STYLE

Does The Fashion Industry Encourage Mental Illness?

15/03/2011 12:01 | Updated 22 May 2015

At the end of the Balmain show during Paris Fashion Week, the models took their final walk, the audience clapped – but no designer scuttled out to make their final bow. The fashion house's creative director, Christophe Decarnin, was unable to attend his own fashion show.

Decarnin reportedly disappeared one day in mid-January and employees were subsequently told that he would not be returning. After being treated for depression, doctors urged him to stay at home. It's rumoured that he was not in a fit state to design the autumn/winter 2011/12 collection, and the task was left to stylist Melanie Ward and Balmain's in-house design team.

Decarnin's breakdown follows sharp on the heels of John Galliano's alcohol-fuelled anti-Semitic rant, and before that, Lee Alexander McQueen's suicide, where "significant" levels of cocaine amongst the substances found in his blood, according to the coroner's report.

It would be reductive to say that these three instances are all the same, but there's no denying the common link; it all got too much. Of course, designers with troubled personal lives - whether relating to mental health, exhaustion or addiction - are nothing new. Halston, Claude Montana, Yves Saint Laurent are just a few great names that spring to mind. More recently, Donatella Versace, Marc Jacobs, Stefano Pilati and Calvin Klein have all spoken of their substance abuse.

True, the recent events of fashion week have left John Galliano's career in tatters, but they also highlighted the dark underbelly of the fashion world and the contradictory objectives that shape it.

Unlike Art with a capital "A", fashion is about artisans working for a business. Yes, it can be a creative, theatrical and whimsical industry, but ultimately it's about selling things.

In recent years, the crowning glory for a fashion designer is to become the star name that heads up one of the illustrious global fashion houses like Dior, Givenchy and Hermès. Star designers of our time like Jean Paul Gaultier, Lee McQueen and John Galliano followed similar trajectories; just a few collections into their careers they were quickly elevated to lofty heights and enthroned at a big name brand.

Part of these enfant terribles' attraction was the edge and shock that they bring to a dusty international heritage brand, and these designers were given unfettered creativity and budgets to do this. From McQueen's "Highland Rape" runway collection to the excessive theatrical productions that constituted a Galliano show, it's about creating a world beyond the drab parameters of reality and flirting with the new and unimaginable. But these individuals are not artists isolated in their atelier; they have the weight of millions of pounds worth in sales and the livelihoods of thousands depending on their every creative urge and impulse.

Globalisation, digitalisation and the pace and scale of change, not to mentioned the breadth of collections; mainline, diffusion, couture, menswear, womenswear, pre-collection, cruise, bags, accessories, shoes, inevitably place a huge amount of psychological stress.

And the nature of big corporation means that results are always required. I suspect the pressures on Decarnin to recreate some of Balmain's blockbuster seasons may have come into play. Fashion is an industry based on judgment, approval and the pursuit of the new and it's no surprise that these individuals have infamous reputations surrounding them. The pressures of designing at this level are too much for most people to endure; they continually and relentlessly offer up something deep from within themselves, while their public achievements and failures are ultimately judged by the bottom line.

As someone that has spent the last four weeks writing from the catwalk, the pace and competition amongst journalists is exhausting. But I can't begin to imagine what it's like to actually put on a show. Like Decarnin, perhaps it's time for the industry at large to reflect and slow down before creativity is lost at the expense of big business.

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