How fashion brands are sparking conversations around mental health

The industry hasn’t always been linked to positive mental health, but brands such as Exhale, Heartknoxx and Kenneth Cole are hoping to change that perception

Helen Hope created her brand Heartknoxx under a banner of ‘Define your Difference’ 
Powered by automated translation

Fashion and the way we dress is highly emotional, ­representing both how we see ourselves and the message we wish to send out to others. This can be a ­double-edged sword, however, ­because just as good clothes can lift us up, so the pressure to conform to a certain look can knock us down – meaning there is often a powerfully negative link between fashion and mental health. Fortunately, a few brands and ­industry insiders are ­beginning to lead a change.

Long considered a social taboo, mental health is a subject often too painful or stigmatising for many to talk about in the open, too often with devastating results. The World Health Organisation estimates that one in four people worldwide will suffer from mental or neurological disorders at some point in their life, of whom two-thirds will never seek help, instead suffering in silence. In the US alone, research by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention shows that suicide rates increased by 33 per cent between 1999 and 2017.

Fashion victims

A year ago, fashion designer Kate Spade took her own life, having struggled for years with depression and anxiety, while in 2010, Alexander McQueen committed suicide, as did designer L’Wren Scott in 2014.

Alexander McQueen portrait. Photo Coutsey Grant Frazier *** Local Caption ***  bz18no-Lifeproperty-10.jpg

The crippling pressure and pace of having to create several successful collections a year is thought to be a major factor behind not only the death of those named here, but also the downfall of many others. Case in point: former Dior designer John Galliano's spectacular fall from grace in 2011 following a racist tirade.

After his dismissal from the French house, Galliano sought help for drink and drug dependency, as did Marc Jacobs, whose time as creative director at Louis Vuitton (between 1997 and 2013) saw him admitted to rehab twice. Galliano's successor at Dior, Raf Simons, left abruptly after four years, citing relentless pressure, while design duo Viktor & Rolf stepped away from creating ready-to-wear for the same reason.

The late designer Azzedine Alaia refused to heed the brutal merry-­go-round of the fashion calendar, instead ­releasing his collections only when he felt they were ready. Even Yves Saint Laurent, the man hailed as a titan of fashion, was so crippled by mental health issues that he regularly fled to Marrakech in Morocco, often for months at a time.

Celebrities speak out

Thankfully, people are no longer as fearful of sharing their struggles now, as the old culture of keeping a stiff upper lip is replaced with one of forgiveness. This has no doubt been boosted by famous faces such as Chris Evans, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and even Prince Harry opening up about their own struggles, and helping to raise awareness and knock down prejudice.

Within the cut-throat fashion industry, British model Adwoa Aboah has admitted to struggling with mental health issues, which she found so distressing she started an online platform, Gurls Talk, as a safe space for women to "share, listen and support each other without judgment or shame".

Adwoa Aboah arrives for the 2019 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2019, in New York. The Gala raises money for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. The Gala's 2019 theme is “Camp: Notes on Fashion" inspired by Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on Camp". / AFP / ANGELA WEISS

Exhale: a brand and a philosophy

Like Aboah, ­Palestinian-Lebanese designer Nawal El Masri, who lives in Dubai, also felt compelled to use her experiences to try and help others, by channelling forgiveness and acceptance into her fashion brand, Exhale.

"Exhale was created during a challenging time in my life; a time when my anxious thoughts spun out of control and loss had taken a toll on me," she explains. "I had to breathe out painful emotion to formulate purpose, to see the bigger picture." Created as a range of T-shirts, jackets and hoodies (made from sustainable organic cotton and bamboo), the clothes carry simple, affirming messages, such as "Remember to breathe"; "Dreamers, Creators, Doers"; and, of course, "Exhale".

"Exhale is a statement of self-­reflection, a statement of confidence, a statement of inspiration [and], more than anything, it is a reminder for what we so easily forget: to breathe," says El Masri. Most recently, the company collaborated with the comic strip Peanuts, which was created in 1950 by Charles Schulz.

Peanuts x Exhale top, by Exhale

El Masri explains: “The characters based in this comic strip bring to the forefront terms that society recognise as taboo. The comic speaks about various phobias and about anxiety, but what it also does is encourage the notion that accepting the trouble within, and embarking on a journey to find a silver lining, is a key component of overcoming fears.”

The main cartoon character is Charlie Brown, the hapless boy whose best friend is his pet dog, Snoopy, who has been described as anxious, depressed and deeply insecure. Interestingly, it is also the character that Schulz most likened to himself.

Now reworked for Exhale, the characters have been added to the clothes as sketches of Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and Linus all crossing the road together (a charming metaphor for starting over), as discreet drawings inside the neck, and as a quote, in Schultz's ­recognisable handwriting, which reads: "It's not wise to lie in bed at night asking yourself questions that you can't answer."

Peanuts x Exhale T-shirt, by Exhale

Everybody says I'm fine

Another small UK label that launched in Dubai this year with a message of solidarity is Heartknoxx, a brand set up in 2018 by Helen Hope, following her hospitalisation for severe panic attacks and anxiety. "My aim was to create a brand that would bring me back to life, doing something I loved, while demystifying the topic of mental illness. I wanted to create an edgy yet purposeful clothing label, a brand that people like myself could identify with [and] one that ultimately empowers the wearer and prompts conversations." Hope explains.

The range of unisex T-shirts and sweatshirts (including children’s sizes) were created under a banner of “Define your Difference”, and carry messages such as “Love”, “Have Courage” and “I Got Your Back”. There is also the Heartstrings collection, designed to raise funds for The Mental Health Foundation. One top reads “I’m Fine”, words that carry personal significance for Hope. “I often brushed my internal struggles off with a simple phrase, such as I’m fine,” she says. “However, during my recovery, I realised I was only using this statement to mask something much deeper.”

Inspirational messages and in-the-know founders are leading the way for brands talking about mental health. Photo: Heartknoxx 

In the green

Internationally, Kenneth Cole seems to be making amends for the criticism it drew when it launched T-shirts printed with “I have issues” in 2008. This year, the American label has partnered with the National ­Alliance on Mental Illness in the US, to create two custom-designed ­trainers to coincide with Mental Health Week, which took place last month, with 20 per cent of each sale donated to the charity. Launched with the tag line “Wearing is Caring”, in spunky shades of mint and lime (green is the official colour of the mental health cause), Cole seems to have summed up a new and ­fashionable mentality.