TRIGGER WARNING: suicide, addiction
No industry is exempt from mental health issue – not even the fashion industry. Often perceived as something exclusive, elusive, and unapproachable, it is easy to see why the mental health issues many of the creative of the fashion world struggle with is not something that has been widely discussed until the last few years – in spite of having been prevalent for decades. One of the first times the world paid attention to mental health in the industry was thirty years ago, when one of the original supermodels, Gia Carangi, died from AIDS-related complications following years of struggling with drug addiction. Almost thirty years later, little had changed in terms of mental health visibility – not just in the fashion industry, but the world as a whole – and 2010 began with the tragic suicide of Alexander McQueen, coming only three years after the suicide of fashion icon Isabella Blow. Four short years after the loss of McQueen, L’Wren Scott took her own life, too. With the frantic pace of the industry, as well as the demand for absolute perfection, it is easy to see why those working in it have struggled, and continue to struggle – and why it is so vital to ensure that these are issues that are being discussed openly.
A study publicised by The Telegraph last year showed that people in creative fields are 25% more likely to suffer from mental disorders – a massive increase from the already troubling fact that ¼ of UK citizens have mental health issues at some point in their lives. The suggested cause for this is that creative people tend to have different thinking patterns, which can be alienating. Personally speaking, I think the major factor is also the additional stress that arises from working in a creative field – be it the instability or the pressure to churn out content.
Anyone with some knowledge of the fashion industry – or anyone who has seen The Devil Wears Prada – will be aware of its fast pace and long hours. People report going for days without sleep, all to ensure that their hefty workload gets done in time. Perhaps the most obvious area of the industry with mental health issues – or just the most visible – is modelling. Countless models lose themselves in their own bodies, fixating on nothing else but their appearance – only to be told that they are, still, too fat. In a StyleLikeU video, Calvin Klein campaign model Myla Dalbesio says that she began abusing Adderall – speed, essentially – in order to curb her appetite and have more energy to work out for hours on end. Charli Howard, another StyleLikeU speaker, speaks of similar issues – her size 6 body was ‘too big’ for her agency, which ended up dropping her. The pressure she felt to lose weight ended up destroying many of her personal relationships, as well as having a detrimental effect on her mental health – mainly her body image.
In terms of the designers themselves, many cite the combination of the nearly unmanageable workload as well as the perfectionism associated with the industry as the main causes of their struggles. In an article for Dazed, Emma Hope Allwood writes of John Galliano, who, at the height of his career at Dior and his eponymous label, was responsible for 32 collections a year. He claims that with the surmounting pressure, he turned to drink and drugs to “stop the voices in [his] head”. In the aforementioned article, Galliano himself, when speaking of McQueen, is quoted stating that perfectionism is a shared trait between the two designers. I would go as far as to argue that it’s a trait shared by most creatives – this innate need to make the finished outcome look like whatever you envisioned in your head. However, unlike most artists, designers do not create solely for themselves. Even those in charge of their own labels, they are still responsible for making a profit – this means creating something to please the company board, critics, buyers, and consumers alike. And, with the introduction of mid-season collections, doing so once or twice every few months; this led to Raf Simons shock departure from Dior, after only three years with the label. When you prioritise creativity over profit, you risk losing your career, or your label – just look at what happened to Meadham Kirchhoff last year. This, obviously, means that designers are not only mentally and creatively exhausted all throughout the year, but also under immense pressure to perform from the companies they are designing for. In 2011, Balmain’s Christophe Decarnin suddenly quit the label, amidst rumours of a mental breakdown and a stint at a psychiatric hospital. Regardless of whether or not the rumours are grounded in truth, this would not be shocking – there are countless studies that show just how detrimental an effect stress can have on an individual, with high correlation rates between stress, depression, and anxiety, as well as generally poor physical health (which goes back around to depression, stress, and anxiety, creating a vicious cycle). Combine that with a potential history with mental illness and the results can result in lives lost.
The truly shocking thing is that in the years following the suicides of Blow, McQueen, and Scott, little has changed – but at least it’s being talked about more. Fashion is a business, and this is clear in its treatment of its creative forces. A business relies on profits and successful ad campaigns, on getting new products out to the ever-hungry consumers as fast as possible. It does not care about the humans behind the collections, the ad campaigns, the runway shows put on at an increasing frequency. Maybe it’s not glamorous to talk of stress, of depression, anxiety, the multitude of other struggles people in and out of the fashion industry face in their day-to-day lives. Maybe it’s not glamorous, maybe it’s not good for business, but maybe, just maybe, it’s a vital conversation to have.