is silence and reflection the way to better thinking, better work, and a better life?

As cries of burnout echo around the industry, the science of solitude is perhaps the best answer to the cult of busyness that has been clogging our creative channels.

by Davina Jones
13 April 2016, 11:30am

If you work in fashion, you work hard. Wages are low, hours are long and frequently the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities open to you fly past in a cloud of exhaustion and regret -- the chance to interview your idol, for example, marred by the fact you wrote your questions hurriedly on the bus after six hours sleep because you were working until 2am on something else. This relentless pace cuts across all areas, and is widely accepted to be the price you pay to get ahead in the creative field you love. But that assumption is beginning to be challenged, and not just by a sleepy-eyed army of interns.

When Raf Simons left his position as creative director of Dior last year, citing "personal reasons," and saying, "It is a decision based entirely and equally on my desire to focus on other interests in my life, including my own brand, and the passions that drive me outside of my work," the industry took a collective step back, questioning exactly what a successful career actually looks like? "You know, we did this collection in three weeks," Simons had explained to Cathy Horyn in a profile for System magazine just before the announcement of his departure from Dior. "Tokyo was also done in three weeks. Actually everything is done in three weeks, maximum five," he continued. "And when I think back to the first couture show for Dior, in July 2012, I was concerned because we only had eight weeks," he added, referring to his high-pressure debut, which was captured in the film Dior and I. "When you do six shows a year, there's not enough time for the whole process," Simons told Horyn. "Technically, yes -- the people who make the samples, do the stitching, they can do it. But you have no incubation time for ideas, and incubation time is very important. When you try an idea, you look at it and think, Hmm, let's put it away for a week and think about it later. But that's never possible when you have only one team working on all the collections."

Yes, we can churn work out, but what's the point? For creative people working in the fashion industry, the subject is a passion, not just an occupation. We don't work in this industry just to clock in and cash out -- heaven knows we could get paid more and work less in a different field. We are on a -- admittedly much-ridiculed -- quest to say something meaningful and progressive about our existence and identity, about beauty, culture, desire and shared experience. In order to create work that can even come close to those lofty ideals, it turns out that the "incubation time" Raf Simons speaks of is absolutely essential.

"The mind must have the space to settle down if it is to come up with the insights that make for original creative work," American psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire write in their book Wired to Create: Discover the 10 Things Great Artists, Writers and Innovators Do Differently. "When we're alone relaxing and daydreaming -- or simply tuning out our immediate surroundings -- the brain's imagination network is activated. This gives us a sort of inner focus, a lens through which to see ourselves and others more clearly". 

"As creative people stuck in offices know well, your best ideas don't usually come to you when you're sitting in front of a computer straining to think up a solution to a problem or make a project come together -- especially when you've been at your desk for hours," the authors write. "But when you get up for a bathroom break or a walk around the block to clear your head -- precisely when your attention wanders away from the task at hand -- the missing link pops into your mind."

Indeed, many of humanity's greatest minds have extolled the virtues of going for a wander. "Aristotle, Nietzsche, Freud, Hemingway, Jefferson, Dickens, Beethoven, and many other thinkers made regular strolls a part of their creative process, and Nietzsche went so far as to say that 'all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking'," Kaufman and Gregoire note, quoting the psychologists Smallwood and Andrews-Hanna, who coined the witticism, "Not all minds who wander are lost".

In her article on Raf Simons departure from Dior, Suzy Menkes recounts a text conversation she had had with the designer about meeting up at the Frieze art fair in London. "I really miss it - but the schedules are so tight now with another show in December. Just a terrible agenda," Raf responded when she asked where he was. "No time to take one day to go from Paris to London, for inspiration, or for the contemporary art in which Raf is so interested and knowledgeable?," she asked. "Has being a fashion designer really come to this?"

Taking the time to be inspired, and to process the things we're working on is essential if we are to create meaningful and innovative work. Indeed, in the post-Raf-at-Dior landscape, many designers are taking steps to avoid creative burnout. Alexander Wang left his high-profile role as creative director at Balenciaga to focus on his own, very successful label, and his successor at the French fashion house Demna Gvasalia has announced that his own label Vetements will begin to show outside of the usual fashion calendar, in order to catch the lucrative 'pre-season' market with the main collection, rather than hamster-wheeling to churn out another two collections per year.

In some of the most progressive countries in the world, even more revolutionary tactics are being considered and actually implemented. Just last week, Sweden moved to a six hour standard working day in order to make people happier and to increase productivity. Linus Feldt, the CEO of tech company Filimundus, which implemented the six hour day last year, told Fast Company, "The eight-hour work day is not as effective as one would think... To stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge. In order to cope, we mix in things and pauses to make the work day more endurable. At the same time, we are having it hard to manage our private life outside of work," the Independent report. A four-day working week (with a three-day weekend) is common in the Netherlands and Denmark, was implemented by Uniqlo for workers in Japan, and has also been considered by China.

You don't need to place yourself in monastic seclusion, but if you want to come up with the creative goods, then spending more time alone -- away from your desk, with time to reflect and to allow your brain to make its unique connections -- is one of many possible strategies for producing the meaningful, innovative work that you joined the fashion industry for. Of course, nothing, neither isolation or hyperactivity, six hour work days or four day weekends, will actually substitute for dedication and doing what you believe in.

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Discover more on how you can 'make it' in the fashion industry with a series of think pieces, stories and films created by i-D, in collaboration with ASOS.


Text Davina Jones

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