A Quiet Place: Mental Health And The Fashion Industry

by Keng Yang Shuen   /   October 11, 2020

For all of fashion’s finery and glamour, mental health isn’t something that it’s nailed going by the luminaries it has claimed (this year marks the 10th anniversary of Alexander McQueen’s tragic suicide). The stress and burnout that come with the industry’s cut-throat pace for ideas, merchandise and content mean that those working in it are 25 per cent more likely than others to experience some sort of mental illness, according to reports. The good news: conversation about it has been rousing in recent years, especially within the creative community. In the first of a two-part interview, five Singapore women from various disciplines who have been vocal about the cause to share more about what you need to know, erase and do next about mental wellness.

In the totalitarian classic 1984, one of the ways in which the existing system exerts control over its citizens is by eliminating undesirable words from the dictionary. The logic: You can’t express yourself or your ideals properly when you don’t have something as fundamental as the vocabulary with which to articulate them.

A scenario in which people are not equipped to address painful topics is a familiar one in not-so-long-ago days when mental health disorders were perceived as something shameful, to be covered up or carelessly dismissed with variations of “you’ll get over it”.

Even in the so-called liberal world of fashion, it’s an ongoing problem – this even though the list of its geniuses who suffer from depression and succumb to suicide keeps on growing (the latest being the heavily lauded modernist couturier Josephus Thimister, who died last November at age 57).

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Despite having her most decorated and successful year in 2019, model Adut Akech wrote on Instagram that it was the “worst year” for “Adut the human, not Adut the model” due to her depressive disorder.

As omnipresent and unstoppable as he might seem, Virgil Abloh had to famously take three months off from the business – including missing his own Spring/Summer 2020 Off-White show last September – because his doctor had said his schedule was getting too much for his health.

mental health
Adut Akech at the Off-White Spring/ Summer 2020 show. Credit: Showbit

In fashion, the main outlet for dealing with the industry’s madness seems to be, quite simply, to bow out – temporarily or otherwise; no further discussion. (And don’t forget to do so with a great dress and big smile on your face.)

Over here in Singapore where – according to a 2016 study by the Institute of Mental Health – one in seven people suffers or has suffered from a mental health-related issue, the landscape seems to have shifted though. Beyond traditional institutions such as Samaritans of Singapore and the Singapore Association for Mental Health, there are more grassroots – and creative – avenues to discuss and build communities centred around the topic.

Take the non-profit Singapore Mental Health Film Festival for example, which debuted last year at The Projector, screening movies on a breadth of mental health conditions (Alzheimer’s, bipolar disorder, even anxiety) in the hope of getting guests to better understand and talk about them.


Featuring a succession of 21 models dressed in all-white ensembles that resembled straitjackets, the opening of Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2020 show last Sept was meant to be symbolic of creative director Alessandro Michele’s desire to break free and try something new, he told the press post-show. All the same, it was hard to ignore its association with mental health, an issue that’s become a growing epidemic in the relentless fashion industry.

Online, independent websites and publications such as the youth-run Your Head Lah! (YHL) and Beyond The Hijab, meant to be a judgment-free space for Muslim women, have popped up in recent years. Using a mix of stylish illustrations and candid, highly personal storytelling, they aim to be platforms where – in the words of YHL – “marginalised voices are amplified” so that people can “learn and empower ourselves to take care of ourselves and our communities better”.

The faceless comic artist Rachel Pang, who runs the popular Instagram account @rachelpangcomics where she addresses issues ranging from sexual assault to sexual orientation through whimsical, wittily captioned comic strips, recognises the uptick in people speaking out – and its benefits.

“It’s not that there has suddenly been a huge increase in the number of mental health survivors in Singapore,” she points out. “It’s that activists here have been fighting to create an environment in which talking about mental health has become slightly easier so more people have been coming forward with their stories.”

If acceptance, openness and education are fundamental to solving one of the industry’s – and world’s – most prevalent and disturbing problems, then perhaps it’s high time that fashion becomes less show and more talk. After all, it is 2020. So we struck up conversations with five Singapore women from various creative disciplines.

Not all of them have direct links to the fashion industry (didn’t we say that living in a bubble is part of the problem?), but all have personally dealt with and are publicly pushing for greater conversation and awareness of mental health in their own ways. Virgil Abloh, join us next time?

The Creatives

On their own mental health struggles and how they deal with them

Narelle Kheng (NK): “Depression feels very rocky because you’re constantly being thrown into different states of mind and you don’t always have a good grasp on what is reality. Your mind puts out false narratives so you’re constantly having to restructure and it’s very tiring. To deal with it, you first have to admit that there’s a problem.

Once you can do that, spend a lot of time trying to understand the underlying issues. For me, I find journaling and being very attentive to your own mental state helpful. I was reading a lot on psychology and philosophy, and trying to find any sense of structure that made sense to me. Being able to have open conversations with trusted friends also really helps.”

Sarah Naeem (SN): “I grew up with rather serious body image concerns. I had anorexia; was bulimic for a period and then went the opposite extreme and became very fitness-conscious. If I didn’t go to the gym for two hours, six days a week, I’d beat myself up about it… Your sense of self-worth should not come from the way you look, but for a lot of women, body image is the only way we know how to derive it.

I also began to grapple with anxiety in my early 20s (she’s 28) and was diagnosed with depression some time back… Therapy has been really helpful. Now I’ve got a much better handle on my anxiety. I know what I need to do for myself and can recognise what I’m feeling and where it’s coming from.

That comes with a lot of self- work, journaling and talking to friends who are more self-aware and getting them to help re-contextualise things in a way that might not have occurred to me. It also helps to realise that managing mental health is a long and constant journey.”

Rachel Pang (RP): “I was diagnosed with depression in 2016 and PTSD in 2017. I don’t have PTSD symptoms any more, but I still get depressive episodes. Therapy and community are the two most important things in my own ongoing healing.

I was thankful that my university offered free psychology services so I could see a therapist without cost… Individual therapy offered a non- judgmental space to understand what I was going through and someone to unpack my unhealthy internalised thought patterns.”

I was thankful that my university offered free psychology services so I could see a therapist without cost… Individual therapy offered a non- judgmental space to understand what I was going through and someone to unpack my unhealthy internalised thought patterns.”

Cheryl Tan (CT): “I’ve battled suicidal tendencies from a young age as well as periods of depression. As a kid, I did not realise that I had mental health issues, but till today, I can remember almost every episode when I had struggled. Then in 2008, I attended my first yoga class. I spent the first few years struggling to understand my intention for starting the practice and it wasn’t till 2011 when a teacher’s words struck me: ‘Before you can love anyone else, you need to be selfish and learn how to love yourself. Without doing so, you won’t be able to love another.’ A few months later, I moved from Vancouver to Toronto and began using yoga as a tool to navigate through my struggles.”

Nisa Ngaiman (NN): “A few years ago, I encountered a personal crisis and it affected my mood tremendously. I felt tired all the time and questioned my self-worth often. I was not kind to myself. With the encouragement of my loved ones, I decided to seek counselling myself. That gave me a safe and non-judgmental space to make sense and come to terms with the crisis as the matters that I needed to process were very scary and overwhelming.”

On common misconceptions surrounding mental health

NN: “Some of the common misconceptions about mental health disorders are A) It’s just bad attitude – one is too lazy, too scared, lacks drive or just moody or emotional and B) one is either mentally healthy or mentally ill – once you have a disorder, you will never be mentally healthy.”

SN: “That if somebody appears strong or is able to go about his or her day and work ‘normally’, he or she doesn’t have issues and isn’t struggling. We’re often not educated enough to realise that mental health can impact us in many ways.

You might think that you’ve got a handle on something, but it can manifest in different ways. A lot of people don’t know or think enough about the importance of being able to understand the true cause of a recurrent issue or identifying unwanted patterns in their lives. I also hope that people realise that one doesn’t have to look sad to feel sad.”

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CT: “People have to understand that mental health – even though unseen – is akin to physical health. We require mental muscles to be resilient when adversity hits us. We can hit the gym and gain physical muscular strength and be able to carry 10kg of rice in each hand, but when your family member, friend or colleague aggravates you, will you know how to control your anger or frustration? Would you know what the triggers are?

When we can understand these triggers, we can create better boundaries and choices for ourselves to thrive and find peace. All this requires a good understanding of our own mental landscape.”

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Read the continuation of this interview on April 15.

This article first appeared in the April 2020 Reality Edition of FEMALE