If you work in fashion, there is a high likelihood that aspiration is your bottom line. You may want to photograph a spread in a top magazine or write a cover story. You may be a model aching to walk the runways in Paris or a designer angling for a big appointment. Photographers, designers, models, stylists, publicists, writers, editors, and assistants of all kinds are constantly striving to be better, smarter, faster, and more beautiful. While that drive can be exhilarating and rewarding for some, it can be exhausting and toxic for many others.
The subject of mental health has been more or less taboo across most fields, but today, the fashion industry is taking a step in the right direction. The newly formed Humans of Fashion Foundation, which aims to address and prevent assault, misconduct, and mental health issues, is launching an app to help connect fashion professionals to licensed therapists, pro bono lawyers for legal counsel, and a mentor network. The app was created in partnership with the Fashion Law Institute (established in 2010 with the support of the CFDA), professor Susan Scafidi who pioneered the study of fashion law, and Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, the president of Give an Hour, a mental health resource provider that has worked with veterans suffering from PTSD across the country. The Humans of Fashion organization was founded by Kristina Romanova, a model who has experienced instances of sexual misconduct on set, and Antoniette Costa, who has a degree in fashion law from Fordham University and previously worked for Louis Vuitton.
“What the app does is connects users, whether they’re a makeup artist, stylist, designer, or fashion assistant to a therapist or a lawyer and then you can schedule a call or an in-person meeting,” Costa explains. “In speaking to various groups in the last few months, both abroad and in the U.S., we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who say that they would love the ability to speak to a therapist for free and not have to go through their work or go through someone they know. They don’t want to feel as though someone is passing judgment on them. This app provides a safe and confidential space.”
“The fashion industry focuses on the superficial,” Dr. Van Dahlen says. “It’s about what we wear, how we look, how we act. People who have any vulnerabilities in regards to value, worth, and identity are at a greater risk of experiencing significant anxiety and depression in the face of repeated rejection, competition, and sense of disappointment.” To her knowledge, there have not been any thorough medical studies done on the effects of these types of pressures within the industry, but she does believe that “perhaps those who are working in this sector have specific strengths and skills that allow them to withstand the pressures, so doing some research to find out how those individuals cope and thrive, what works for them, and how they care for themselves would help lead us in the right direction and help us to support one another in more constructive ways.”
The new app provides an avenue for this type of communication that hasn’t existed before. Where there is harsh competition, for example, designers may not want to speak out about their mental health issues due to fear of losing their audience or investors or backlash on social media. “This has been uncharted territory,” Costa says of the Humans of Fashion app development process. “We want to get rid of stigmas and change the culture so that people feel comfortable seeking therapy if they need it. Just having the conversation is a priority, too, so that those around the people suffering will know to say something or act when they see changes occurring in the other person.”
In October, Costa and Romanova will participate in a panel at the Global Summit on Mental Health Culture Change in London, which is backed by Give an Hour. The pair will oversee the fashion panel, along with Alexander McQueen’s nephew and designers and photographers who have yet to be named. Until then, the Humans of Fashion app will be able to start providing reliable and confidential comfort and guidance to the thousands who suffer silently in this industry. As Dr. Van Dahlen says, “We all function better with tools and road maps. The app is providing help for those who have not had either.”
Mental health struggles plague every industry and millions of individuals around the world, but it’s time to lift the curtain on the fact that fashion and its focus on perfection and aspiration can often dim or shut off its brightest lights. “We want to educate people,” Costa says. “This is a very human issue.”
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