Fashion culture is undoubtedly a test of stamina as much as it is of ability. It presents us with a glossy facade: the world of glamour. Occupations in fashion are hugely romanticised and the lifestyle is considered an illustrious fantasy. Yet, its focus on the superficial means that for those working in creative industries, their work is closely associated with identity and worth. Therefore, those with insecurities or vulnerabilities in regard to identity or value are at risk of experiencing life-encroaching anxiety. As a result of the competitiveness of the industry, little attention is paid to the issue of mental health for its employees. Fashion is notoriously crippling to the mental well-being of its workers. The ephemeral nature of fashion culture exacerbates the need for stimulation, and in turn, repeated rejection and fierce competition.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, workers in creative industries such as fashion are 25% more likely to experience mental health disorders. Designers, models and other professionals are generally subjected to long hours and a lot of stress to meet demanding deadlines. The pressurising expectations and impractical workloads are a recipe for mental deterioration. In an industry that values ambition and confidence, mental illness has long been a topic of weakness.
The fashion industry: An arena of relentless competition
Concomitant with the rewards of working in fashion are the unique pressures. Unlike any other industry, fashion is a culture as well as a corporation. This means that a 24 hour availability, interest and commitment is expected more intensely than in any other sector. Professions in fashion typically require being fully immersed in the culture. This entails an encroachment on your private life to make way for a busy social schedule of dinners, shows, parties and networking. Issues then arise from the increasingly blurred boundary between personal and work life. Keeping up with social events is crucial for gaining recognition in the industry, but this also leaves little time for rest and recuperation.
The challenging, fast-paced nature of the industry therefore expects a superhuman resilience. It encourages you to push yourself to the limit. The cycle of fast production is all-consuming and the industry’s emphasis on perfection only perpetuates this. For designers and models alike, meeting excessively high standards is damaging to mental well-being. It endorses a whole network of constant criticism that leaves many susceptible to a distorted sense of self-worth. Creativity in its nature is personal work, thus any criticism hits just that little bit harder. Fashion workers therefore typically enter into the whirlwind of the industry underprepared for managing the relentless pressure. The link between creative genius and a deterioration of mental health is a long-debated matter. Many of the industry’s top designers have been open about their struggles with mental illness. Designers are constantly chasing productivity and the completion of collections in fashion’s world that never sleeps.
Designers: Unravelling the creative brain
The transient and fleeting nature of the fashion industry perpetuates the enormous demands that designers have to meet. The industry expects constant reinvention and innovation. Brands need new collections each season, with each better than the previous one but also better than their competitors’. Designers are having to produce more in less time whilst still ensuring they showcase their best quality work. This creates high-pressure, stress, competition, long hours and high standards. Inevitably this combination brings an unbearable amount of psychological and physical exertion.
This highly competitive environment has proven to be too much for many of the world’s leading designers. Fashion house Viktor & Rolf are testament to this, leaving the fast-paced world of ready-made clothing to focus on couture. Their statement reads ‘the speed at which it has to be done does not help us. We are reflective people and need time to create.’ Similarly, Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaïa refuses to show collections in accordance with fashion week’s calendar. He chooses to showcase them when he feels they are complete.
Many renowned designers have been open about their mental illnesses. Marc Jacobs has checked into rehab twice for alcohol and substance abuse. Yet, more tragic cases see the deaths of designers succumbing to the intense pressures of their profession. Alexander McQueen’s suicide in 2010 rocked the fashion world. It unveiled his unpublicised tragic history of depression and anxiety. Also, the sudden death of Kate Spade is another tragic loss of a creative genius in the face of immense pressure. But how many more lives need to be lost before the fashion industry addresses the damaging lifestyle that it perpetuates?
Models and the psychology of perfectionism
The punishing pace of the industry is also forced damagingly onto those in modelling careers. Time and time again, models are overworked and succumb to eating disorders in an obligation to look flawless. The British Fashion Council commissioned The Model Health Inquiry 2007 to expose the less glamorous side of modelling. It suggests the vulnerability of many self-employed models without adequate support. The inquiry made many valuable suggestions for improving working conditions for models. It proposed that models working in London Fashion week should provide a medical certificate attesting their good physical health. Models should have access to a counsellor and a health education programme to raise awareness of eating disorders. This led to top model Erin O’Connor setting up a model sanctuary in 2008, a space for models to seek nutritional and psychological advice. The sanctuary closed in 2012 due to lack of funding.
Many renowned models have been open about their experiences of mental and physical illness. The standards of beauty the industry chases reaches higher and higher year on year. French model Victoire Dauxerre is the author of ‘Size Zero: My Life as a Disappearing Model’, warns models of the pitfalls of the career. From experience as a high-fashion model, she explains the habits of her lifestyle that entailed substituting meals for 3 apples per day. Models are constantly expected to conform to an unnatural ideal, facing perpetual criticism and rejection.
The future of fashion culture
The lack of understanding and regard for the issue of mental health in the industry ultimately amplifies it. Opening up a discussion with reach is crucial for protecting our creative minds. Thus, the newly formed Humans of Fashion Foundation is taking a holistic approach, launching an app to connect fashion professionals to licensed therapists and lawyers. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction in addressing mental health.
It is imperative that the fashion industry takes responsibility for the detrimental lifestyle it endorses. We must work to understand the crucial difference between what is motivational and ambitious, and what is damaging.