Do Fashion Design And Mental Illness Go Hand-In-Hand?

“Madness” and “genius”—especially creative genius—have long been linked in the popular imagination.

This past Friday, a Toronto-based organization called Workman Arts staged the “Mad Couture Catwalk”, a runway show in which each of the 33 pieces exhibited (one of which, by artist Annalise Walmer, is pictured above) was created by a an artist afflicted with mental illness or addiction issues. The group works with such artists to provide studio space, exhibition venues, training programs, and support as they strive to develop their artistic portfolios. Friday’s event was followed by a symposium led by Kay Redfield Jamison, author of such books as Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which posits that psychological illnesses such as bipolar disorder are disproportionately represented in the creative professions.

We talked to Lisa Brown, Founder and Executive/Artistic Director of Workman Arts, who elucidated one of the reasons why art and mental illness are so often thought of as bedfellows. “There are some camps that believe that art and mental illness go hand-in-hand,” she explained to us over the phone. “There is a suggestion that maybe they do because both the experience of being an artist and the experience of being mentally ill are outside-the-box.”

Artists, Brown continued, “are expected to go outside the box. They are not expected to conform.” Nor, of course, are the mentally ill. “Everyone assumes they don’t conform; that they’re different; that they are outside-the-box. So there’s a direct sort of correlation in terms of where they sit in society.”

This idea is not foreign to those familiar with the history of fashion design. Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Jacobs, Calvin KleinOssie Clark, and Donatella Versace are just a few of the many designers at the top of their profession who are known to have suffered from addiction, depression, or other mental health issues at some point in their lives. Saint Laurent was once described by legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland as a “turmoil of imagination,” and indeed he himself attested to being a member of the “magnificent and pitiful family of the hyper-sensitive.”

This same turmoil and sensitivity has since marked the careers of many who have followed in his footsteps, most notably in the recent, highly-publicized cases of Alexander McQueen‘s suicide and John Galliano‘s rehabilitation following the drunken, anti-Semitic rant that led to his firing from Dior last year.

Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz explained to Vogue UK back in September that the increasingly breakneck pace of the fashion industry can lead its creative leaders down dangerous paths:

“You start to understand why some designers do strange things, why some designers talk to themselves, you have to find a way of dealing with it all. I don’t take drugs because if I did I’d love them – I’d be a junkie.”

This conception of the ailing artist, of course, becomes problematic when it is romanticized by society – something we saw far more in the aftermath of McQueen’s tragic death than in the months following Galliano’s outburst. If designers are expected to fit the image of the tortured visionary, is there adequate incentive and opportunity to remain healthy? Does designing help heal or can it in fact contribute to an artist’s psychological turmoil?

In the case of Workman Arts and their noble pursuits in supporting afflicted artists, it seems clear the former is true. In the pressure-cooker environment of today’s fashion industry, however, perhaps creativity can begin to take too high a toll.

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