Why Is Working In The Fashion Industry So Stressful?

Photographed by Nina Westervelt.
Now, more than ever, I find myself wondering why stress plays such a key role in the fashion industry. It’s a wickedly fun, soulful, and creative field, so why do most people in it seem to be on the brink of a breakdown half the time?

The classical definition of stress is: “The perceived or actual physical, psychological, or social sensation you feel when you are unable to bridge the gap between expectation and ability.” It seems to me that the fashion industry places too much emphasis on expectation and results — "the show" (both literally and metaphorically) — without valuing the journey it takes to get to the top.

In 2015, several supremely talented designers stepped down from powerful brands due to intense workload and pressure: Raf Simons decided to leave Dior; Alexander Wang, Balenciaga; and Alber Elbaz, Lanvin. When the big players are questioning the manageability of their workload, where is the hope for the rest of us?

It’s almost impossible to say, 'Oh well, it’s just a job,' because the lines between your work and you are so blurred.

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There is this belief that when you work in such a desirable industry, there’s a queue of people lining up to snatch your job if you’re not willing to do it. So you’ve got to work harder, push further, achieve more each season, and be the absolute best that you can be. It’s also an industry that’s incredibly under-resourced, where designers work every hour of the day, and then some, before their shows (five months' work condensed into approximately 11 minutes), presenting their collections — but really, themselves — to the outside world. As it’s such a personal thing when critics slam your work, or your editors come down on you, or your boss says it’s not quite right, it’s almost impossible to say, “Oh well, it’s just a job,” because the lines between your work and you are so blurred.

I’ve worked at the same company for over five years and a busy workload is all I’ve ever known. I’ve enjoyed the obstacles and thrived on the stress, but that changed last March, after a vacation to New York. I’d just got engaged and finished an incredibly busy period at work (the notorious November to March stretch); life was nonstop, and one day my back came out in a rash. The rash looked like chicken pox and, by the next day, spread to my arms, scalp, and tummy, drying into scaly patches that a dermatologist later identified as psoriasis triggered from a severe reaction to stress.

I've heard horror stories of fashion publicists throwing up from stress in the morning before going to work, have friends whose periods have ceased, whose hair falls out in clumps, all in the name of their careers.

I remember feeling shocked, because I’d always managed my stress. So why was my body making such a blatant protest now? I’d heard of stress manifesting itself in physical symptoms — horror stories of fashion publicists throwing up in the morning from stress before going to work, friends whose periods have ceased, whose hair falls out in clumps, all in the name of their careers. But I had always seen myself as someone who was 100% in control.

I spoke to my friends in the industry about their experiences and whether they feel a burnout is inevitable. The first remains anonymous:

“In October 2007, after 15 years of working in the fashion industry, I walked away from my job, got on a plane, and went to the other side of the world. I was heading up the fashion division of a successful PR agency and had the trappings of a 'successful' life. But most of the time, I just wanted to cry. I was tired, I had no energy, I was terrible company. But in hindsight, walking away was the best thing I did. I felt like I needed to have as much physical distance as possible from my normal life to be able to think properly, put things into perspective, and get the fashion world out of my system.

"I came back to London with a completely different perspective: Nothing is ever as important as one's health and peace of mind, and that if I don't enjoy doing something then I should walk away from it — I am not obliged to make myself unhappy to facilitate someone else's ideas or wishes.”

Paula Gerbase, the founder and designer of 1205 and artistic director of footwear brand John Lobb, commented on the challenges facing young designers today:

“Whilst I think, at times, it may be overwhelming, the amount of output we designers are expected to produce, with countless collections a year, including men's and women's mainlines, pre-collections, as well as special products dropping mid-season, exclusive capsule collections for retailers, without counting all other creative input we are required to have on social media, websites, stores, windows, etc. — I think it is important to step back and also realize that we as individuals are extremely lucky to be able to do what we love.

"Setting up your own brand hopefully begins with a necessity to express something very personal creatively, and this need to express overrides any discomfort that one may have with the day-to-day stresses of the general running of what (if you’re lucky) becomes a business. I hope to continue to have all of the difficult challenges that come with being an independent label, because ultimately, with the hardships, also comes absolute independence in being able to decide what, how, and when, without having to ask for anyone else’s permission. That is the biggest reward that comes from independence, even if it does come with certain sacrifices.

Personally, I would find it difficult to function without stress. Stress is pressure, and pressure is tension, and tension leads a creative to push for a breakthrough.

"The stress of having a hand in so many projects may, at times, become too much. But I think, personally, I would find it difficult to function without it. Stress is pressure, and pressure is tension, and tension leads a creative to push for a breakthrough.”

Amee Patel, who has spent the past year founding her own fashion public relations agency, AMPR, said:

"For many in the industry, there is an inherent belief that fashion and stress go hand-in-hand. It's not only accepted, but expected. I think, sometimes, it becomes a little self-fulfilling — from experience we know that if we don't stay late or haven't finished too many projects in too short a time, we will be pulled up on it, which means that sometimes you tend to create a set of worries that may not actually occur, but are run on fear (not of people, but of failing, disappointing, or coming up short).

"It has definitely affected me physically in the past — I had never suffered the low blood sugar lulls that come from incredibly busy times in the office where running out to get a snack seems secondary to getting everything done; and what my doctor/a local hospital therapist had thought was some kind of respiratory problem (I developed a harsh croaky voice) turned out to be a recurring bout of acid reflux that lasted for months, brought on by work stress.

"It's difficult to explain to family and friends outside of the industry — they see you upset, run down, coming home late and starting early, but it's really difficult to explain WHY — why it is so hard, why 'just a job' gets you into such a state.

"On the flip side, the people I know in fashion are amongst some of the hardest working I know — we are grafters. And I look at friends and colleagues who have succeeded and it really is those who have worked really hard with sometimes little pay and little support (and this is no jibes at the companies — in fashion you still have to fight to be taken seriously and it means that companies have limited budgets, which means many become these very incredible multi-tasking people). Because when it gets better, you don't take anything for granted and you are grateful for the opportunities. It's also because we CARE — anyone who doesn't care about their job doesn't get stressed about it; we are all a little in love with the industry and I think sometimes that is why it takes its toll...I look at the brilliant people in the generation before me and know they went through all the same things to get where they are."

Like everything in life, it’s finding the balance between having the job you love and are proud of doing within the boundaries that your body and mind are happy to function.

I’ve created lots of tools for when life turns manic: I turn off my work phone at the weekend and I try to leave the office at lunchtime, even if it’s just for 10 minutes, to clear my head. And I exercise; my relationship with the gym is “on and off,” but I cycle six miles to work and back every day and even if it’s 9 p.m. and pouring with rain by the time I’m home, I feel like my brain has had time to calm down slightly. I’ve also learned to say no, because working at 100 miles per hour all week and raving all weekend is, sadly, not physically possible.

In a recent Business of Fashion article, Charlotte Stockdale said: “I was a really lazy motherfucker before I found fashion. I’d sleep until 1 p.m. no problem, but now, I’d get up at 5 a.m. or have no sleep just to work.” I guess it’s finding what you want to get up at 5 a.m. for and running with it.

Maybe it’s the buzz that keeps everyone going — that sense of achievement when everything comes together. Maybe this kind of stress is a good thing. Maybe it’s just a necessary component of success, the very thing that pushes you to become your best self. Let’s hope so...
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