FASHION AND MENTAL HEALTH - appearances can be deceptive

FASHION AND MENTAL HEALTH - appearances can be deceptive

Fashion is a unique blend of creativity and business. When the balance is found the results can be remarkable. Seeing a creative concept come to life, sell, make people smile and connect with others through an unspoken language is thoroughly rewarding. Fashion demands a commercial element and perhaps this is why it is often viewed as less noble than other creative outlets such as art, dance, music…

Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.
— Andy Warhol

The push and pull between creativity and business adds pressure to people working in fashion. The pressure is felt because you have to be creative on demand working to tight deadlines, repeatedly, and to design products that not only make headlines but sell. What we need to consider is how we can make the pressure something that we collectively take responsibility for, not just leave it for the individual to cope with.   

The fashion industry demands a lot, emotionally, creatively, mentally and physically. Leatherworkers, factory machinists, magazine editors, models and designers all have very different roles within the industry but they each feel the demands the industry places on them. A leatherworker’s hands bear signs of continual use, a cotton worker may have respiratory issues from pesticides and a designer maybe so stressed they don’t sleep. 

If we think of the industry in the UK - the creative home of fashion - the roles on offer tend to be: design/buying for a large brand, in media and within SME brands. With the most revered roles as Creative Director, Editor and Founder/CEO. Although these roles may not be the most physically demanding they demand a lot mentally.

The concepts of endurance, stamina, stress and survival are something that we take for granted in the fashion industry.

Surviving an unpaid internship
Having the stamina to make it up the ranks 
Being a creative genius, repeatedly
Consistently make the company money from your ideas
Surviving fashion week
Enduring being badly treated because its an honour to work there

Fashion at times can feel like a test of stamina rather than ability. It’s no wonder the phrases Fashion Army (ie. Balmain Army) or Fashion Mafia have been known to be used, you could say we are at war, with fashion, with each other, with ourselves.  

Pressure can be a great motivator but too much can make us unwell both physically and mentally. We need to understand the difference between what is motivational and what is damaging. Pressure can turn to stress which can manifest in our bodies, give us headaches, poor digestion, insomnia and has also been linked with cancer. Sadly, suicide is also something that we have come accustomed to in fashion. Tragically Isabella Blow, Alexander McQueen, L'Wren Scott and Kate Spade have all committed suicide. 

Kate Spade’s husband Andy Spade said in a statement to The New York Times, “She was actively seeking help for depression and anxiety over the last 5 years, seeing a doctor on a regular basis and taking medication for both depression and anxiety. There was no substance or alcohol abuse. There were no business problems. We loved creating our businesses together.”

A statement that fills the heart with sadness and confusion. Something that sadly we are not shocked by. 

We have also been made aware the pressures of fashion by John Galliano who after his antisemitic incident in an interview with Vanity Fair contributing editor Ingrid Sischy said, "I was going to end up in a mental asylum or six feet under... it sounds a bit bizarre, but I am so grateful for what did happen. I have learned so much about myself. I have re-discovered that little boy who had the hunger to create, which I think I had lost. I am alive.” Galliano also described downing bottles of vodka, taking large numbers of pills and experiencing blackouts. These are not actions that of someone who is happy working in fashion. 

Another example of stress and how we self medicate to cope is Marc Jacobs, who has been in rehab twice, once in 1999 and again in February 2007, for alcohol and cocaine abuse.

The topic of sustainability in fashion is gaining momentum and we must also consider that mental health is a sustainability issue. It’s up to us to work together to understand what is good and bad pressure, and when that pressure and stress becomes too much arm ourselves with the right tools to manage our situation and importantly create an environment where we can ask for help.

Having worked in fashion for over 20 years I’ve collected many experiences and as you’d imagine heard many stories. From ‘pulling all-nighters’ to meet deadlines to an intern working in a Parisian couture house being made to stand for hours with her hand outstretched, palm facing up to hold pins for a designer.  These fashion stories are commonplace.

“Fashion is a total injustice. It’s like that. And that’s it.” Karl Lagerfeld allegedly said in response to Giulia Mensitieri’s book (yet to be translated into English), The Most Beautiful Job in the World.

This implies not only an understanding but an acceptance of how things are within the industry. However, there is a feeling of change starting to rise above the surface. Globally we are seeing a desire for change, more of us becoming involved in fashion activism, a phase created by Celine Seeman Vernon. No longer do we want to accept just the way it is, we want an industry that is kind to the planet and people.

When we consider that millennials are choosing not to work for large luxury fashion houses because the brand’s values don’t align with their own, we can see that just the way it is, is no longer a good enough.

Factors such as financial security can add to the stress of working in fashion. Do we consider unpaid internships luxury slave labour or an honour to work for the fashion house? Is being paid in products great, or would it be better to be paid in cash so we can pay our rent? After all, we have to look the part to work in fashion, but we also have to live and ideally be financially secure. 

We are not great at discussing our financial affairs, physical or mental wellbeing in fashion. Thankfully there is change on the horizon. 

I was invited to attend Voices of Fashion on Mental Health, the fashion industry’s first standalone event opening the debate around mental health within fashion.

The event created by Optimal-i and its iCAAD series of conferences is dedicated to expanding knowledge, exchanging ideas, advancing the prevention and treatment of Behavioural, Mental, and Emotional health issues (BME Health). By sharing learnings from the event with our network we can facilitate dialogue around BME Health on a global level to have a direct impact on individual’s lives as well as to inform best practice for the fashion industry and professionals in the field of mental health. 

The fashion industry has an increasing focus on the trend of wellbeing. Creating clothing (athleisure, yoga wear…) and marketing strategies centred around the trend that looks set to stay. Now it’s time to bring wellbeing into the fashion workplace, into fashion culture, not just product design. 

We need to look after the people who work in fashion from a holistic point of view. We need to address all the different elements that are taught in fashion schools and create a workplace we are proud of, one that is kind to us. How to work with pressure, recognise signs of stress and how to look after yourself physically and mentally is not usually part of a fashion dialogue. 

The way fashion education tends to prepare you for a tough industry is by testing you, pushing you to your limits, applying intense pressure to see how you cope. If you don’t cope then it’s likely you’re not cut out to work in fashion. Fashion schools are also under pressure to be the best, to be at the top of league tables, after all, they are a business too. 

Optimal-i and iCAAD are addressing the problem of mental health in the fashion industry by supporting employers and individuals by setting out:

What the workplace provide

  • Employers can never be too aware of the importance of supporting mental health and emotional wellbeing, to have an organisational culture of openness and acceptance. This can include mental health de-stigmatisation campaigns, mandatory training on wellbeing and activities to support employee resilience 

  • Proactive mental health: An employer may offer support for individuals experiencing periods of poor mental health. This could be achieved through intervention training for employees to spot and act on signs of poor mental heal in themselves and others, using employee assistance programmes or discussions around workloads and working styles 

  • Reactive mental health support: If an individual’s condition becomes severe, the employer may offer reactive interventions which include therapy and access to mental health professionals 

What individuals can do 

  • Practice self-awareness 

  • Reach out and ask for help

  • Encourage Courageous Conversations by focusing on human connection and the concept of identification, educate ourselves on mental health and its diverse manifestations, to uncovering meaningful pathways to recovery for ourselves and others.

We know that the inclusion of diverse perspectives leads to a more creative, empathic and successful workforce. One where we can explore our unique gifts, so it’s about time that mental health was given space to be discussed in the fashion industry. 

A champion of creating an inclusive fashion industry, Caryn Franklin, who opened the event believes that we must change the fashion industry from within.

Each one of us can make a commitment towards change. Small shifts start to happen when we become individually conscious of the things we want to contribute. Larger changes happen when we group together in agreement. Choosing to express emotion that is telling us to act, and feeling that movement within us puts us in touch with our own authenticity and power. Being vocal about our desire for ethical process and emotional sustainability in the workplace emboldens others, we don’t have to know all the answers...just sharing and supporting each other is a huge step forward.
— Caryn Franklin

We are all part of the solution. We are creatives with the ability to create trends, shape how people view the world, we can be influencers in our own destiny. It is time to change from a mentality of fashion survival to one of fashion radiance. 


Farah Liz Pallaro who wrote, FASHION. BUSINESS. SPIRITUALITY : A call to the light workers of the fashion industry, was also a speaker at the event. Farah’s book centres around the human aspect of the industry, the awareness of the self, and the spirituality and self-development that comes with it. When I sat down with Farah, who has worked in and taught in fashion for many years, she told me how she has seen creatives taking prescribed medication to ‘cope’ with the pressure, cases of burn out, manipulation and abusive behaviour. 

We need to cut the cycle. There is a lot of manipulation, there is abusive behaviour within the fashion industry. The first problem we have is the lack of information. Many people do not know what is abuse, and how to identify that correctly.
— Farah Liz Pallaro

How we create, or why we create is as important as the output. We focus on the end result a lot in fashion. The catwalk show, the magazine front cover and the supposed glamour of life at the top. However what we fail to look at is how we get to that end goal and how we feel along the way.

It is often said that there are two places that we can create from, one is from balance and one is from trauma. The fashion machine always pushes the trauma. The SME’s have a lot of power to change this, to contribute in a positive way. The consumer is becoming more aware of issues, the younger generation is aware of ethics and what that means for products and working conditions. There are many people suffering in the name of fashion, not just in factories, but also in luxury houses too.
— Farah Liz Pallaro

Farah’s book, which I urge everyone to read, looks at how we can each take it upon ourselves to build a world that we want to exist within. By creating a healthy vision of the future we can individually and collectively work towards making this vision a reality.

Let’s not make struggling with issues, especially mental health issues, part of the job. Let’s not survive the fashion industry but be able to flourish in creative, fulfilling, truly beautiful industry. It’s is time for us to change.

Thank you to Maylis at iCAAD, Sophie at Panpathic, Caryn, Farah for your inspiration and contributions.

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