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Mental health in fashion: it’s time to talk

In a world of fast-paced fashion, expectations on designers are reaching fever pitch – do we risk driving them to the brink?

Last week, the CFDA announced that New York would join London, Paris and Milan in getting its own men’s fashion week. The response was lukewarm. “New York Finally Gets Its Own Men’s Wear Week – But Will Anybody Come?” questioned Vanessa Friedman’s piece for the New York Times, before pointing out that this addition to the calendar would mean almost non-stop fashion shows from January to March, a month of which kick off the AW15 womenswear season today. For those on the outside, the relentless pace of the industry is difficult to grasp. For insiders, the system of seasons and shows has become so familiar that it’s impossible to imagine abiding by any other calendar, or to conceive of a break in the cycle – despite suffering from what The Business of Fashion founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed dubs “fashion week fatigue.”

Each season brings more shows, campaigns, tweets and live streams, with even designers like Jacquemus and J.W.Anderson now adding the (admittedly money-spinning) mid-season collections to their output. Fashion weeks are profitable, too: with New York estimated to be worth $900m (more than the Super Bowl), it’s no surprise that growth is encouraged. It’s easy to get swept up in it all, to find little time to stop and question if bigger is always better. If we did, we might interrogate the fact that the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier and Viktor & Rolf have recently abandoned ready-to-wear to focus on couture – Gaultier citing “the frenetic pace” of creating collections which doesn’t “leave any freedom, nor the necessary time, to find fresh ideas and to innovate.” But the issues run deeper than a lack of inspiration.

With the industry only getting faster, the schedules getting fuller, the expectation on designers building, the time is right to start a conversation about fashion and the mental health of those at the centre of it. At its heart, fashion demands perfection and so attracts perfectionists – two of whom are particular talking points of the industry at the moment. Last month, John Galliano returned to the runway – exiled after being fired from Dior for an antisemitic rant – to take over at Maison Margiela. Yesterday marked the five-year anniversary of Alexander McQueen’s suicide, and next month monumental retrospective Savage Beauty will open at the V&A. Although different in their designs, both shared the unquenchable desire to push the boundaries of fashion, season after season. In a 2011 documentary on McQueen, fashion critic Godfrey Deeny recalls an occasion when, backstage, he admitted to the designer that he thought the collection wasn’t his best. McQueen’s response was to weep. “So now you please everyone,” an interviewer commented in a 1995 Dazed interview, discussing McQueen’s first foray into menswear. “Except myself” was the response.

“I was going to end up in a mental asylum or six feet under,” Galliano told Vanity Fair in his first interview since his dismissal at Dior – according to him, his first sober interview ever. Later speaking to American TV host Charlie Rose, he explained what drove him to the edge: “I was afraid to say no... I thought it showed weakness. And with more and more success, I would just say yes. And keep on taking more work on, which took its toll.” All in all, he was overseeing an astounding 32 collections a year (an average of more than 2.5 a month) between Dior and his own label, directing everything from handbags and jewellery to perfumes and kidswear. It left him “emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally bankrupt,” relying on drink and drugs to “stop the voices” in his head. What did Galliano feel upon hearing of McQueen’s death? “I understood... that loneliness, that pain... as addicts we’re in search of perfection. We’re setting that bar impossibly high. We don’t understand why we’re doing it, and people say, ‘Wow, how are you going to top that?’ and we say, ‘Well, yeah, we’re going to don’t worry.’ That’s what makes us wake up in the morning.” 

When Galliano emerged – clad in a white labcoat, hair tucked into a neat ponytail – to take a brief bow after his Margiela debut in London last month, it was a symbolic, almost baptismal gesture; the first page of a new chapter. He was no longer the costumed ringleader who would prance down the Dior runway dressed as Napoleon, an astronaut or a sailor. Many welcomed him back, feeling that the time was right – not to forgive and forget, but to allow him a second chance. But in the relief that Galliano made it through the darkness, we risk forgetting what drove him to the state that he was in, that transformed the designer whose first love was Jewish, who fought for diversity on the runway, into a drunken shadow of himself, stammering racist insults. “That was a man who was broken, drugged, at the end of his tether, virtually insane,” said Nick Knight in the SHOWstudio after show panel. “John wasn’t that person.” Speaking to French newspaper Le Point, Galliano offered one explanation for his behaviour: “I’ve been told I committed professional suicide because it was the only escape from the terrible pressures I was facing.”

Galliano and McQueen were human beings struggling to please with the eyes of the world watching their every move. Yet the sympathy we afford others struggling with illness (and alcoholism, drug addiction and depression are illnesses) sometimes feels lacking when their stories are told. It’s not to be found in Dana Thomas’ twin biography of Galliano and McQueen, Gods and Kings, released last week by Penguin – the book had The Independent’s Alexander Fury hurling it across the room, and encouraging others to do the same. Although Thomas regards the designers as “sacrificed in the name of capitalism”, what could have been an opportunity to create a rallying cry for the industry to look after its talents falls short. Instead, there’s a macabre pleasure in the 15 lines she dedicates to detailing McQueen’s death, later accusing the “arrogant” Galliano of launching a tour of rehearsed (read: insincere) apologies motivated by a desperate need to shift public opinion rather any real desire to atone. “Gods and Kings is one of those odd books that makes you wonder why the author wrote it, so obviously does she loathe her subject matter,” wrote Fury.

And of course, they aren’t the only fashion figures to have been brought under the glare of public scrutiny for similar reasons. Isabella Blow, recently commemorated in exhibition Fashion Galore! at Somerset House, ended her own life in 2007. When creative director Christophe Decarnin left Balmain in 2011 among whispers of a nervous breakdown, headlines hissed of ‘scandalous rumours’ and an apparent stint in a psychiatric ward, with a spokesperson assuring the press that his condition was “not anything physical” – the subtext was clear: “not anything too serious”. Little has been heard of him since, and his reputation for transforming a French house into the place for all things covetable, sexy and super-expensive is now defined by mental illness. Now, rather shockingly, when you Google his name to read about his work the first search result autocorrects to ‘Christophe Decarnin mental hospital’. That the successful head of a fashion house had been driven to a nervous breakdown should have been cause for long, hard thought on the pressure put on designers. L’Wren Scott’s suicide last year showed that little has changed – it was a field day for the tabloids, who unpicked her personal life with barely concealed glee.

Individually, these events are tragic, but they point towards a larger problem. There’s a tendency to do two things when mental health is brought up in a fashion context: to scandalise or to deify people, neither of which demand that we face up to the implications of what happened to them. We celebrate Isabella Blow through her legacy, admiring her incredible clothes and the images she created; we welcome John Galliano back to the fold, thankful he has found a place to create again; we book our tickets for Savage Beauty, paying our respects at the altar of McQueen. Such acts are vital. But we need to have a real conversation about responsibility. Are we discussing how to ensure that never again are our brightest talents burning out or extinguished completely before their time? Why not?

The idea that creativity and brilliance are naturally linked to depression and mental illness has been echoed for centuries, but too often there is a tendency to blame the archetype of the troubled artistic genius without recognising the sheer pressure they were under – from CEOs demanding increased sales, from the press, and from themselves. But it’s also too simplistic to cast them as ‘victims’ driven mad by a cruel and ruthless industry – according to charity MIND, one in four people in the UK will experience mental health problems over the course of a year. It’s a problem that affects people from all walks of life, but it’s one we still struggle to talk about. Surely fashion played a complex, consuming role in these people’s lives, but simply blaming a system for what happened to them absolves responsibility: if those who work in this industry don’t have the power to change it, who does?

Fashion as an industry is unique in the extent to which creativity is tied to commercialism. David Lynch’s Lost Highway only made back $3.7m of it’s $15m budget. Has that tarnished his reputation as a brilliant auteur? It’s a tired phrase, but still true – in fashion, you’re only as good as your last collection. The pressure is always on. Recent ‘shake-ups’ at designer houses are proof of that. As the industry is poised to take on more, more, more, we need to stop and think whether this is what’s really needed. Dior & I, a new documentary released at the end of March, chronicles the eight weeks that Galliano’s successor Raf Simons had to conceive and create his debut collection for the Paris house, while also overseeing his own menswear label based in Antwerp. It’s an unprecedented look at the mechanics of high fashion: the hours that go into each piece, the hundreds of people involved. In one scene, staff huddle around a dress, working through the night to painstakingly unpick rows and rows of intricate beading

“I’ve come to really question the system,” admitted Simons in the spring/summer 2014 issue of Dazed. “As much as I am part of it, I have to question it for the simple reason that I wonder how far it can go. How far can it go until the moment that it might not work any more?” The industry is so concerned with creating the new that there’s a tendency to ignore the responsibility it has to the people at its heart, to those driving it forward season after season. With another fashion week looming, it’s time to recognise that something needs to change. Mental health in fashion is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Lead image: John Galliano’s AW00 show for Dior Couture