© Steve Pyke/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Fashion

10 years after the death of Alexander McQueen, what has fashion learned?

By Dana Thomas
20 Feb 2020

Key takeaways:

  • In the decade since the death of Alexander McQueen, the faster fashion cycle and always-on nature of social media have kept pressure high for designers.
  • Some companies, like LVMH, have started incorporating wellbeing and mental health resources into their businesses, but insiders say not much has changed.
  • Designers who choose independent routes are able to decide their own schedules, but young creatives are still at risk.

Ten years ago this month, Lee Alexander McQueen took his own life at the age of 40, in his apartment in Mayfair, London. 

It was fashion’s first high-profile suicide. But the pathology that led to it — acute anxiety, severe depression and addiction brought on by extreme stress — was not unknown to the luxury fashion community. Other high-profile fashion designers, notably John Galliano, whom I profiled alongside McQueen in my book, Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, have suffered from burnout and addiction issues due to rigorous work conditions and demands of the job. 

In the years since McQueen’s death and Galliano’s public breakdown, some in the industry thought their cases would serve as a wake-up call for the executive suites of major brands. The lesson: the mental health of artistic talent should take priority over deadlines and quarterly results. 

Instead, the glamourisation of toil has carried on, thanks to an influx of external and internal forces. 

The fashion calendar sped up, social media exploded (McQueen died the same year Instagram was launched, before it carried any weight in fashion) and weekly product drops became the norm, demanding more of designers and their teams. Add on other direct-to-consumer media tools that brands have embraced in the last few years, such as YouTube videos and podcasts, which also require input from and participation of the creative side, and you have “exposed designers more than ever before”, says Robert Burke, of Robert Burke Associates, a luxury retail consultancy in New York.  

Portraits of Lee Alexander McQueen in 2002. © Steve Pyke/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What’s more, “the merry-go-round of designers and lack of stability is even greater now than it was 10 years ago”, a former glossy magazine editor points out. Burke concurs: “You are only as good as your last collection, and the frequency of those collections has hit a new height.” The constant threat of being fired weighs heavily on employees.

Rise-and-grind “hustle culture”, made acceptable and even attractive by the tech industry, is not new. The business community has, in some ways, pushed back by starting discussions on burnout and enacting policies that promote mindfulness and wellness in ways that aren’t yet apparent in fashion, according to those familiar.

“To be honest, I don’t see much has changed” in the decade since McQueen has died, says a top fashion headhunter in Paris who spoke on the condition of anonymity. (Almost everyone for this article requested to speak on background, for fear of retribution from corporate powers.) 

As evidence, the headhunter recounted stories of extreme working conditions at one major luxury brand in Paris in the years following McQueen’s death. Relentless pressure and extraordinary demands by the creative director led to a flurry of employee breakdowns and hospitalisations. No one from the corporate side stepped in to speak to the designer or set limits, the headhunter says. 

A handful of companies — Stella McCartney in London, Lululemon in Vancouver and Tommy Hilfiger in Amsterdam among them — provide health-oriented fringe benefits at work, such as free organic lunches and yoga classes. But for most major (and minor) fashion companies, the headhunter says, “a real perk is offering a discount membership at the gym”. Beyond that, fashion’s corporate-driven employee wellness programme “is not happening in a big way”, the headhunter says.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Little by little, some major players are adopting better wellness policies, if not across the board. For example, according to LVMH’s Social Responsibility Report for 2018, “most maisons [or brands] have a psychological support cell of some kind”. 

Examples of initiatives implemented at the group’s 75 brands (though it doesn’t specify which ones) include: “Wellbeing and peace-of-mind training led by a relaxation therapist”, “prevention and wellbeing in the workplace training led by an ergonomics specialist or physical therapist”, and “monthly wellbeing lunch and learn workshops”. 

Kering reports on its website that since 1 January this year, it provides 14 weeks paid leave for parents with newborns, worldwide. The company did not respond to requests on how it is further implementing wellness throughout the group. 

A solution is to start afresh independently, with wellness as the company principle. There is a slew of young designers, as well as a few old school titans — think Alber Elbaz and Jean-Paul Gaultier — who have stepped off the whirring hamster wheel that is big luxury and adopted a kinder, gentler approach.  

“Alexandre Mattiussi of Ami, Simone Rocha — they can say yes or say no. To work for a major brand or not. To accept investors or not. And to set the rhythm that they want,” says Floriane de Saint Pierre, founder of her eponymous HR consulting firm. “Before, designers had to go through the magazines, or department stores, to make it. Now they can jump over all that and communicate directly with their consumers. It’s the first generation that has the same sort of freedom that designers had in the early 1900s.”

But for those who take the traditional school-to-major-brand track, “extreme stress is seen as part of the job. An occupational hazard”, the first headhunter says.

“Fashion seems more out of step now when it comes to these issues than it was when Lee died,” the editor says. “It’s heartbreaking.”

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If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 800-273-8255 in the US, or CALM at 0800 58 58 58 in the UK.

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