operates.
Duane Topping: Oh, unquestionably. I mean, especially for soldiers who've been deployed, I mean, I don't think people can imagine being completely out of the loop for a year. I remember when cell phones first started doing texting and having email integrations and things, and we had no idea what that was. We had a whole conversation about ... We saw a headline about soldiers addicted to BlackBerries. Well, we didn't know what BlackBerries were, and we argued for three weeks, "Why blackberries? Why not strawberries? Why not raspberries?" We had no idea.
Duane Topping: Then we went back to the same place where we saw the headline, and there was another soldier in front of the line. He turns around. He says, "Hey, you guys know that's a phone, right?" We're like, "Well, what's so big about the phone?" "Well, you can text." "What's text messaging?" I don't think people realize that that literally was ... So much of what you take for granted as a civilian, the world sometimes passes you by, and that is definitely a distinct disadvantage.
Greg Stebben: Well, thank you for doing what you're doing. I really do want to encourage everyone listening to go to Duane's website. Again, it's duanetopping.com. Duane is D-U-A-N-E, Topping, T-O-P-P-I-N-G, duanetopping.com. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful fashion for women. You can also find him on Instagram @duanetopping, the company Topping Designs. He's Duane Topping. Duane, thank you so much for joining us.
Duane Topping: Oh, thank you for having me. It was such a pleasure, and it's always an honor to be able to share my story. Hopefully, I can inspire somebody else to take that leap.
Narrator: Beginning in November 2019, US veterans eligible for Bank of America's Small Business Veterans Discount Initiative, featuring an exclusive 25% origination fee discount for their Bank of America small business loan or line of credit.
Narrator: Visit bankofamerica.com/smallbusiness for more information, and for more great small business tips check out Bank of America’s online Small Business Community at bankofamerica.com/sbc. Thanks for listening to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com.
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