SAN FRANCISCO, United States — In fashion, we seem to celebrate success above everything. And as an industry, we are well-known for loudly promoting our leaders, lauding designers and chief executives for our perception of their brilliance and their glamour. But while we continue to expect perfection at every turn, underneath the veneer of happiness and success are normal people with anxieties and insecurities just like the rest of us.
And although we have heard for years that in order to succeed in fashion you must “fake it ‘til you make it,” the obvious perils of that path, so tragically demonstrated by a troubling number of high profile burn outs and suicides, are awakening a long-needed conversation that is questioning what “success” means and how best to achieve it in the 21st century. Furthermore, just as generational shifts have necessitated different thinking in fashion as it relates to the Gen-Y and Z consumer, we must now also openly consider how to provide future leaders in this industry a more sustainable and authentic path forward in a world that is ever more connected and ever more critical.
It has been said that being a leader is the loneliest job. While this may seem a first-class problem, as a chief executive myself, I can identify with this sentiment. Like other high profile industries, leaders in fashion are pressured to always present the most positive and optimistic face, even when things are less than ideal. What’s more, we are expected to inspire the confidence of those around us at all times, no matter what we are facing on a given day in our personal or professional life. That’s a ton of stress and it’s not for everyone.
With this in mind, it’s not surprising that many people are not comfortable with the pressures of leadership in the fashion industry, let alone today’s seeming requirement that we all broadcast confidence and perfection at every touchpoint — have you been on Instagram today?
During a recent talk I gave to a group of industry executives, we spoke about “Imposter Syndrome”, the sinking feeling that you are a fraud, and that people might find you out at any moment. This is a sentiment which afflicts nearly every leader in some form and I’m not ashamed to admit that I personally feel it all the time. In my experience, Imposter Syndrome can either be a healthy mechanism to encourage humility and constructive self-improvement, or it can disable and destroy you, particularly if you are actually faking it.
This especially hits home in fashion. When I’ve advised growing brands, I’ve rarely meet a “successful” designer or chief executive officer whose revenue is as big as their brand. While this can be a meaningful achievement in the early days, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to continue projecting success over the longer term, even if you can hardly pay your rent. Sadly, this conflict is all too common in our industry and often leads to a vicious cycle of over spending, over promising and over extending. I’ve seen too many young designers literally mortgage their future just to stay in the game for a few more seasons, with maxed out credit cards and even home equity loans that they may never pay off. Here the financial stress can be immense, but the psychological impacts of perceived “failure” can actually be far greater for some.
So what’s the fashion world to do? It’s not as if these pressures will disappear, especially in an industry still obsessed with image and brand above all.
First, we must find ways to encourage existing and emerging leaders to take time to better understand who they are, and to define their boundaries, personally and professionally. Leaders should feel comfortable building a successful brand, or playing a successful leadership role, while still being authentic to who they are, and without faking anything.
Second, we need to embrace “failure.” In the tech industry, failure is often celebrated as a rich learning opportunity that prepares a leader to better tackle the inevitable conflicts and tough decisions ahead. In fashion, we often dispose of our “failed” leaders. This not only denies them and the rest of the industry the opportunity to learn from their experiences, but also causes further anxiety for other leaders as they rightly perceive that there are rarely any second chances.
Finally, the fashion community must continue to work to de-stigmatise depression and mental illness. We must accept without exception that these conditions exist in great numbers and that those affected have nothing to be ashamed of. All of us should both learn about, and promote outlets for support while keeping on the lookout for those that need help. At the same time, we need to acknowledge publicly that few ever feel like they really “have it all”, and that what may look like “success” from the outside can actually feel like a hollow achievement if you have to fake it to make it.
If it is helpful to you or you believe it will be for others, please feel free to share your own story in the comments below. If you need help, you can speak with someone right now in the US at the national suicide prevention hotline 1-800-273-8255.