Mental Health in the Fashion World

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In a padded and tiled room, the chime of a music box echoes on loop and a single light bulb flickers. Headless mannequins hang above the catwalk and as M&M pills are distributed to the front row, it becomes clear to the audience that the setting for Thom Browne’s SS14 collection is that of a macabre mental hospital. As the models shuffle down the catwalk with forlorn expressions, the question arises: why the emphasis on mental illness?

The idea of creative genius being linked to mental illness has long been romanticized, but we cannot resort to this archetype of the tortured visionary and its glamorization in the media to justify why so little is being done to ensure psychological well-being within the fashion industry. Behind the beautifully presented models, magnificent gowns and grandiose catwalks, there lies a darker side to the fashion industry, one that is much less widely advertised.

When it comes down to it, fashion is a business, and at its heart, designers bear the weight of millions of pounds worth in sales relying on their creative work. It may be a cliché, but in the fast-paced world of the fashion industry, you really are only as good as your last collection and designers are under constant pressure to appease their buyers, the press, and their investors, all whilst also satisfying their own artistic ideals.

Alexander_McQueen_by_FashionWirePressOn top of this, the world of fashion is constantly and exponentially growing. Over 250 designers currently show their work at New York Fashion Week, and during this frantic period in the fashion calendar, designers and their teams have no choice but to work all hours. Over the years, this has taken its toll on some of our leading creatives.

Who can forget Alexander McQueen’s suicide in 2010, shortly following the death of his mother? The majority of the press coverage focused on McQueen’s recent loss as being the main cause of his suicide, but Carole Cadwalladr explained it in rather a different light in her opinion piece on the designer, “the most common background to a suicide is undiagnosed depression…. [it] is a response to mental illness, not bereavement.”

Galliano, having returned to the runway after being fired for his infamous anti-semitic rant, empathized with how McQueen may have been feeling prior to his death. He too was a perfectionist with impossibly high standards and an avidity to push the boundaries of fashion, all with the world watching and judging his every move. In an interview, Galliano admitted, “I was afraid to say no, I thought it showed weakness” and that this left him “emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally bankrupt.” By resorting to alcohol and drugs in an attempt to escape the intense pressure of the industry, Galliano jeopardized his entire career

Acclaimed figures Isabella Blow, Christophe Decarnin, and L’Wren Scott also suffered breakdowns that can be partially attributed to industry-related stress and common to all of these events is the unsympathetic tone of public response.

That the head of a leading fashion house could be driven to suicide should provoke serious thought as to how the industry could be made a healthier place for all involved. The business of fashion often thrives on gossip, and stories of this kind are scandalized and the victims deified. Incentivizing good health in models remains an issue, but the conversation is being had and as a result many editors are taking steps in the right direction and have stated that they will not use models that are obviously suffering from eating disorders or addictions. However, this is not enough. At this point, a conversation must be had about ensuring the mental health of those who power the industry behind-the-scenes, season after season, before any more of our brightest talents are lost before their time.

Photographs: The Coincidental Dandy via Flickr, Ed Kavishe via Wikimedia Commons.

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