GFF contributor Chloe Ford speaks to Caryn Franklin MBE and George Hodgson, founder of brand Maison de Choup, to discuss if fashion is bad for our mental health — or if it attracts those who are vulnerable — and what the industry is doing to fix the deeply rooted issue.
In an industry that fosters and martyrs the tortured creative, it’s no surprise that the fashion business is inextricably tied to mental health. The tortured artist trope has stretched back for centuries — Plato believed that “good poets are not in their right mind when they make their beautiful songs” — so it’s no surprise we have grown up thinking that creatives are likely to suffer. A study by The Ulster University found that creatives are three times more likely to experience mental illness than the general population — most commonly diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
The pace and the scale of the fashion industry has taken its toll on a huge number of creatives. From the anonymous sufferers to high profile figures like Alexander McQueen, whose suicide came shortly after that of his mentor Isabella Blow. Marc Jacobs, John Galliano and Yves Saint Laurent have all suffered publicly with mental health issues and substance abuse, while recently Kate Spade committed suicide in 2018. It sets up a debate on whether fashion is bad for our mental health or if it attracts those who are vulnerable.
“Those who work in fashion are sensitive,” says Caryn Franklin, diversity professor at Kingston University and renowned fashion commentator. “We depend upon our emotions for our creativity. On top of this, fashion environments that create toxic workplaces undermine their workers’ efforts.” The instability of the industry compounds this pressure, she explains. “When leaders are fearful for their own positions, they pass the stress down to those less powerful.”
So what can be done to fight this? George Hodgson, the designer behind award winning brand Maison De Choup, is running a fashion label with mental health cause at its core. Maison De Choup sells t-shirts, sweatshirts and badges that donate 25% of profits to the youth mental health charity, YoungMinds.
Whilst suffering through severe anxiety and OCD, George would write and draw to express how he was feeling. Soon after, he began printing on t-shirts and before long, Maison De Choup was born. George describes Maison De Choup as “Being disruptive in the fashion world and coming in with a strong message, story and meaning.”
Maison De Choup isn’t alone in addressing mental health through fashion. High street brand Monki collaborated with Mental Health Europe to create ‘All the Feels’, a line that raises awareness of the positive and negative effects of social media on our mental health. New Age clothing brand MadHappy have centred their brand DNA around optimism to create uplifting clothing. They’ve also created a blog “with the goal of creating conversation around mental health.”
Despite these initiatives, it is still difficult to distinguish brands that meaningfully engaging with mental health issues from those who are jumping on the bandwagon for the good PR. What is obvious is that to authentically engage and address the issue, brands need to focus equally on the public facing and behind the scenes. “Every brand must have a ‘Wellness Policy,’ that is communicated at interview stage and honoured within in the workplace and visibly displayed,” explains Franklin. “Issues that impact mental health should be prioritised in meetings, just as much as production or design issues and there should be a trained team in HR to deal with escalation and disciplinary protocol.”
There is evidence to suggest that this would help. In 2017 mental health charity Mind introduced a workplace wellbeing index which 15,000 employees participated in. The results showed that a positive work environment has a positive impact on both employees wellbeing and productivity levels. Franklin adds that, “studies show that our productivity is at its highest when we are in a supportive environment for creativity and the production of ideas.” By this logic, fixing fashions mental health issues will not just help our personal wellbeing, but also our creative output. However, change won’t come overnight because “the boundaries are more blurred in fashion,” says Franklin. “The person who lands the job is constantly having to prove they deserve to be there — this culture must change.”
“we must push the social science that connects good mental health and safety with higher productivity levels to prove the obvious advantages of looking after the workforce.”
It is important to know that as a creative you are not alone, and despite the stress that comes with working in creative industries, creativity itself can in fact aid our mental health. A study done in 2010 by Heather L. Stuckey and Jeremy Nobel on the connection between art and healing found that creative work “helps people express experiences that are too difficult to put into words.”
The industry has a long road ahead to rethink the toxic workplace culture that creates a breeding ground for mental health issue. We only have to look at manufacturing in third world countries to see how garment workers are treated, and the time, legislation and effort it is taking to address this.
“It has been hard to help everybody in the system to recognise the multiple problematic outcomes of exploiting garment workers and creatives,” says Franklin. “We are left in a position where we must push the social science that connects good mental health and safety with higher productivity levels to prove the obvious advantages of looking after the workforce to industry leaders.” by continuing the conversation and destigmatising mental health, the intention is to empower employees to “call out bad practice and can ask for better on behalf of ourselves and others”.
By Chloe Ford