Last month, the 24-year-old US gymnast Simone Biles made headlines by stepping down from the all-around final at the Tokyo Olympics. “Simone Biles has withdrawn […] to focus on her mental health” read the statement from USA Gymnastics. “We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being.” This move – the world’s greatest gymnast putting her wellbeing above medal-winning – not only marked a new era in competitive sport, but felt indicative of the younger generation’s refusal to shy away from the realities of mental health.
Interestingly, we are seeing this shift play out in the corporate sphere. In the fashion industry and beyond, brands aimed at young people are achieving authenticity and building fiercely loyal customer bases by embracing conversations around mental wellbeing. But how did we get here? Which brands are leading the way? And what does this mean for future of the fashion industry?
It is no secret that younger generations are spending according to what matters to them. In a study conducted by Deloitte in 2019, analysts noted that “younger generations are putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to supporting businesses that make a positive impact on society.” Since that time, millennials and ‘Generation Z’ consumers have continued to factor environmental and social factors into their purchasing decisions, with Covid-19 only heightening this trend. While it is in many ways arbitrary to define where one group ends and another begins (most sources draw the line at 1995), the two demographics display a different set – or rather a different order – of priorities. Broadly speaking, sustainability is front of mind for millennials. For those currently in their late teens to early twenties, mental health and wellbeing are rapidly becoming two of the most important issues on the table.
It’s not difficult to see how we got here. Today’s teenagers and young people have grown up with the intense pressures of social media and an ever-approaching climate crisis, as well as living out some of their most formative years under lockdown restrictions. But unlike those who came before them, members of Generation Z are not afraid to talk openly.
Significantly, this shift has been replicated online. I grew up with social media and have witnessed firsthand the move from curation and perfection to rawness and authenticity online. Highly retouched photographs and flawless make up tutorials are being replaced with unedited depictions of real people and the real world. Today, a Facetuned bikini snap or a promotion for “flat tummy tea” sticks out like a sore thumb on a feed that demands cellulite, acne and stretch marks. Most recently, the Chinese social media behemoth TikTok has given way to a new brand of social media content that prioritises entertainment and lightheartedness above aesthetics and filters. We’ve seen the rise of ‘mental health influencers’, and internet natives like Zoe Sugg and Fearne Cotton become ambassadors for mental health, openness and vulnerability.
“I grew up with social media and have witnessed firsthand the move from curation and perfection to rawness and authenticity online. Highly retouched photographs and flawless make up tutorials are being replaced with unedited depictions of real people and the real world.”
And now, businesses are paying attention. Covid-19 has certainly accelerated conversations around the importance of mental health for employees and executives alike, and forward-thinking organisations are levelling up on wellbeing internally. Late last month, for example, Whitney Wolfe Herd of Bumble announced unlimited paid leave for employees, on top of week-long office closures twice a year to combat workplace stress.
But as well as widespread progress on employee wellbeing, we are beginning to see the emergence of brands which project this messaging externally onto their merchandise. Thank you for asking about my mental health! reads the slogan on The Mayfair Group’s ‘Answers May Vary’ line of loungewear. While for many, this sort of statement is reserved for private conversations or professional therapy sessions, The Mayfair Group has garnered a loyal following of Gen Z customers by putting the topics of wellness, self-care and mental health at the very centre of their consumer proposition.
Initially launching in 2017 as an online “safe” space that promoted mental wellbeing through feel-good digital content, The Mayfair Group LLC was born when followers began demanding the site’s slogans on t-shirts. Fast forward to 2021, and the brand has become one of the most successful labels in the loungewear space, achieving 7,000% growth during the pandemic. Google Justin and Hailey Bieber, Bella Hadid, Jennifer Lopez or Sophie Turner, and you’ll see dozens of paparazzi snaps of the celebrities donned in Mayfair’s best-selling collection: a slouchy sweatshirt with the word ‘Empathy’ emblazoned on the front.
Another label in this space is Madhappy, founded by four friends keen to “create a conversation around mental health”. Part of the wider Local Optimist Group – an entire online platform committed to social change and offering free toolkits, podcasts, blogs and playlists – Madhappy is a successful LA-based streetwear brand, now competing with the likes of Fear of God and Brain Dead.
Today, this trend is building momentum. The global wellness industry is worth $4.2 trillion, so it is no surprise that fashion companies are paying attention. At one end of the market, Madhappy has received backing from luxury conglomerate LVMH, proving that mental health-first marketing is not a flash-in-the-pan internet fad. At the other end, fast fashion firms are making a play: t-shirts with phrases like “self-care club”, “mental health matters,” or “look after yourself” printed across the chest can be purchased from almost every fashion ecommerce site.
As time goes on, it will be interesting to see what happens to the authenticity and integrity of wellbeing-focused brands and businesses which adopt similar messaging. Just as greenwashing is widely criticised within some of the best-known fashion brands globally, I imagine we’ll see the rise of “wellbeing washing”, where organisations promote products and values at odds with their company policies.
“Just as greenwashing is widely criticised within some of the best-known fashion brands globally, I imagine we’ll see the rise of “wellbeing washing”, where organisations promote products and values at odds with their company policies.”
For those in their late teens and early twenties, brand authenticity is a high priority. And when being authentic means having difficult conversations about wellbeing, it’s no surprise that the likes of Mayfair Group and Madhappy are seeing success among Gen Z consumers. This demographic is demanding a genuine feeling of closeness from brands, and engaging in discussions around wellbeing is one way to achieve this.
Looking ahead, the difference between the winning and losing brands will be this authenticity. What sets The Mayfair Group apart from other brands is its founder, Sam Abrahart, who sits at the heart of the business and is refreshingly open about her own struggles with mental health. Kicking off the #MayfairWorld podcast, Sam had a detailed discussion about her wellbeing, which not only resonated with her customers but added a deep significance to The Mayfair Group’s products.
A new generation of conscious consumers is demanding more from its brands. While organisations will certainly jump on the bandwagon to boost sales – deeming it sufficient to simply “start a conversation” around mental health through their products – I doubt these businesses will see longevity or achieve any sort of cult status.