Mental health protest took center stage in Milan recently when a Gucci designer offended masses of fashion fans, including one of his models. In a bold move made for Instagram, a Gucci model walked the runway in protest with the words Mental Health is Not Fashion penned in black on their palms. Arms out, palms forward, the image was posted and liked by hundreds of thousands of people. The model wrote, “As an artist and a model who has experienced her own struggles with mental health, as well as family members and loved ones who have been affected by depression, anxiety, bipolar and schizophrenia, it is hurtful and insensitive for a major fashion house such as Gucci to use this imagery as a concept for a fleeting fashion moment.” The designer defended the pieces he called ‘blank style” and told reporters that his utilitarian designs were meant to send different message. Still, many critics said the piece shown looked like a straight-jacket and deemed the work highly offensive.
Controversy Has Its Moment
While this example may seem like something far from mainstream, it’s not. Major brands have been deeply apologetic and responsive to the public when they hit a nerve. This is the second time mental health made headlines on the runway. After a model wrote on Instagram that ‘suicide is not fashion’, referring to a Burberry hoodie that featured a noose around the neck, Burberry pulled the item from stores and the company’s chief executive officer issued an apology in a statement to CNN. The Burberry model, Liz Kennedy, said she had tried to speak out about the design she found offensive before the show, but was ignored. She later posted on Instagram: “It is beyond me how you could let a look resembling a noose hanging from a neck out on the runway.”
Other earlier examples related to mental health come to mind, too. Protests over underweight models plagued the industry for decades and still do. Victoria’s Secret apologized publicly after an executive made controversial statements about transgender and plus-size models being unlikely picks for their annual Fashion Show. The remark was made during a chat with Vogue. The executive, Ed Razek, said that constant suggestions and questions about why they didn’t use this or that model took away from an event that was designed to be a 42-minute branded television fantasy. Harsh critical comments on social media got the spotlight. But any attempt to backtrack was for naught. Victoria’s Secret, favorite of American men and women, is seeing shrinking profits.
What makes this controversy over mental health and how it is stigmatized so different? Its personal. For me, it feels like a tipping point. Like we’ve reached a moment where protest hasn’t just gone viral, it’s gone personal. This model was so moved to defend her view that she exposed her entire story to the public in one swift wave of her hand, literally. Put that real story about a real person’s feelings and lived experience up against a brand story and what once seemed unimaginable takes only seconds. The personal story gets the spotlight. Mental health gets the spotlight. People are sharing their true stories without concern for the consequences. They want to be seen and they want help.
Why have we hit this point where a single fashion look can capture the attention of millions of people? You could say that the numbers seem to be in our favor—there are just too darn many of us, everywhere, all the time, to be overlooked. It’s also true that those who are passionate about the fair and decent treatment of people with mental health issues have been working towards this moment for a long time. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. All that advocacy and awareness has created change agents and disruptors. Models are just the tip of the iceberg. The fashion world represents a tiny chunk of a massive movement in which people with mental health issues demand that they be treated with dignity.
If you’re sitting in a board room or at a manager’s meeting thinking, Well, that’s the fashion world for you, you’re right. The runway is as likely a place as any for people to be their authentic selves. In fact, that’s what fashion is all about. Maybe you think that what sets your company apart from this type of protest is you are a business that cares about people. That’s not enough anymore. Now, not only do leaders have to take business risks, they are going to be forced to take personal risks. Vulnerability will become a power move in 2020.