Worries Grow Industry Breeds Substance Abuse

Is the intensified pressure and breakneck speed of today’s fashion industry driving its creative talents to the brink?

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WWDStyle issue 03/09/2011

Is the intensified pressure and breakneck speed of today’s fashion industry driving its creative talents to the brink?

This story first appeared in the March 9, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Or does the responsibility to avoid the flameouts that have marred Paris Fashion Week fall on the shoulders of designers and their minders?

That’s a debate stirring in the wake of last week’s dramatic ouster of John Galliano from Christian Dior over allegations of drunken, anti-Semitic outbursts, as well as the revelation that Christophe Decarnin was recently treated in hospital for depression and unable to attend his Balmain show, under doctor’s orders.

The two incidents — coupled with Lee Alexander McQueen’s suicide last year, with “significant” levels of cocaine among substances the coroner found in his blood — suggest that the combustible combination of big money, fast fame and business pressure is having an increasingly devastating impact on fashion’s creative leaders.

But there is also a chorus of protest against an indulgent industry that coddles designers and perpetuates wild-child behavior.

“Fashion, I think, has caught up so many designers in such a fever,” lamented a rueful Joan Burstein, the owner of Browns in London, who braved a broken arm to attend Friday’s Dior show and Sunday’s John Galliano presentation.

The retailer, who famously bought Galliano’s 1984 graduation collection, pointed a finger of blame at fashion’s breakneck pace for contributing to the designer’s fall from grace, Decarnin’s apparent breakdown and McQueen’s suicide at age 40.

“I’m sure it’s the pressure and it’s everything that’s not normal at the moment. I think this desire to have four collections a year, and you’ve got to have it, and we want it in early; it’s not necessary. Everybody should enjoy their clothes, not feel, ‘Ooh, I want to know what’s next,’” Burstein said. “That’s what life should be about, enjoying every minute of every day, and every day should be special: Not wanting to grab the next one, but you can’t cope with this one. That’s the world at the moment, that’s how I feel, and it’s sad.”

Mental health experts acknowledge fashion’s intensive nature.

“Addiction is rife in the creative industry as there is a tremendous amount of pressure to produce the next big thing,” observed Don Serratt, chief executive officer at Life Works, a private treatment center in the U.K. “Creative [people], by definition, are sensitive individuals. This sensitivity makes them more vulnerable to being hurt [when criticized or told their work is bad]. My feeling is that the pain is more intense for them, so they medicate.”

In her dealings with a number of high-profile clients, Fiona Arrigo, founder of The Arrigo Programme in Somerset, England, finds that “over stimulation” is a common modern malady.

“The 24-hour cycle of demand, deadlines, lack of privacy, stress, that many are under is going to trip anybody if they do not have the chance to discharge, process, regain their balance,” she said. “It can cause distress and sometimes have dire consequences. What we need more than anything is time and compassion.”

Pshaw, retorted Pierre Bergé, who famously dealt with Yves Saint Laurent’s psychological frailty and substance abuse as his longtime business partner.

“I have a lot more sympathy for people who have to take the train to work every day. What a load of nonsense! No, no, no,” he sniped when asked if the industry is to blame when its creative leaders crash. “Designers are artisans who are extremely privileged to have a poetic profession. They are not artists. We have to stop saying that they are.”

Many observers argued that no extenuating factor relieves designers of their responsibility to themselves, their employers, co-workers and fans.

“I see designing, running a company, like a high-level athletic activity,” said Karl Lagerfeld. “I don’t want to hear anything about the fragility or any of those things. If an athlete is too fragile to run, he cannot run. And this is exactly the same. You don’t accept this kind of business if you’re too much of an artist.

“I believe in discipline, so I’m not the right person to cry about weakness and things like this, but maybe I’m not human.”

Dr. Lala A. Straussner, professor and director of the post-master’s certificate program in the Clinical Approaches to Addictions Treatment at New York University, discounted the idea that creative people in fashion are more inclined to suffer from substance abuse. “They are more visible so we see when they suffer,” she said. “I’ve seen people from schoolteachers to the homeless to the parents of presidents. Some of our recent presidents had alcoholic fathers.”

However, she noted being famous stands to make Galliano’s recovery more challenging. “They have no room to fail. It makes everything much more difficult to be in the public eye and to stop using,” she said.

Marc Jacobs, who has been open about stints in rehab and time spent in self-help groups for substance abuse, said he’s heard lawyers and construction workers share their battles with stress and the need to medicate to pull all-nighters.

“You don’t think bank tellers have problems? You don’t think people in the middle of the suburbs have problems?” he asked.

Jacobs said he learned in various treatment scenarios that “blaming is such a complete waste. I mean, it’s so pointless. To say, you know, my mother was absent and therefore I ran amok, it’s ridiculous,” said Jacobs, who shows his latest collection for Louis Vuitton today at the tail end of the Paris shows. “It’s a self-destructive nature, it’s a mental, physical and a kind of spiritual malady. If you subscribe to any of the teaching of any of those programs, whether it’s Overeaters Anonymous, Smokers Anonymous, people who are happy and healthy and spiritually well don’t do things to hurt themselves.”

Robert Duffy, the designer’s longtime business partner and president of Marc Jacobs International, noted that inordinate media attention on the fashion industry, like Hollywood, creates the impression of widespread substance abuse — and that it’s par for the course.

“You cannot blame the industry,” Duffy said. “The majority of actors are not drug addicts, the majority of designers are not drug addicts.”

Duffy also countered the inference that powerful luxury groups are indifferent to the strife their employees might face, relating that LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman Bernard Arnault gave him carte blanche to intervene on Jacobs’ addiction problem.

“That’s some nerve-racking thing to go in front of somebody and say, ‘Look, I know my career is on the line. I know that Marc’s career is on the line, but please help us,’’’ Duffy recalled. “When somebody says, ‘Robert, do whatever you need to do to get him well,’ and remember when this happened, it literally got Marc on the plane, to rehab, and it wasn’t an easy experience.

“My experience has been very positive as far as a corporation supporting me,” he added.

To be sure, there is widespread pathos for the human tragedy behind Galliano’s disgrace and Decarnin’s apparent psychological struggles.

“I have seen so many people do monstrous things under the influence of alcohol and drugs,” said model Natalia Vodianova as she exited the Dior show. “This is a disease. I hope John will get help, and that’s what he needs right now. That’s what we should care about is the person.

“Everything’s going on — as long as it goes on for John as well,” she continued. “He’s certainly not a bad man. We all know that.”

Galliano was universally condemned over the mounting evidence of anti-Semitic slurs, and he apologized “unreservedly” for causing offense, vowed to seek help and denies the claims made against him.

“I’m not saying that he shouldn’t have the rules of everyone else, but it breaks my heart to see someone as talented as he is to be in this situation,” said Michael Kors.

Asked if there’s more psychological stress on designers today, he replied: “Oh, no question,” and rattled off his lengthy list of collections: pre-, diffusion, handbags, shoes, men’s.

“I mean, I forget what season I’m in sometimes. And I think it has sped up certainly,” he said. “I think every designer in today’s world, I don’t care whether you’re a designer who makes clothes that are phantasmagorical or very pragmatic, you have to figure out something that can ground you and bring you back.”

“As a human being, I feel really sorry for him,” actress Kristin Scott Thomas said about Galliano. Yet given his age and stature, she stressed there is no excuse for the horrible comments he is alleged to have uttered. “It’s just totally irresponsible, very sad,” she said.

His defenders are asking if the fashion system, led by his powerful employer, did enough to help the British maverick face his demons. “Why attack David when Goliath is also to blame?” asked one, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Human resources, privacy and mental health experts agreed that it’s tricky territory when personal strife or addiction intersects with business responsibilities.

“So many professions push their workers, who then seek an outlet in drink, drugs, clubbing, and prostitution — some way of getting a release. But I would say that in fashion there is an extra level of pressure and expectation because it’s on public display — unlike banking, for instance,” said Dr. Sheri Jacobson, a psychotherapist and clinical director of Harley Therapy in London, which treats a variety of illnesses and disorders, including addiction. “Sometimes, however, people are troubled to begin with — they’ve suffered abuse, neglect, abandonment — and they seek refuge in the glamour, drugs, alcohol, an unhealthy lifestyle. You could theorize that some people are predisposed or more prone to go down the route of addiction, and that the scope for burnout and escapism is greater.”

Dusty heritage brands in search of rejuvenation have often turned to incendiary and edgy talents to improve their fortunes — as Dior did with Galliano, who woke up the French couture house. Unfortunately, this approach can serve to enable bad behavior, according to Lucian James, creative director and founder of Paris-based consulting firm Agenda Inc.

“A big part of the fashion grammar is that designers are expected to add a frisson of shock to fashion houses; and to flirt with the dark side. There is a kind of badge of honor of being an enfant terrible and the work of Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano is rarely mentioned without their edginess being mentioned, and celebrated,” James said. “But the difference is that dealing with edgy themes in your professional life is completely different from sharing opinions which nauseate your fans and destroy your business.”

In James’ estimation, “we are witnessing the beginning of an important debate about the relationship between creative and business imperatives.”

He predicted “we’ll be seeing a greater focus on controlled creativity, and business continuance, over raw creativity, debates over ‘star designers’ are inevitable in the coming months, with a renewed focus on the business side of things.”

The specter of substance abuse has been a sensitive and taboo subject for years, even as fashion history is littered with examples.

Claude Montana, one of fashion’s biggest stars in the Eighties, endured a slow fall from grace amidst speculation of a hard-partying lifestyle. Halston was notorious for his rollicking Studio 54 days. Before him came the slow deterioration of Saint Laurent, who Bergé said was “born with a nervous breakdown.”

Betty Catroux, part of Saint Laurent’s inner circle, said what’s changed is the sped-up media culture.

“Fashion designers are artists, and artists are fragile. It’s a question of personal sensitivity,” Catroux said. “Thirty years ago, this may have gone on in private, but because of our current YouTube culture, there is no more mystery, or privacy.”

“The people who create fashion are artists, and all artists are subject to stress. If they have a breakdown in private, it’s not a big deal,” added Loulou de la Falaise, another member of the YSL clan. “The designers from the major houses are under so much pressure, particularly financially.”

Calvin Klein, Donatella Versace and Stefano Pilati are among designers working today who have gone public about their substance abuse, and treatment regimens, in recent years.

In a 2003 interview, Klein told WWD his personal addictions were distinct from his professional ambitions and tribulations. “I don’t believe it has anything to do with work, but, you know, I’m no expert about it, he said. “As you can imagine, I’m trying to deal with it, so I’m not one who should be speaking on the subject, but I don’t believe it has anything to do with work or the industry that you’re in.”

Yet Ed Filipowski, co-president of public relations and production agency KCD Worldwide, characterized “psychological stress” as a huge new factor today.

“As a publicist, I have also taken on many times the role of ‘fashion therapist’ to my clients,” Filipowski said. “Globalization, digitalization — the speed and scope of our work — has added a tremendous amount of pressure not only to the creative field but everyone in this industry. I would venture to say we are all doing at least twice as much work twice as fast as we were five years ago.”

According to Filipowski, substance abuse is “accelerating” in many fields.

“We are living in a time of easy opportunity. Our industry also is based on approval, judgment, what’s new and next,” he said.

Lou Lebentz, addiction therapist at The Priory Hospital Roehampton in London, whose patients have included Kate Moss, Amy Winehouse, Susan Boyle, Lily Allen and the late Isabella Blow, said, “Any high-pressured, stressful environment can potentially exacerbate symptoms of underlying issues” that can lead to substance abuse.

“Drug use then becomes acceptable and is seen as the norm,” Lebentz said. “The more part of the culture it is, then you partake more frequently, become more susceptible, and are more likely to have a predisposition and can become dependent.”

Many observers discount the suggestion that fashion has a higher incidence of substance abuse and psychological stress and any special skills for dealing with it.

“I don’t see fashion as an industry being ahead of the world in terms of this issue,” said Andrew Rosen, president and co-chief executive officer of Theory and Helmut Lang. “It’s a devastating and unfortunate condition that happens in every walk of life. It doesn’t make it better or OK, it’s a devastating illness to all those around it. Drug addiction, and addiction in general, is unfortunately part of society today.

“Maybe because we’re so close to our industry, we feel it more,” he said, adding it’s an issue that touches everyone in the world and that “whenever it happens, it’s horrible.”

He admired the way Dior handled the Galliano situation, first suspending him and then initiating termination procedures. “They acted quickly, and it is true that the company is so much more than one individual,” Rosen added.

While few people who work in fashion are immune to pressure, some thrive on it.

“I’m the kind of person that I live under pressure, but I enjoy the pressure, so it very much relates to your own personality,” said photographer Mert Alas, who collaborates with Marcus Piggott on numerous fashion campaigns and editorials. “Of course we’re all under pressure. The bus driver is under pressure. But, you know, it’s how you come out of it. If you can make good fun with it, pressure can be enjoyable.”

Deirdre Boyd, ceo of a U.K. charity called the Addiction Recovery Foundation, speculated that Galliano’s need for perfection was a likely contributor to his addiction. “In order to hit rock bottom, most commonly, men have to lose their money and/or their jobs. For women, it’s other factors,” she noted.

“The nature of big business is that it wants results, but companies need to watch and monitor these situations. Designers need to be nurtured,” said Vanessa Denza, founder and owner of the London-based fashion recruitment agency Denza, drawing a parallel between Galliano and McQueen. “Both of them needed a break, an opportunity to wind down for a few months, but the nature of the business doesn’t allow them to do that because it is nonstop.”

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