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Image courtesy of Georgina Johnson

Work / World Mental Health Day 2018

For fashion designer Georgina Johnson strength means not being afraid to say no

Earlier this year, I prepared to bring out a capsule collection for Laundry Service, a brand I started on graduating in 2016 for my soon to be first stockist. One afternoon, I froze at my sewing machine at the thought of finishing something I’d initially given someone else to do. In that moment I realised I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t produce the collection that was draining all my part-time cash and my mind.

I was doing it again. I felt like I’d developed a really positive pattern during the previous months. I was productive: churning out ideas and delegating nicely to folks, but I suddenly couldn’t do it. All of a sudden, it felt like too much. If I was honest with myself it had been feeling like too much for a long time, but I had continued to push myself — because that’s what you do, right?

We live for the push. We live for the Go, Go, Go, the, ‘Oh my God, I’m so busy!’ We run on the high, the super-fast machine — the body, garment workers, designers, creative directors and more. We’re socialised in environments like university where pressure is a constant, demanding more of the same. In fact, the demand is such that you get used to working that way, not knowing yet that this pattern is negative and draining on so many levels. You’re told — however much of a cliché it may sound — that “It’s dog eat dog”, that “you’ll need a thick skin for this industry” and “if you’re not crying, you’re not trying.” The fashion cycle is an ever-swinging door — but then so is our consciousness.

Collectively we romanticise the idea of the crazy genius creative. We romanticise their pain and poor wellbeing because they are our commodity. FASHION IS HAVING A MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS, WAKE UP! This needed to be written in capital letters for effect. For real though: it is. I remember writing my dissertation and the question I planned on answering was “Are fashion systems within visual/media culture portrayed true to form? Do these portrayals attribute to the production of mental frailty in those involved? If so, how?”

I knew my answer, because I was effectively talking about myself. I’d been depressed through my whole degree. But I had to find other examples. I didn’t have to look far. I wondered throughout writing why an industry that is supposed to be synonymous with creativity — which by definition stems from freedom — feels like a trap for so many?

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The Laundry Service manifesto, courtesy of Georgina Johnson/Laundry Service

I realised that what may work for this year’s coolest designer (who, more often than not, comes from a ridiculously rich family) but it wouldn’t work for me: we have different experiences. That’s the trap — feeling like you have to do something the same way that other folks have, because you see that is has worked for them. We need more realistic images, bigger conversations and louder examples. I wish I had someone telling me in university how hard it really would be on leaving and having not won some award or gained tonnes of press. And what about when you are not this year’s sweetheart? What do you do when you’re a black woman really trying to shake things up and not be broke and have very few examples of heads of fashion houses that look like you?

Fashion can be insolent, graceless and anti-social. It can also be an amazing playing field to express yourself and test out ideas. But we cannot keep justifying behaviour by labelling it “artistic”. We have to ultimately shed this shared social thought. Fashion can be incredibly powerful — it can and has shown itself to be a place where all avenues of social life interconnect, but we can be reckless with it. Fashion puffs up its chest and constructs facades that we ultimately accept as facts, and whether subconsciously or not, these signs can affect your mental health. A collective culture that welcomes compassion and grace into our education, our reading of images and modes of creation can overturn what has been broken.

It’s time that the fashion industry took a look at itself. The pace and business of fashion is often not sympathetic to reflective, creative and aesthetic processes. We don’t always value people as the translators of our creative dreams. We aren’t compassionate to ourselves. We churn out the new and forget our responsibility as gatekeepers of the materiality of this world. Stressful life events can increase chances of developing mental frailty, so it’s important to note that life interconnects with work and all the rest, but if we aren’t building environments that hold others up, and lend an ear, what are we doing?

We have to recognise vulnerability as just a human characteristic and completely redefine strength. Strength is no longer for me — pushing myself to the complete end of myself. It is knowing when I need a break and not being afraid to say no. It is building something of myself and not needing the validation of higher institutions. It is found in protecting my creative expectation for myself and really just doing the best I can. If I could I would just encourage everyone to respect their capacity, to work smart and not too hard — the type of hard that breaks your brain. Just do what you can with what you have in their hands and enjoy it.

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Georgina Johnson/The Photographers Gallery: Saint the Empty Pose

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Georgina Johnson/The Photographers Gallery: Saint the Empty Pose