How Fashion Shows Can Prompt Discussion About Gun Violence and Help Those Impacted

Beauty stylist and activist Donna Bruce is using fashion shows to not only highlight the issue of gun violence, but also to help those who have been impacted.

Based in Baltimore, she welcomed 75 guests, including mothers whose children have died due to gun violence, to a fashion show Sunday, and is planning a larger one for Nov. 18 in her home city. Some shared their experiences in a panel discussion and mental health therapists and substance abuse specialists were in the audience — many of whom gained new patients, according to Bruce. Some of the models on the runway had personally been impacted by gun violence, too.

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Sone of the models had personally been impacted by gun violence.

One designer, who is in recovery, showed styles from her Sober Period collection. “She said, ‘Every time I feel like I want a drink, I will just start designing clothes and ripping up clothes.’ That has been a coping mechanism to help her heal,” Bruce said.

This fall’s event will be held at the Baltimore War Memorial, and Bruce is seeking designers (from and beyond Baltimore) and sponsors.

In December, Bruce started the nonprofit Deborah Bruce Unlimited Inc. to use art and fashion for healing and advocacy. The July 2021 death of her 32-year-old son Devon Wellington “birthed a mission” in her that has “fueled” her to “serve and influence the community,” she said. Her advocacy includes serving on Baltimore’s Trauma Informed Care Task Force. Through that, she has learned more about some of the ways and reasons that young people are being encouraged to take part in criminal activities.

Questions still linger around her son’s death, though there were no signs of foul play, she said — so she opted to take action and has connected with at least 20 other mothers who have lost children due to substance abuse, mental health struggles or gun violence.

Shootings and other crimes have a big impact on the retail sector. Mass shootings such as one in May that left eight people dead at the Allen Premium Outlets in Allen, Texas, tend to generate public discussion about the issue, and recent smash-and-grab robberies have retail groups searching for solutions. In New York City, 13 independent jewelry stores were robbed this year.

Bruce said of gun violence, “No one is exempt. No one is exempt from the pain of a person or being robbed.”

She noted how in April, a T-Mobile employee (Fabian Sanchez Gonzalez) was shot and killed while at work by two teenagers.

Bruce likened gun violence to the opiod crisis, which initially was not pervasive in suburban areas to the degree that it was in cities. Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue, which is known to be an area of drug activity, attracts people from other places and states, she said. “Everybody can be touched. But what safety are we bringing to the retailers?” said Bruce, adding the need for educating them about warning signs, such as behavioral cues, of a potential theft.

Regarding Baltimore’s gun violence problem, Bruce believes that people are asking the wrong questions such as, “What did you do?” and “Why did you do it?” as opposed to asking, “What happened to the individual, whether it’s the one pulling trigger or the one who was shot?” Something had to have happened to those individuals,” adding that the city’s post-pandemic broken education system was a factor, and conflict resolution training are in need.

Nationwide, there were 48,830 people who died from gun-related injuries in 2021, the most recent year for which complete data is available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure includes gun murders and gun suicides, along with accidental gun-related deaths, those that involved law enforcement and ones that the circumstances could not be determined. The statistic does not include deaths in which gunshot injuries played a contributing, but not a principal role.

While some major fashion brands periodically use advertising to address social justice issues, the idea of using fashion shows to do, while also offering services to help implement change is not well-entrenched.

But Bruce, who is eager to expand and see others adopt this idea, said the concept allows for healing — and fun — while supporting a cause. “If I can show you a nice time, while I have your attention, can we talk about gun violence? It takes the sting out of the uncomfortable conversation that needs to be had,” she said.

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