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12th Oct 2019

Is the fashion industry taking mental health seriously – or just using it for show?

Taryn de Vere

In the week that marked World Mental Health Day, what role does fashion play in promoting wellbeing?

This week, fashion house Gucci debuted its ‘Gucci Changemakers’ initiative, with a series of short films on its Instagram. The films feature young people, including our own Sinéad Burke, who embody “Gucci’s commitment to create lasting social impact in diverse communities and within the fashion industry”.

It’s a welcome initiative from the company, which is badly in need of some good press following widespread criticism of its Milan Fashion show. There, Gucci caused controversy by featuring models standing mutely as they glided along a conveyer belt wearing upscale versions of straightjackets.

One of the models even staged a protest during the show itself: Ayesha Tan Jones wrote, “mental health is not fashion” on their hands and held them up during the show. Ayesha later released a statement saying that it: “Is hurtful and insensitive for a major fashion house such as Gucci to use this imagery as a concept for a fleeting fashion moment.”

After the show Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, said the concept for the straightjackets was inspired by “humanity and uniforms. A uniform is something that blocks and constrains you – that makes you anonymous. That makes you follow the direction of travel.” The straitjacket, he said, was “the highest type of uniform”.

Others within the fashion industry take a different approach.

Cavan-based Gail Townrow runs Revolting Girls, a fashion and homewears company. Gail is critical of the Gucci show.

“When fashion in general offers such a great opportunity to promote positive change and empowerment of the individual, it seems particularly vulgar of Gucci to use such old fashioned and pejorative images of mental health issues for financial gain and cheap publicity.”

For Gail, one of the values of her business is to promote healthy self esteem in her customers.

“Revolting Girls celebrates icons and pop culture figures who revolt against stereotypes of what a woman ‘should be’ to promote healthy body image and self esteem. Our T-shirts, mugs and wall art celebrate intelligence, creativity, kindness and wit above arbitrary and ever changing beauty ideals.”

Another Irish business that focuses on supporting the mental wellbeing of its customers is BiPolarBear Wear.

Founded by Stephen Considine and Luke Bulmer, the company says it is “on a mission to create mental health awareness through clothing, and also raise funds for mental health services in Ireland”.

Both Stephen and Luke are open about their own mental health struggles and say they started the company “to promote all creative arts as a therapy and a means to find a purpose.” The clothing is designed by a collective of Irish artists and also by members of their community, including  a 14-year-old who was suffering from severe depression.

Stephen says that fashion has huge potential to do good when it comes to mental health.

“Clothing is one of the only forms of appearance you can truly morph, so this gives us a huge platform to allow our supporters to wear something with a mission and substance. Why not establish your identity as a person that is open about speaking about mental health or mental illness, and wear the bear?”

BiPolarBear donate all their profits to Irish mental health charities – to date they have raised over €8,000. They run outreach programmes and provide talks on mental health to businesses, schools and youth organisations. They also provide a direct support service, with a qualified psychiatric nurse available to anyone who needs support by emailing [email protected].

For blogger and fashion marketing officer Sophie Blakemore, the conversation about fashion and mental health is more nuanced.

“In my 20s I worked at the posh end of the industry and I was surrounded by the women known as ‘clackers’ – see The Devil Wears Prada – and the pressure to look like a model meant that thin was always in. It was exhausting and destructive for me and many of my peers.”

Sophie says addiction and abuse are normalised within the fashion industry, and that the pace of change is slow and largely led by customers embracing body positivity.

“Aspirational retail is awfully cynical and almost gaslights its customers. Designers who employ models who are under 18, use mental health as a talking point and insult the customer are common but they are becoming rarer.

“On the high street level we still rarely see ad campaigns with realistically proportioned models – but we do see realism on stores’ individual Instagram feeds. It’s there but, right now, you have to search for it.”

Sophie is hopeful that the current merging of issues and fashion is moving towards a more balanced approach.

“Right now we’re in a dialogue about health. Society is open to conversation. As that gets louder the absurd displays – like straightjackets and decapitated heads – will probably disappear. The imagery will be less standardised and more actual.”