Trigger Warning: This story contains themes of suicide and may be disturbing for some. Reader discretion is advised.
Disparate, mercurial and deeply impassioned—Greek philosopher Aristotle’s myth of the mad artist has meandered through novels, films and autobiographies. Today, it finds itself in the often less-than-glamorous trenches of fashion. The trope has further illuminated the famous characters of a notoriously challenging landscape: Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Betsey Johnson—eccentric, elusive and, more often than not, troubled.
The industry’s relentless pace, hunger for newness and increasing global merchandising demands have continued to take its toll on countless other fashion luminaries in an irrevocable way. Alexander McQueen’s suicide in 2009 sent waves through the industry. His death was followed by those of Kate Spade, Josephus Melchior Thimister and, most recently, supermodel Stella Tennant; all of whom also took their own lives. Today, the question still stands. With reports substantiating that individuals in fashion are 25 percent more likely to suffer from mental illness, how can fashion take care of the very people who keep it running?
How can fashion take care of the very people who keep it running?
In Singapore, conversations around mental health—particularly in the creative sector—are stirring. “In creative industries, work can be very personal. Most of the time, your project is your baby and the line between one’s personal life and work is blurred. There may be so much investment put into one’s work that one may forget to take a moment to check in with themselves,” shares Nisa Ngaiman, a senior youth support worker at the Institute of Mental Health’s Community Health Assessment Team.“It is especially tough for independent creatives to get into the business. They may also need to worry about financial sustainability,” she adds.
As we traverse through the incertitude of life mid-pandemic, mental wellness has never been more crucial. Understanding the realities, setbacks and triumphs of local creatives, in particular, is integral to making headway. Here, homegrown designers weigh in on navigating fashion, self-care and the role mental wellness plays in creativity
Youths in Balaclava
To the 12-member-strong fashion collective Youths in Balaclava, there is a method to madness. “I do feel that creatives require a little bit of ‘crazy’ and some form of imbalance to give birth to a beautiful thing. It almost feels like we require it to maintain sanity and we channel that energy to create,” shares member and finance executive, Kasyfi Hakeem.
Formed seven years ago by a tight-knit clique of secondary school friends, the then six-member group’s aim was simply to make their own clothes. What followed was a fashion fairytale of sorts: frustrated with a limited designer market and exorbitant prices, the group would rope in another six members—and shortly after get scouted by British photographer Ryan O’Toole Collett and Dover Street Market luminary, Adrian Joffe.
Today, Youths in Balaclava is a Dover Street Market cornerstone and also boasts a long list of heavyweight stockists that carry the label’s signature graphic T-shirts, hoodies and bowling shoes. The collective handles its day-to-day operations in a Jalan Pemimpin office, with each member playing a pivotal part in the brand’s mechanics. The roles include but are not limited to: creative director, marketing executive, finance executive and creative operations manager. There is no leader.
Despite their wild success, the beginning of the collective’s creative career proved tenuous. They would find themselves going against a host of societal norms—expectations of a formal design education, foregoing a traditional career path and National Service, to name a few. “During the first few years, no one took us seriously and there wasn’t much support. We would get comments from people telling us this was just a phase and that we wouldn’t make it. It wasn’t really a concern to us—we were doing it for ourselves,” shares marketing executive, Spencer Yeo.
Certain pressures, however, are inevitable. “Being a small independent label, things can get pretty hectic with the amount of work that needs to be done. It can be very draining as we try to find time to focus on ourselves. Not a single day goes by where we don’t think about work,” he adds. As for the challenges young designers face that the group would like to bring to the forefront? “When I was growing up, I wish someone would’ve told me that you are still an artist even if you don’t make art every day. The label of being a ‘creative’ can sometimes pull you into a hole if you don’t balance out your life,” recounts media and marketing planner, Izz Bazil (Buzz).
Taking breaks is one of the most important aspects of wanting to do anything long-term. You definitely do not want to burn out before you even reach your highest artistic potential.
To combat this, the group hosts weekly YIB sports days, Star Wars Battlefront stand-offs and runs. A cultivated culture of airing things out ensures that any concerns, issues or disagreements are worked through. Collective support aside, Kasyfi shares that online mental health platform, mindline.sg, has been helpful. “I use it whenever I need to and it helps me navigate my thought process better and better understand myself,” he shares.
With the uncertainty of COVID-19, the collective is taking things one day at a time. Its spring/summer 2021 collection Godstar is in stores and its members are being kept busy by a host of upcoming projects. All things considered, one thing’s for sure: don’t expect this blazing fashion fire to die out. Adds Buzz: “Taking breaks is one of the most important aspects of wanting to do anything long-term. You definitely do not want to burn out before you even reach your highest artistic potential. Take it slow; a slow fire burns longer.”
Shop Youths in Balaclava here.
To fashion designer Rachael Cheong, a foray into the world of design was as natural as slipping on a pair of high-heeled leather boots and fishnet gloves à la Canadian pop singer, Skye Sweetnam. Her other preliminary brush with fashion? MGA Entertainment’s turn-of-the-century Bratz Dolls—of the Pretty in Punk variety, to be exact.
It comes as no surprise then that the 26-year-old Royal Academy of Art, The Hague graduate’s fashion-based practice has been largely based on artificial bodies. Think: taxidermy animals and sweet-meets-sinister glossy doll masks—with the latter serving as perfect accoutrements to a 19th-century-inspired assortment of fantastical gingham separates, ruched dresses andPVC bonnets. When COVID-19 hit, however, Cheong decided to shift gears.
The Closet Children online store currently carries stainless steel and aluminium jewellery and a host of handmade masks, with the option of having them customised. And though Cheong has amassed over 2,000 followers on Instagram and a healthy clientele, she is no stranger to the fear of stagnating—an arresting anxiety that can plague even the most seasoned of creatives given fashion’s propensity for the next big thing. “The biggest mental challenge is the fear that I will never be able to make anything better than what I’ve already done,” she adds.
She is also a one-woman-show—commonplace for many independent designers—handling everything from sewing to deliveries in her newly-acquired studio space. “It’s actually the physical labour that has an effect on my well-being. Years of sleep debt have affected my energy levels. I am also a perfectionist so when something doesn’t come out the way I want it to, I get stuck, disappointed or redo it until I’m satisfied. I’ve learnt to not be so hard on myself.”
She recounts similar anxieties during her time at fashion school, where going days at a time without sleep might have been considered a badge of honour. When asked what resources she wished would have been available to her, she alludes to the normalisation of therapy. “It would have been nice to anxiety-scroll Instagram and see little reminders that it’s normal to take care of yourself. Even posts about people sharing what it’s like to go to therapy and how it can help would have been helpful back then,” she adds. While she has used therapy to navigate other areas of her life, her biggest mental wellness tool for work in particular lies in a kit as underrated and old as time: her beauty ritual.
The biggest mental challenge is the fear that I will never be able to make anything better than what I’ve already done.
Like most designers, she sports a ‘uniform’ of sorts—a blunt, sleek bob, cherry red lips and a delicate cat-eye. “This sounds silly but my make-up routine and weekly hair trims have helped preserve my mental health. Even if I’ve not slept the night before, I go into my fitting presentations looking great.”
These days, however, she’s not skimping on the shut-eye. Her Sundays are spent unwinding, with an emphasis on completely disconnecting from work. As for what’s next, she will continue to work with a pre-order and made-to-order system to minimise waste. She also hints at a future ready-to-wear collection, more chainmail lace items for everyday wear and dolls decked out in heavy metal looks.
Shop Closet Children here.
If laughter is the best medicine, then Samuel Xun’s sartorial-meets-satire insignia just might be what the fashion doctors ordered. The 27-year-old Lasalle College of the Arts Fashion Design and Textiles alumni has amassed a repertoire that riffs off the playful sensibilities of his graduate collection: Fembuoyant! The result? A no-holds-barred display of plush harnesses, plumed blazers and fantastically oversized flora balloons—centred around themes of irony, humour and queer identity.
The fashion designer and multi-disciplinary artist describes the collection as a creative climacteric: “I felt that I finally opened up and made work that was reflective of who I am as a person and my view of the world.” A year on and the Samuel Xun brand has evolved.
Visit his online store and one is greeted by a colourful gradient gloss, peppered with a selection of accent homewares, soon-to-launch wearables (he is thinking about ready-to-wear, he shares) and prints. For bespoke pieces, he is contactable via email. The store also carries variations of sumptuous throw cushions, from a teal green satin throw with soft spikes to a hand-manipulated glittered number—maximalist, sculptural and downright, well, fabulous.
His designs boast a creative sure-footedness—one that he attributes to both authenticity and a meticulously fine-tuned aesthetic. The journey there, however, wasn’t a seamless one. “Finding my place in this oversaturated industry has always been somewhat mentally strenuous. I wouldn’t say I’ve found it fully, but I’m certainly getting there.” His sentiments echo that of many young, independent creatives: opportunity, financing and plagiarism. “I used to get extremely affected when I would see suspicious derivatives of my work or if I didn’t get credited properly.” In the face of the inevitable adversities of the industry, he stresses the importance of mental and physical recuperation.
His personal wellness ritual is one rooted in simplicity: balance, positive energy, a tight-knit support system in the form of his chosen family and a sense of self-embrace. Perhaps most helpful, however, is keeping his blinders on. “I’ve unburdened myself in the sense that I know where I want to go and I won’t stop to over analyse or compare myself anymore.” His astute sense and understanding of the terrain of fashion keeps him grounded too. In short, he has his wits about him.
Finding my place in this oversaturated industry has always been somewhat mentally strenuous.
“The local landscape prioritises different things like value for money and overall image when it comes to purchasing their clothes,” he explains. “I’ve realised that we cannot rely solely on forces outside our country to build us up. I would rather be part of a recipe that creates a fantastic pie that will feed us all, than try panning for scraps globally.”
Commercially, his ethos reflects a strong sense of self-sufficiency and a championing of homegrown talent, which will pave the way for a generation of designers beyond him and, perhaps, alleviate a fraction of the struggle. Part of his star-studded clientele? Drag queen Salome Blaque, who donned a pillow ensemble piece for this year’s Pink Dot, as well as Eleanor Lee and Naomi Yeo. Shares Xun: “My work has been created with an intent to be transformative. The people who have statistically been drawn in are those who harbour an open mind. They are the people who don clothing like armour, but are not afraid to get to know themselves.”
Shop Samuel Xun here.