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#RTEBrainstorm - 'Does fashion have a mental health problem' by Katriona Flynn

Posted: 7 June, 2018

Katriona Flynn asks whether educators should be preparing students for the realities of stresses and pressures in the fashion industry, or whether they should be advocating for positive changes in the industry itself.

RTEBrainstorm - Fashion

In November 2016, leading fashion industry website The Business of Fashion asked if fashion has a mental health problem? Suggesting that fashion industry employers and employees are faced with unique and uncompromising pressures in the workplace, the article considered what this specific industry could learn from other sectors. 

Since 2016, many sectors have come into the spotlight with a focus on ethics, exploring safe environments and suggestions of right and wrong conduct. Whilst the film industry has been jolted and impacted by the #MeToomovement's revelations and realities, the fashion industry has yet to feel a similar full effect.

That is not to say that this industry is any less damaged and it is far from immune to similar revelations and realities. Yet in its current state, dictated and compromised by pace and speed, has the fashion industry failed to acknowledge the issues and the need for change? Fashion has long been protected by the idea of the creative visionary and this perhaps has offered the industry an allowance to behave unethically or simply badly. But in truth, very little of this poor or bad behaviour these days in the fashion sector - or indeed any sector - has to do with creativity.

In comparing the fashion industry to the film sector, both could be and often are considered as much cultures as industries, and there lies the rarity of the challenges and strains on employees and indeed employers alike. Fashion could be said to have lost its sense of creativity completely in its speed and disposable consumerism. It could also be said that fashions re-engagement with creative thinking will save it.

In looking to the future of the fashion industry, it would seem that design education and pedagogy is fundamental. As the mental health and fashion debate has developed, education has been held to account by some and the education experiences of the industry's young creatives have come into focus. Whether fair or valid, it does feel as if education is one of the few specific areas being criticised.

The truth is a much wider debate. In talking to any fashion professional, they will acknowledge that the industry is tough. There are long hours, stresses and pressures. The "fashionista" perceptions are idealistic at best and injurious and undermining at worst. 

Some fashion courses would see their responsibility as to prepare students for the realities of the working world at a time when employability is a tagline associated with education. Therefore, preparing students for the realities would seem validated. However, the question needs to be asked if the same realities that are detrimental to the well being and mental health of the fashion industry, and which impact on its ethical behaviour, should be embedded as learning tools for our future creatives at a time when we should and could be looking at change. 

In April, The Business of Fashion published a report which called the teaching methods at Antwerp’s revered Royal Academy of Fine Art into question. In response to this, Dazed and Confused ran a piece entitled "Opening up the conversation about mental health in fashion". Both articles outlined suggestions of rigorous standards, immense stress, drug abuse, exhaustion and intense workloads. Suggestions like these do not feel unrealistic in either environment.

On Instagram. Dazed and Confused asked students and graduates if they thought fashion schools were too tough on students. There were mixed views, with some suggesting the rigorous approach was necessary and beneficial, and others outlining that it was crippling and damaging.

As part of the piece, Cristiana Alagna's response to this question seemed prevalent to the current debate and considered the possibility within and for the industry. "Why is it that the university has to train us to be tough and survive rather than for once inverting the cycle and making a change in the way industry thinks? If the industry was fixed, then we would not have to be trained to accept the fact that it's okay to be emotionally, physically, and psychologically broken." 

It's a good point. If some design education philosophies of learning continue as they have with survivor skills rather than attribute building, are they preventing the possibility of the industry rather than developing it? Kindness should not be mistaken for mollycoddling nor undervalued in a subject where consistent critiquing is imperative. Young creatives need to be nurtured. 

It is true to say that fashion has a mental health problem, but it is not alone in that as the issue of mental health challenges all society and sectors. When it comes to mental health, change is paramount.  

By Katriona Flynn

Lecturer in Fashion Product Design and Development, DIT College of Business

This article was originally published on RTÉ Brainstorm