Fashion Reducing The Stigma Of Mental Illness

Wear Your Label is a Canadian "conscious clothing line with the goal to create conversations around mental health." I discovered the brand while browsing an Etsy-like website called Colabination. Due to my devastating personal experiences with depression, I was touched to see apparel printed with encouraging messages such as "your story isn't over" and "it's okay to not be okay." I also really respect that Wear Your Label decided to remove gender designations from their online store. Furthermore — yes, there's more! — they pledged to never Photoshop their models. Wear Your Label insists, "No skin retouching [or] slimming effects... We believe in perfect imperfection, raw emotion, and brand transparency." Amen to that!

The co-founders of Wear Your Label connected with me on Twitter, and we decided to have a conversation that delved deeper. Kayley Reed and Kyle MacNevin, respectively 21 and 22, are the passionate people behind this project. It's personal for them, like it is for me: MacNevin suffers from generalized anxiety disorder and Reed is in recovery from anorexia nervosa. So without any further ado, here is my conversation with them — where you can discover Wear Your Label's birth story and delve into the intersection between fashion and mental health.

How did you meet and get to know each other?

Reed: I was volunteering with a mental health group as part of a student co-op program for my undergrad degree. Kyle had been working with the same organization for a while as a youth consultant, and I got paired with him as my mentor. Later, I found out he secretly traded with someone else to have me on his team for the project! Haha.

MacNevin: Kayley is absolutely right! I did trade for her, and I am so glad that I did. Sometimes, you recognize great potential in someone even when you first meet.

Clearly the stigma of mental illness sucks, and it has affected you enough that you're willing to work really hard to change the way society looks at people who struggle emotionally. When and how did you decide that this was something you wanted to combat?

Reed: There were a few different instances when I realized this was something I had to do. One was just meeting and working with Kyle. He was one of the first people I ever felt comfortable sharing my story with, because he was open about his. Conversations always inspire me, and really sparked Wear Your Label. Another was facilitating at the Jack Summit, Canada's only student-led mental health innovation summit. Meeting 200 others from across the country, all determined to end the stigma, was a pretty motivating experience that helped me realize that Wear Your Label could really mean something.

MacNevin: I don't think there was ever an "aha!" moment for me. I grew up not really understanding the negative impacts that anxiety and ADHD had on me. Meeting Kayley, and being able to feel comfortable enough to share with her really made me think. These issues are invisible. I never would have expected that Kayley was someone affected by mental illness, at face value. So... mental illness is not like a broken arm or leg where you can see a cast. Mental illness needs to be visible, it needs a cast, or a vivid description that tells the world, "I'm hurt, but don't worry; I'm getting better." I think largely that's what we are trying to do with our clothing.

Why did you decide to collaborate on Wear Your Label?

Reed: It happened really organically. Our project for the organization was to create a way to engage youth on mental health issues. We both love fashion, and came up with Wear Your Label over a dinner conversation (after the project had passed). We had already clicked personally and professionally, and were too passionate to NOT start Wear Your Label after we'd started thinking about it.

MacNevin: Wear Your Label didn't happen over night; it took time. As do all ideas that eventually grow into ventures. Ours was moulded by a few strong driving forces: Our personal experience, our interest in fashion, and background in leadership and engagement activities.

Do you remember any specific personal experiences with mental health stigma that affected you?

Reed: Growing up, I was always the "skinny" friend. I'd hear comments about my weight, how lucky I was, how my other friends were envious that I was so small. I never thought it affected me or was a big deal, until my eating disorder became severe enough that I was seeing doctors three times a week. Then, the more I heard these things from those around me, the less I wanted to work on recovery. I was scared that if I put on weight, I would no longer be the "skinny" friend — so what would I be? I felt like I'd lose my identity.

Eventually, I realized my health was more important — and now that I'm at a healthy weight, my friends actually tell me I look so much better, happier, healthier. But I think people just don't realize how harmful what they're saying can be. I was literally dying, and people were telling me how they wished they were my size. To be fair, no one knew I had an eating disorder. I was very secretive about it until just a few months ago. But our society is programmed to think that smaller is better, and after experiencing the other side, it can be so, so harmful to assume certain things and talk about beauty in a one-dimensional way.

MacNevin: I still get stigmatized for having mental illness... especially in business. My relationships with suppliers and other manufacturers can become very exhausting. Because we are "do-gooders" and have mental illness, they think they can take advantage of that and delay shipments or add surcharges and we won't react. I can be kind of a jerk when it comes to our supply-chain management, and logistics. That being said, often the case is that people assume mental illness is weakness, which is simply not true.

Why did you pick fashion as your area of activism? And why actually making clothes as opposed to just, say, blogging? (I ask because it seems like a ton of work and I'm impressed.)

Reed: Haha, thank you! It is a lot of work. I don't think we realized how much work, to be honest. We both just LOVE fashion — I'm also a writer for a few fashion blogs and magazines. We had the edge of being so naive about the industry and starting a fashion line that we didn't know how hard it would be. We kind of just jumped into it and learned as we went.

MacNevin: Like I said earlier, mental illness needs to be visible. It needs to be in classrooms, in business meetings, on first dates, at the movies, or your friend's birthday party. It needs to have its own symbol like a sling or a cast that explains to the world that you're sick but are getting better.

How would you each describe your personal sense of style?

Reed: It changes a lot based on my lifestyle and what I'm into at the moment. Like, I just graduated from university in the spring and am kind of at that Millennial dream "discovering myself" stage. I'm loving (slightly sassy) statement shirts that talk about that lifestyle, paired with leggings and big sweaters. Also, I've been binge-watching Friends this month and am so into Rachel's 1990s style (oversized plaid shirts, high-waisted jeans, crop tops).

MacNevin: I get a lot of my influences from television and film. Some days, I want to look like James Bond in a fitted three-piece suit, Oxfords, and a tie. For other occasions I will wear joggers, crewneck sweaters, and Nikes. I often get very anxious about what I'm wearing, and it affects my decision-making, and the risks I take. I typically overdress for most occasions, even screen-printing at work.

What does the future of Wear Your Label look like, ideally?

Reed: That's a big question. We have so many plans and ideas. But my little vision for the future, is just two strangers walking down the street and seeing each other wearing something with the Wear Your Label logo — and automatically having that silent connection, knowing that another person understands what they're going through, and supports this movement of positive mental health. I think that's what it's all about — just helping others understand that they're not alone, and it's okay to talk about whatever mental health challenge you may be facing.

MacNevin: That is a tricky question. I would eventually like to see Wear Your Label go out of business because we have eradicated stigma. But I understand that changing people's perceptions doesn't happen quickly. I would really like to see us grow into more intricate designs, with woven fabric, and higher couture pieces that can be worn during special occasions. I also see real potential for Wear Your Label to grow into new markets that help reduce stigma about other social issues. For 2015 we are exploring what it means to be in retail and how that impacts our brand.

Stay tuned!

Images: Wear Your Label; Flickr/daniellehelm/Laura Lewis; Giphy