Fashion and mental health: the one trend nobody mentions

Isabella Blow, Alexander McQueen, Ruslana Korshunova and now L’Wren Scott: all people working in the fashion industry who, as far as we know, committed suicide.

The fashion industry is, sadly, all too used to burying its own in circumstances like these. Alongside all the high glamour, excitement and fun of the business, there is an undeniable darker side. As well as those who have taken their own lives, countless others have suffered from substance abuse problems. Just think of John Galliano, whose antisemitic rant and subsequent downfall was largely attributed to his alcoholism, or the infamous shots of Kate Moss snorting cocaine. Then there are those whose mental wellbeing has been so compromised that they have had to leave their careers, like Christophe Decarnin, who left Balmain in 2011 amid rumours about his mental health. And all of this without even mentioning fashion’s poor record in terms of supporting models with severe eating disorders. Is there something about the fashion business which is simply not conducive to good mental health?

Now it is of course reductive and even disrespectful to simply attribute L’Wren Scott’s death to her involvement in the industry, and the same goes for everyone else mentioned so far. Fashion is not unique in that many other careers have their negative impacts too, moreover there can be various reasons for someone’s depression or addiction which exist outside of the workplace. Yet it is still worth looking at the conditions under which the fashion industry operates and whether these might contribute to a lack of mental wellbeing amongst those who work in it.

The obvious issue, and the one most oft-quoted by the mainstream media, is the glamorisation which fashion bestows on unhealthy ideals. It is perhaps an inevitable result of a world which seeks to find the most beautiful and thrilling aspects of life, elevate them, and turn them into a product to be bought or else lusted after. We’ve all heard the horror stories of models eating cotton wool in pursuit of that elusive ‘sample size’. Then there’s the image of the typical ‘fashion party’, complete with free-flowing champagne and illegal substances in the back room. True, many editors have now agreed to codes of conduct, stating that they will not use models who are obviously suffering from eating disorders or addictions. But when the ‘heroin chic’ look of the ‘90s is still seen as part of such a desirable lifestyle, is it any surprise that many are still prepared to do anything to achieve it?

Another factor may well be the way in which the industry thrives on scandal. Whilst those who consistently and without controversy produce excellent results can be respected for their work, it is the designers who divide opinion that really grab the attention of the fashion press. The enfants terribles of fashion are lauded for their bad behaviour, but the pressure of maintaining this reputation can prove an immense strain. Designers are under an obligation to please their buyers, the press, their investors, and their own (often perfectionist) creative ideals. Even worse, in a world where taste changes twice a year, it is always possible that the fashion intelligence will move on, leaving last season’s wunderkind bereft of the attention to which they’ve become accustomed. Isabella Blow allegedly killed herself out of concern for her “waning celebrity status”; the anxiety of remaining ‘in’ with the crowd is perhaps nowhere more intense than it is in the fashion world.

Anyone who has ever watched a documentary which goes behind the scenes before a fashion show will know that it’s a highly stressful environment. The issues noted so far contribute to that, along with the fact that the industry is growing in size. Over 250 designers currently show at New York Fashion Week, so the schedule is tight and competition is heightened. Fashion Week forces designers and their teams to work all hours to put on a show. Meanwhile models, photographers and journalists rush from show to show, often without eating anything, then drinking at after-parties late into the night – hardly a healthy way of doing things.

None of this is meant to provide a definitive reason for the tragic death of L’Wren Scott or others who have killed themselves, but it will hopefully shed some light on the less attractive aspects of working in fashion. There are still several benefits to being a part of the industry, and many thrive on the adrenaline-fuelled ridiculousness of it all, but it is always useful to re-evaluate how the mental wellbeing of those involved is being affected. If anything can be done to improve it, then we should strive towards making the industry a healthier place for all.