Can Mental Health-Focused Clothing Brands Help Break The Stigma?

By Kirstyn Smith

When Kayley Reed met Kyle MacNevin, they were both studying at university and volunteering with a mental health organization. The sense of safety and support allowed them to open up to each other about their own struggles. Kayley was battling an eating disorder and depression, and Kyle was living with generalized anxiety disorder and ADHD. While they felt secure enough to confide in each other, both were struck by the realization that having that kind of conversation with other people — discussing mental health in a healthy and open way — was incredibly rare.

“Frustrated with the stigma and the statistics, we thought: ‘there has to be a better way to bring this issue to light,’ says Kayley. “And the idea for Wear Your Label was born.”

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The goal at the heart of Wear Your Label is to destigmatize mental illness, change the ways in which people think about words like “anxious” and “depressed,” and consider the deeper connotations behind being “sad” — with a view toward turning conversations from negative to positive.

“At Wear Your Label, we design things twofold: 1) to be a statement to the world, an awareness piece and a conversation starter that brings an invisible issue to light,” says Kayley. “And 2) [to be] a personal reminder to the wearer that they can overcome their struggles, that they’re not alone, and that it’s okay not to be okay.”

The Wear Your Label site is simple and calm, with introductory videos on the homepage and links to how you can get involved. The articles of clothing, mainly tees and vests, are pretty cool — block colors with positive epithets on the chest: “Sad but Rad,” “Anxious but Courageous,” “Self Care Isn’t Selfish.”

Their designs are featured on Wear Your Label’s role models — an idea that came after Kayley and Kyle spent some time at Atlantic Fashion Week in 2014. “It was an eight-hour day sitting behind a table, watching hundreds of models walk in and out, and judging them by only seeing their physical appearance and hearing their measurements read off,” Kayley recalls. “Kyle and I were emotionally exhausted at the end, and thought this wasn’t how we wanted to choose models to represent our brand.” Instead, they created their own Role Model initiative. Anybody can be involved; there are no height, weight, or size restrictions. Potential models just have to share their own mental health stories, and explain why ending the stigma is important to them.

Substance for You is a recovery brand that is similarly inspired by personal stories. Centered around moving on from addiction, owner Brian McCollom says Substance for You’s two most popular t-shirts are emblazoned with the mottos “100% Sober” and “Stay Drug Free.”

“One of our biggest things is regularly getting fan photos sent to us of people wearing our merchandise. We repost to our social media followers to caption their clean and sober time for the world to see in a permanent place, and let it become a beacon of hope,” he says.

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Brian admits that marketing is an important tool — a reminder of the importance of industry when it comes to advocacy. “The t-shirt idea came into play when I was talking about brand awareness. It was a sense of empowering yourself to be able to say, ‘I am sober, but I am proud of this label,’ versus ‘shun me for it.’” Embracing this attitude — and, by association, the branding behind it — allowed Substance for You to take off as a culture rather than remaining a handful of platitudes.

Brian has also written books about his struggles: Illicit: Life in the Eyes of an Addict about his time spent fighting addiction, and its sequel, Insanity: Tackling the Mental Health Stigma, about becoming sober and moving on to recovery. “What came first? Addiction or mental health?” he says. “I try to empower and embrace things, rather than give off a narcissistic viewpoint, but hey — there’s no sugarcoating addiction, right? Pretty soon [Substance For You] was this large entity that people relied on, and people relied on me, and even I relied on me.”

It’s clear that Wear Your Label and Substance For You are helping some people, but the difference between high fashion and up-and-coming companies is never more obvious than when looking at how people in the mental health industry view them. Amy Wilson, a mental health worker, is encouraged by the growth of mental health-related clothing brands, yet concerned they might glamorize mental health problems. “To go to a really bad place in your life is horrendous, so that’s not glamorous. But, at the same time, look at the fashion industry and, to another extent, the music industry,” she says. “There’s something about glamorizing that destructive recklessness that people think is cool, but the reality of having mental health issues is not fashionable. It’s so complex.”

Wilson believes that mixing fashion with mental health awareness is an interesting and progressive move, but also notes that terms like “anxious,” “addict,” and “depression” should not be thrown around. To her, the notion they could end up being a “fad” is concerning: “These things really affect people. So if you are a person who has suffered with it and you’re flying the flag, that’s great. If you are wearing a t-shirt because you think it’s cool and you have no idea what it’s like to live with it, that’s different.”

There have been too many examples of brands making light of mental health to sell their merchandise. ASOS’s “Hang-xi-ety” tee implies that a hangover and general anxiety disorder are comparable, while Topshop’s “Stressed, Depressed, but Well-Dressed” handbag sends a message that you can ignore your stress and depression as long as you look good. When considering the impact this could have on impressionable buyers, it’s clear that the fashion industry needs a new mindset.

Hayley Smith, owner of Boxed Out PR, agrees that representing complex mental health syndromes through t-shirt slogans has to be handled responsibly. “I think it needs to be sensitive as well as suggestive,” she says. “For example, the Urban Outfitters t-shirts glamorizing mental health with wording including Depression and Eat Less are extremely irresponsible and part of the problem. I don’t think that the answer is necessary in clothing, but in fashion houses and designers creating conversation with events or collaborations.”

That might be where Wear Your Label and Substance for You come in. Having already worked with Canadian brand Joe Fresh, Wear Your Label plans to increase its collaborations with major fashion brands, celebrity ambassadors, and mental health organizations, in the belief that it can accomplish more working together with others than going it alone. Doing this would promote a healthy attitude toward mental illness throughout the industry, something that needs to be addressed much more directly, Smith says. “Mental health within the fashion industry has become ‘acceptable,’ particularly with the untimely demise of Alexander McQueen, and more people are willing to openly talk about it,” Smith notes. “However, this hasn’t trickled down to the office jobs and internships. Counselors and help should be readily available, and people should be able to discuss their issues without the fear of being permanently labeled or at the risk of losing their job.”

While this is true, ultimately, it’s not what Wear Your Label and Substance for You are trying to address. There’s a big difference between Wear Your Label’s Role Models and Kate Moss; “Stay Drug Free” and D&G are worlds apart. But the two brands, and the dozens more like them, could be a step in the right direction. Smith believes any action that moves toward ending the stigma is an important one.

“There are so many ways to help bring the stigma to an end,” she says. “If someone reaches out to you for help, don’t brush it aside. If you live with mental illness, or have experienced struggles in that past, share your story. Write a blog post, volunteer at a mental health organization, speak at a school, host a fundraiser. It won’t happen overnight, but every little conversation and initiative helps.”

Images via Wear Your Label and Substance For You.

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