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VOICES 2020: Optimising Health: Mind, Body and Soul

The final session of VOICES addressed how leading health experts and fashion leaders think about the consequences of the pandemic on health and wellness, including everything from how sleep patterns changed to unlocking higher consciousness.
Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou and Tim Blanks speak during VOICES 2020
Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou and Tim Blanks speak during VOICES 2020. Getty Images. (Samir Hussein)

As much as the Covid-19 pandemic has challenged businesses, it has also put significant strain on the physical and mental wellbeing of people the world over. Aside from the obvious health threat the virus itself poses to the global community, rates of depression and anxiety are up, and more people are reporting feeling stress in their daily lives and interruption to their sleep.

It is these difficulties that prompted health experts and fashion leaders alike to come together on the third day of VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, to inspire the community to think about how they can live their “best life” in the event’s final session.

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Living With the Virus: A Survivor’s Story

The pandemic hit at the height of Fashion Month earlier this year, as editors from the four major fashion cities in Europe and the United States were largely undeterred by what was still an ambiguous threat, flying between New York and Paris to view shows. Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou, editor-in-chief of 10 magazine who contracted Covid-19 in March, assumed she’d had the “fashion flu,” the fatigue that often plagues insiders as they slog through weeks of travel. But within a week, she was hospitalised, before undergoing a month-long, medically-induced coma only to wake up to a different world with a new vocabulary to describe it. The experience helped shape how Neophitou-Apostolou thinks about her role in fashion and society more broadly.

Neophitou-Apostolou told BoF editor-at-large Tim Blanks that the mental difficulty in beating Covid-19 was like surviving a terminal illness. “It’s not just a physical assault on your body, it’s a mental assault as well,” she said. When hospital employees and first responders who had been tending to her care in the hospital asked what she did for a living, she said she felt guilt around working in what was still a bloated fashion industry. “It was a big wakeup call ... We have to all of us contribute to things to change them.”

“I approach life in a different way, every moment has become precious,” she added. “The speed at which we live our lives in this industry is so fast ... We blink and we miss it.”

Global Attitudes and Health Behaviours, from Masks to Vaccines

Sarah Jones, creator of the firm Mental Health Intelligence, and Noel Brewer, a professor of health behaviour at the University of North Carolina, outlined how experiences like Neophitou-Apostolou’s mirrored those of citizens in countries around the world.

Jones has helped accumulate data to contribute to the largest open-access, Covid-19 health behavioural study, one whose data is used by the IMF, OECD, Bank of England, and other groups.

Among the findings, there are distinct cultural differences in how people think about the pandemic. For example, there is minimal consensus about the value of social distancing measures; Nordic countries like Denmark and Finland have few people who report always wearing a mask, while other countries report a high percentage of people who say they always wear masks. In Asia, social norms around mask-wearing mean that citizens are more likely to voluntarily wear them, while in Europe, people are less likely to wear a mask unless they are legally obligated to do so.

Significantly, people across the world have become frustrated with how their respective governments have handled the pandemic, particularly in the US, UK, Spain and Brazil.

Although opinions about the pandemic and the extent to which people abide by social distancing measures vary based on government responses and cultural norms, Jones and Brewer agreed that beating the pandemic means public figures and the media have a responsibility to encourage vaccination and support the science espoused by trusted medical experts.

The Science of Sleep

As people eagerly await those vaccines, however, they can take steps in their daily life to stay healthy. Improving the quality of their sleep, for example, also happens to be something that can also help make vaccines more effective once they’re administered, explained Harpreet Singh Rai, CEO of wearables company Oura and Dr Matthew Walker, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology, UC Berkeley.

During the VOICES conference, BoF polled viewers about their sleep habits, asking, “How often has poor sleep troubled you during the pandemic?” The responses are unlikely to surprise many: 75 percent of respondents said they had struggled with sleep at some point during the pandemic.

Among Walker and Singh Rai’s top sleep hacks: Saunas and warm baths are highly effective at helping the body expel heat once you exit those environments, and help set ideal conditions for sleep. Setting sleep alarms — those reminders that nudge you to bed at roughly the same time every evening — is just as important as an alarm to help you wake up in the morning. Avoiding naps during the day, caffeine in the afternoon and alcohol in the evening allow people to grow tired enough for sleep at night. And if you’re lying in bed for longer than 25 minutes without falling asleep, then go and do something else until your body is tired.

“You would never sit at a dinner table waiting to get hungry. Why would you lie in bed waiting to get sleepy?” Walker said. “The answer is, you shouldn’t.”

How Meditation Can Lead To an Awakened Life

Stress is as much a mental response to the perception of a threat as it is a physical one, and so treatments for stress should also be multi-pronged.

That’s the advice that underscored the discussion between Deepak Chopra, alternative medicine advocate and entrepreneur and investor Carmen Busquets, who extolled the value in meditation in combating three simultaneous crises: Covid-19, its economic fallout and the “stress pandemic.”

“This is an opportunity to reinvent life totally,” Chopra said. “Reinvent the body, resurrect the soul, create a joyful, energetic body... and lightness of being. The old way of doing business in the world is gone.”

Unlocking that heightened state in part means looking for deeper happiness. “Transient happiness,” those pleasures derived from alcohol, shopping, sex and food, are limited, whereas happiness found in striving to make others happy, Chopra said, has more longevity.

And when it comes to meditation itself, Chopra and Busquets alike recommend to beginners to start small: Focus on one’s breath, be aware of the body, and use guided meditation apps like the Chopra app (of which Oprah Winfrey is a fan.)

“It’s not about time, just do one-minute meditation,” Busquets said. “Give 60 seconds to yourself. Create that awareness of having that 60 seconds of silence, anybody can do it.”

A Creative Dialogue For a New Consciousness

To close the VOICES conference, BoF’s editor-at-large Tim Blanks sat down with Jonathan Anderson, creative director at JW Anderson and Loewe, and artist Anthea Hamilton to discuss how the pandemic changed how Anderson thinks about his creative process, working with collaborators and sharing his work with the global fashion community.

“I realized when being a designer and working within art, you have to let go through giving more,” Anderson said. “How I approach my own brand and Loewe … I feel it stemmed this idea of, how do you build cultural brands? As much as you build beautiful things, you can open up beautiful dialogues ... It’s not just a take situation, it’s a meeting in the middle.”

Anderson and Hamilton previously worked together to design an installation for the Tate Britain museum in 2018 and collaborated on his “show in a box” format for Loewe during the pandemic, which many critics heralded as being among the most inventive and welcome changes to the traditional fashion week approach.

“Working together [is a craft], and if I try to think about what craft is, it’s spending time, an investment in skill,” Hamilton said. “The stamina we’ve all needed to get through this year is a type of craft ... It’s about trusting and holding oneself together in some ways.”

VOICES 2020 is made possible in part through our partners McKinsey & Company, Affirm, SCAD and Invisible Collection.

Disclosure: Carmen Busquets is part of a consortium of investors which has a minority stake in The Business of Fashion. All investors have signed shareholder’s documentation guaranteeing BoF’s complete editorial independence.

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