*Trigger warning* This article mentions suicide, substance abuse, cancer and mental health conditions which may be distressing to some readers.
Between breakdown, depression, burnout, eco-anxiety and post-pandemic stress disorder, the Western world is experiencing a mental health crisis. In the UK alone, 1 in 4 people have or will have a mental health problem, many of which are alleviated through counselling, medication or both, the Mental Health Foundation reports.
Fashion does influence our mental state. Cuts, colours and patterns are proven to enhance our mood and dressing up can in many ways be used to boost our self-esteem, improve our life chances in certain settings and aid us in promoting or differentiating ourselves from others. It allows us to express our identities or buy into a new one, often giving us a sense of belonging and having a clear feel-good factor...but at what price? What is the true cost of it all?
Due to the nature of the industry, fashion presents its own unique challenges to its many employees, business owners, freelancers, students and interns. They are subjected to high levels of stress, anti-social working hours and impossibly demanding deadlines. There is an immense mental pressure to constantly deliver on projects and endlessly come up with creative, innovative designs, trends, systems and ways to market - all whilst building a personal brand, being highly visible and attending exhaustive event schedules.
"Fashion says proudly you need to live, breathe and eat fashion 24 hours a day." - Caryn Franklin
The time between seasons or collections was traditionally six months, but with the rise of fast fashion (including fast luxury fashion as I call it) this cycle lasts only around three weeks at present. Fashion brands from highstreet to high-end are constantly pumping out newness and it's simply not humanly possible to keep up with it all.
When John Galliano (Creative Director of Maison Margiela, previously at Givenchy and Dior) had a publicly reported breakdown in 2011, he was overseeing 32 collections a year and a different fashion show every four weeks. He said that at the time he had all these voices in his head asking questions but he was afraid to say no as it may show weakness. This drove him to a point where he felt like he would either end up in a mental hospital or dead. This is one of many examples which come to show why it comes as no surprise that those working in fashion are 25% more likely to experience mental illness.
Galliano's experience highlights the common belief amongst people in the industry that if you seek help you are revealing a weakness about yourself and are therefore unable to cope with the nature of the industry and what it takes do your job. In British culture particularly, it is still very much considered inappropriate to discuss negative feelings at work and one must always put their best foot forward and keep it positive at all times. This is simply unrealistic.
THE FASHION BLUEPRINT #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek
The relentless cycle of the fashion industry often has people operating like a mouse on a wheel, making it difficult to feel like they can prioritise their mental health. Having worked in the fashion industry for 10 years, I can say it's quite common to hear people say they will take some time off to focus on their mental health "after fashion week is over", "after this round of fundraising", "after this campaign is out" and so on and so forth. Many times, these so called mental health breaks never actually take place as there is always something else to work on which is launching soon or which needs one's immediate attention and total dedication. Many also feel like they are only as good as the last thing they worked on, making it so that they are constantly pushing harder to put themselves out there so they can stay relevant and ultimately make a living.
This systemic problem needs to be addressed in all of its facets - from designers experiencing burnout, marketing professionals facing anxiety and a constant state of panic due to the precarity of their jobs, to garment production workers suffering from PTSD caused by unsafe working conditions, models battling with body dysmorphia and students experiencing depression and exhaustion, these are only a few of the issues faced which come to mind at the time of writing this.
It seems like a contradiction in terms when you consider that fashion is marketed as something that is supposed to make us happy. Buying new clothes is sold to consumers as a solution to negative emotions, otherwise known as 'retail therapy'. However the crucial detail that is often missed out is that this dopamine hit may be real but it is also short-lived and presents no real solutions to any of our actual issues.
Crowdsurfing show concept for Sunnei FW23
In September 2019 the late superstar designer Virgil Abloh announced that he would take a few months off to look after his wellbeing. It later transpired, that he was privately battling cancer whilst still working as Creative Director of Louis Vuitton Menswear, founder and Creative Director of Off White, DJ and serial creative collaborator across many industries, even outside of fashion. His hectic schedule was said to include up to eight international flights every week, to be able to meet the demands of his many projects. He sadly passed away on 28 November 2021, having lost his battle against cardiac angiosarcoma, a cancer in the form of a tumor impacting blood flow to and from the heart.
To go deeper into the subject of mental health specifically, there has always been a hidden aspect of the fashion industry that includes excessive drinking and misuse of drugs. Designer Marc Jacobs for example is known to have sought treatment for addiction at rehab facilities at least twice. The high pressure environments, expectations and impractical workload can often lead fashion professionals down a very dark path. Considering that we live in a world where confidence, a curated social media feed and good looks can land you great opportunities and financial rewards, mental health can often be overlooked in the pursuit of this 'high life'.
"I had been running around with models, stylists, fashion people and I would spend nights drinking and partying." - Marc Jacobs
Discussing and treating mental health conditions has typically been uncharted territory for society. Many people still don't really understand what clinical depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation can feel like for those who experience it. A great deal of work has been and continues to be done to raise awareness of the many issues that come with operating in society as we know it today, but often times the knowledge can get lost in practical terms.
When it comes to suicide for example, people who knew the victims often say they had no idea and the person's decision to take their life away was sudden and unexpected. In the fashion industry, the suicide of the late designer and couturier Alexander McQueen in 2010 came as a shock and til this day it is unclear why he did it as he only left a note saying "I am sorry ... please look after my dogs. Sorry ... I love you ...Lee.". This was 3 years after the suicide of fashion editor Isabella Blow, who is credited with discovering McQueen. She who was described by her loved ones as the life of the party, was reported to have been battling with depression for a long time.
Most recently in 2018, fashion designer Kate Spade who had also been suffering with her mental health was found in her Manhattan apartment hanging from a red scarf. In the same year, a student at the Antwerp Fashion Academy in Belgium, which has seen graduates of the likes of Dries van Noten and Ann Demeulenmeester, Martin Margiela and Demna Gvasalia, committed suicide as a result of the pressures of their studies. The course in question is deemed so difficult that it has only but a 23% graduation rate for its degree programme.
It doesn't end there. We could talk about models who are often young and vulnerable, experiencing mental health problems due to poor eating habits, long working hours, lack of sleep and ultimately burnout. Although there has been a shift towards more body positive imagery, high-end fashion in particular is still very much obsessed with thinness and youth, putting pressure on models to sacrifice their health and often experiencing body dysmorphia or suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
Social media influencers who have now in many ways replaced the traditional role of models, feel they are not attractive or desirable enough to work with certain brands so they are willing to undergo cosmetic surgery to attain a standard of beauty that will grant them more likes, followers and engagement.
Is there something that can be done about it?
Being in the industry ourselves, at TFB we feel a responsibility towards raising awareness but also doing our part in helping others to have the courage to take a step back and shift the balance towards life/work rather than work/life.
As part of Mental Health Awareness Week we have created a 30 day wellness challenge for fashion entrepreneurs, industry professionals and anyone who is looking to take small steps every day to achieve more balance in their every day life.
We are not trained doctors, psychologists or counsellors so we are unable to provide in-depth solutions for the many issues that come with working in fashion. Our take is that change needs to happen at a structural level, and it starts with a cultural shift and personal accountability. We are by no means trying to simplify a serious, complex topic, we are simply doing what we can to help shape the industry in a healthier way.
Albeit slowly, change is happening
With such high-profile figures speaking more openly about their mental health, more and more companies are starting to take active steps in providing healthier workplaces. The shift in attitude towards sustainability, diversity and inclusion are also opening doors for more open conversation and structural change which helps to alleviate some of the issues which lead fashion professionals to struggle with their mental health.
During my time in Selfridges back in 2016-17 I was able to host a workshop on mental wellbeing for staff and witness how employees felt seen and heard with that initiative. Around that time, the company was working on an extensive Employee Wellbeing Programme which they have now fully launched. When I worked at Louis Vuitton in 2018-20 they offered free counselling for employees via an anonymous mental health helpline that was available to all. Outside of where I've worked, I have also seen a number of new initiatives such as the Model's Health Pledge in Amsterdam, Farfetch partnering with Unmind to offer mental health assessments to employees and advice on internal and external services to access further help.
I am also a huge advocate for seeking counselling and professional help. Therapy has a bad rep for being expensive, but as someone who lives in London, the price for one session is cheaper than a night out and it's cheaper than getting a cab back home from said night out (for perspective). It can also be accessed for free via the NHS if you are open to discussing how you feel with your GP or calling a mental health crisis helpline.
To further support smaller fashion businesses, entrepreneurs, freelancers and anyone seeking to learn more about how to preserve or improve their mental health, here is a list of free resources which we find helpful.
Happify - science-backed activities and games, in an app offering a personalised plan based on a short mental health assessment, your goals and preferences.
Daily calm - 10 min guided meditations powered by Calm, the no.1 app for sleep, meditation and relaxation.
NHS Mental wellbeing audio guides - a series of audibles to help you boost your mood. It contains relaxation techniques, tips on getting a good night sleep and guides to replace negative thoughts with positive thinking.
Shout 85258 number - the UK's first and only free, confidential, 24/7 text messaging support service for anyone who is struggling to cope.
Mind - a mental health charity offering information and advice to people with mental health problems and which lobbies government and local authorities on their behalf.
Samaritans - a suicide prevention helpline available 24hrs, 365 days a year
The Black Wellbeing Collective - a digital mental health platform and wellbeing service that prioritises the lived experiences of the Black community to heal from racial trauma, racial bias, racism and discrimination.
Written by Giovanna Vieira Co, 2023
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