we asked some designers about staying sane in fashion

What impact does it have on designers mental health to create a whole new body of work every six months, but also make it commercially viable and is there a new way to work?

by Bryony Stone
06 October 2017, 9:36am

Image via Instagram

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

As fashion weeks in Milan, Paris, New York, and London grind to a halt, on the air blows a collective sigh of relief. Languishing in its aftermath, a heap of exhausted designers, models, agents, buyers, PRs, journalists, photographers, production crews, influencers, security teams, drivers, and everyone else who keeps the cogs of fashion whirring one Instagram like at a time.

Fashion has changed: The power of consumer lust, powered by Instagram, implores designers to sell it all, now, straight off the sample size bodies which stomp the runways and into the clutches of people searching eternally for something which resembles happiness.

"I think fashion has been shifting for quite a long time: it's more and more about having an ethos or approach for a year. Where I think it's been driven is much more complicated that the seasonal," says Frances Corner, Head of London College of Fashion. "I think it is because everyone works with shorter collections. If you don't buy them in a month, they're gone. The idea of turnaround is much faster. I think that's the expectation of the consumer linked to social media and the visual world. People want to buy things as soon as they see them."

The pressure of a constantly shifting industry lands in the lap of the makers, whether nascent designers or those that have firmly staked their place on the LCF show schedule over an entire career. Infinite pools of money, time, and energy are required to keep up with escalating demands from buyers and consumers. More than designers, labels must become creative visionaries, business moguls, financial experts, show people, social media personalities, managers, and more. Working hours stretch longer, later, and the power of social media makes it physically impossible to switch off. Bundle together the burdens and burnout becomes inevitable.

Slowly, surely, designers are starting to confront the pressures that come with the industry. Last season, Liam Hodges's collection featured a print slapped across T-shirts. An X-ray of his distinctive jaw framed by a slogan which read "IM OK" and suggested that Liam was anything but, while a year ago designer Claire Barrow announced that she would no longer showing seasonal collections. The question lingers, unvoiced: does fashion need to slow down for the mental health of its designers?

We asked three designers for their advice on what it takes to be successful and stay sane in a notoriously grueling industry.

Surround yourself with people who care
London designer A Sai Ta dropped out of the world-renowned MA course at Central St. Martins at the request of Kanye West, swapping life with his close knit family and partner in the city he'd grown up in to live in a hotel and work for Yeezy. Last season, A Sai returned home to debut his own label, ASAI, with the help of Fashion East. Leading a label built out of uncertainty and change, A Sai has learned to keep cool head on his shoulders. "It's been great and challenging at times," he says of his second season with Fashion East. "It's given me a outlet and platform for my ideas to materialize. I'm doing what I love the most and I'm very grateful to have this opportunity. I've learned to be more confident in the decisions I make and to multitask!"

For A Sai, working seasonally has its benefits. "It allows me to start afresh: to explore and expand and to go deeper to understand my visual language. It gives me a deadline to meet and resolve things. It's a big learning process: it forces me to trust my instinct that I've made the right decision. I treat each collection as it could be my last and give it my all. I have nothing to lose."

The designer admits that the pressures are ever-present in "myself and letting people down," but he fights self-doubt with a sense of humor. "I try maintain a balance and think I've been good at it so far, working productively, and having fun with it! I like to get lost in the creative process and know this is the sacrifice I have to take to keep pushing my work to take it to the next level." Most importantly, A Sai is surrounded by people that care. "I have a very supportive partner and family and friends who are happy that I'm happy!"

"Fashion is a team sport, and understanding that is really important," notes LCF's Frances Corner. "We do a lot of collaborations at LCF, and encourage students to think holistically about their collections."

Stick to what you're good at
Running a label requires the business nous of an experienced project manager. But not everyone is born to lead a team — and that's ok. Designer and artist Claire Barrow stopped showing seasonally last summer. "I needed to stop telling people everyday what I need doing, and just do it myself," Claire says. "I'm an insular person so I need a lot of alone time to think of my best ideas but there were tons of people around that I had to tell what to do — which was a blessing because it was great that these people were all really into what I do — but also it was mentally too much pressure to live like that everyday of my life."

Now, Claire's focus has shifted away from timelines to make work that fits her new, self-imposed schedule. "My aim is to make great work, not to churn out collection after collection," she says. "Now, I have time to do my sculpture, my jewelry and my painting and my clothing collection. I'm picking and choosing my next endeavors rather than being dictated by the schedule."

It works: in August, Claire produced a pop-up shop at cult LA fashion store H Lorenzo, and last week she launched a capsule collection for Matches. Next, she has another solo art show planned for November and has been "quietly making jewelry" that she sells online every month. "So I have tons to do but I feel a little bit more in control off it than before," she says. "But it could also be that I have changed. I'm in that place with my work where I'm comfortable with my aesthetic and now I'm exploring ways to use it."

Claire points out that in fashion, as is life, one size does definitely not fit all. "It's different for everyone: it depends on your end goal. The schedule works if you want to do be more sales driven and turn over a lot of garment ideas per year, or if you go work for a big fashion house who probably couldn't leave the schedule… It's just a lot of mental and physical pressure."

Be your own boss
Claire Yurika Davies started her latex label Hanger a year after she graduated. After a "nice chill spell of doing freelance and bar jobs," Claire struggled to get hired in the fashion industry. "So I decided that then was a good a time as any to start up my own label!"

With some business training from the Prince's Trust and East London Small Business Center and a little bit of funding, Claire started Hanger, which has since grown from a pipe dream to being stocked on ASOS. Hanger may be gaining commercial success, but paradoxically, Claire cites the inspiration behind her next collection as "slowing down." "I have been thinking about the idea of slowing down for years now!" she laughs. "I think when you start your own label it becomes such a constant routine of being absolutely frantic, and almost tripping up over yourself the whole time trying to juggle a thousand things at once, learn new skills, retain and explore old ones, and trying to keep up with the whole general side of running a label. It just becomes absolutely exhausting to be honest. At one point a year or so ago I realized the completely obvious — that I could create my own working calendar and schedule. I didn't have to conform to the traditional structure of doing two seasonal collections a year which drop at a specific time because I am the boss and no one can tell me what to do! The whole time I had been doing what I thought was the only way to structure a fashion brand, when that is clearly not true, it's just what is expected. When you throw off the burden of keeping up with something you can't sustain it's so freeing, just realizing this in itself made me instantly happier!"

Embrace contemplation
Slowing down is becoming more accepted. Frances Corner sees a new wave of aspiring young designers rejecting the traditional schedules. "A lot of our students are interested in a more artisan approach, in slow fashion," she says. "There are other ways in doing it, looking at how we can use technology to slow down. It's a complex, but very rich time to be a student."

It's an idea that seeps from fashion into everyday life and back again. "Almost everyone I know is in this work cycle of constant urgency that never ends," Claire Davies admits. "Which I think is 100% down to living in London no matter what industry you're in. I want to create something which can challenge this, and instead of promoting fast-paced newness which fades instantly, embrace the slowness of craft and contemplation!"

Claire, like many others, sees slowing down as an antidote to the generalized state of anxiety that seems to be sweeping the Western world. "I know some people like to operate at a crazy high frequency, but I know most of us are just forced to," she says, pointing to rapidly escalating rates of anxiety and depression. According to Mind, 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year and in England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week. "I know it can be really hard to change your life and work schedule to allow yourself more time, or to not put too much pressure on yourself, but it's an ethic people need to be pushing and encouraging more," Claire says.

At the end of the day, find a way to switch off
Frances Corner agrees. "It's really hard. It's important to find ways of switching off and understanding what it is that you're looking for." She cites yoga and long reads as among her ways to read. "I really enjoy 5,000 word essays that counterbalance the Twitter feed."

Claire Barrow says, "I listen to sleep hypnosis videos on YouTube nearly everyday to get to sleep or for a power nap. You can explore lucid dreaming with them to which is good for inspiration and getting your ideas in your head out into your dreams. My fave is Jody Whitley — if you type her in she will come up."

For A Sai, switching off means simply "playing with my cat and seeing my nephews," while Claire has a whole heap of advice for any aspiring designer. "I have really simple rules in place to keep my stress levels low. Firstly I make sure that I never take work home, as a business owner your work becomes your life, and if you allow it to spill into your home space it can become all consuming! Also, any time I know I'm not going to be great at doing work, I make sure to just embrace it and take that time off. When I'm at a particularly busy time it can be really tricky to do both of these things, and I can end up working late and on weekends. But when life throws you a hectic schedule, always make sure there is something you can work towards which will give you a break. I try to have a short break at the end of a really busy time to allow myself to really unwind and take myself out of the work mindset as well as have a nice healthy break from the internet!"

mental health
Claire Barrow