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Burnout: The Issue for Designers in a Fast Paced Industry

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

Media outlets have highlighted designer burnout as an important issue due to the increasing pace of the fashion industry (see WWD Staff, 2015; Team Elle, 2016; Sharkey, 2018). This condition is characterized as a state of physical and mental fatigue brought on by chronic stress that is commonly attributed to working environments (Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1986; Amabile & Kramer, 2012). The gravity of this situation has seen designers driven the point of extreme malaise in the past decades (Nicklaus, 2012a; Nicklaus, 2012b; Nicklaus, 2012c). The aim of this essay is to inquire into the manner in which a fast-paced business model might strain fashion designers. Firstly, this work will analyse the relationship between designers, creativity and the creative process. It will then illustrate the application of the terms within various fashion studios and designers’ methods to explore their inner work lives, thus appraising the impact of stress in an individual’s psychological and physiological health.

It is generally accepted that designers hold a creative position within a fashion company, and that they follow a relatively streamlined process for achieving an innovative product. Travers-Spencer & Zaman (2008) explain the use of thematic exploration, colour research, mood-board elaboration, sketching, fabric investigation, and prototyping in the context of fashion. At present, the demand for creative fashion products has increased in pace, from two collections a year, to over six collections a year in the case of some designers (Nicklaus, 2012c; Flaccavento, 2015). Corner (2016) explains that these commercial imperatives may stretch the designers’ creativity to a point that may metaphorically kill the golden goose.

To further understand the responsibility of a designer, it is essential to define creativity. Guilford (1950) places importance on the individual’s abilities such as the production of novel ideas, flexibility of thought, ability for synthesis, ability for analysis, talent for reorganization and disposition for redefinition. On the other hand, Amabile (1982) defines creativity as the characteristic of a product, process or response that is valued as such by appropriate observers. De Bono (1999) reflects Guilford’s (1950) claim in that creativity is a desirable characteristic brought on by lateral thinking, a procedure of generating multiple varied ideas rather than a single specialized response to a problem. For the sake of this essay, these definitions, while varied, may be taken into account as not mutually exclusive for their use can alternate when assessing different elements. For example, one might label a designer as creative for their ability to redefine a problem, while a fashion product may be judged as creative because it is considered as such by the consumer.

Fannia Gamez wearing Atelier Sesenta y Cuatro. Photo by Kaisser Lens

The creative process has also been studied from a cognitive perspective (Lubart, 2001). Wallas (2015) is credited with creating the four-stage model for creative thought. These stages are preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. These can be allocated to steps of the fashion design process defined by Travers-Spencer & Zaman (2008). Both preparation and incubation can be associated with thematic exploration, mood board elaboration, and other stylistic research activities. Illumination could be linked to product design and prototype creation. Verification may be attributed to the final adjustments in fittings.

For the sake of understanding the cognitive work implied by the creative process, this essay considers Kahneman’s (2011) model of fast and slow thinking. Fast thinking, attributed to system 1, is intuitive, highly efficient and easily susceptible to bias. Slow thinking is attributed to system 2, and most important for this appraisal. It is systematic, effortful and careful. While system 1 may be attributed to the incubation phase, system 2 is indispensable for the other three stages that require closer concentration, though this would require further research and exploration. Miller (1956) muses on the amount of information an individual may process in working memory, and though he estimates seven as a probable answer, the simple fact it has a limit is what this work will consider. The term cognitive load is used to define one’s capacity for retaining and working with information at any given task (Sweller, 1988; Kahneman, 2011). A related term to consider is ego depletion, defined as the result of overexerting one’s self-control which itself is taxing on one’s cognitive load. Kahneman (2011) explains that while one may not overstep the limits of one’s cognitive load, ego depletion may lead to loss of both motivation and impulse control despite being renewable. The author explains that the effortful mental activity that leads to ego depletion may drain the body’s glucose supply and manifest in the physiological need for sugar consumption that counteracts these effects.

To understand the influence of the previously discussed concepts in designers, a deeper understanding of the inner workings of a fashion studio is in order. Using information from fashion pedagogy material and documentaries, this essay will delve into the goings-on that designers face. Two particular cases in fashion history will be contemplated, and select occurrences that happened 72 hours before a runway show will be analysed. In continuing, two important considerations must be made. First, that the management of human resources in a stressful situation is crucial in the study of toxins and nourishers in employees’ inner work lives (Amabile & Kramer, 2012). Second, that these situations present clear goals, the necessity of skills, a group dynamic with shared leadership, and immediate feedback. This is conducive to a state of flow, and if left unchecked or is endured for too long, can lead to burnout (Amabile & Kramer, 2012; Csikszentmihalyi, 2014; Aubé, Rousseau, & Brunelle, 2018).

Regarding the sharing of leadership, the roles of fashion creatives are varied to the point that multiple people are hired in fashion studios for specific tasks. For the purpose of this analysis, the relevant positions considered are the artistic director, the product designers, the subordinate designers, the pattern drafters, and the sewing specialists. Lipton (2009) presents the hierarchy in what could be considered an average fashion studio. The artistic director is responsible for the aesthetic and thematic course of a collection. This results in graphic and technical instructions that are passed on to product designers that take care of different elements. Trousers, coats, trims, and embroideries may be worked on by one or more different people depending on the size of the company. The technical drawings made by the product designers and their subordinate designers go to pattern-drafters, tailors and seamstresses for prototyping, and are then evaluated and altered in fittings until the corresponding authority validates each piece. These validated products are then communicated to the industry in runways and showrooms where buyers may request additional alterations to the products that will be presented to consumers.

Atelier Sesenta y Cuatro Gallery at the Alliance Française de Monterrey

Nicklaus (2012a) presents Claude Montana’s trajectory through the 1980’s towards the beginning of the 1990’s along with various contemporary designers. The documentary shows the leap in industrial and technical practice in the apparel industry, and how it’s linked to the rise of ready-to-wear in fashion. Montana is a notable case due to how quickly he assumed responsibilities. He began designing the clothes and managing the business side of his brand, and eventually took on the mantle of artistic director for Lanvin’s Haute Couture collections in the early 1990’s.

In fashion, creativity and business go hand in hand, but may present contradicting interests. While business seeks economic expansion and commercial viability, the creative side seeks further and constant design exploration (Corner, 2016). These values polarize the need for aesthetic restraint and innovation, and managing them may strain an individual to the point of ego depletion. While the individual practices restraint, their cognitive load is taxed (Kahneman, 2011), and while the depleted ego induces the individual to seek out glucose, it may also induce a relapse intro drug use for addicts as well (Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1986; Baumeister & Vohs, 2007). In the case of Montana, he allegedly resorted to the use of stimulants. By the time he was designing for Lanvin, he had to relinquish creative control of his eponymous brand. He abruptly stopped working all together in the mid 1990’s and is said to have disappeared from the fashion radar (Nicklaus 2012a).

A stark contrast to Claude Montana is the case of Azzedine Alaïa. The exposition at The Design Museum (2018) shows Alaïa allowed his partner to take care of the business aspects of the brand while he focused purely on the creative aspects of design and production. The exhibit also showed Alaïa treated his work environment in a familiar way. Designers, pattern-drafters, interns, and sometimes even guest clients ate and worked together in a jovial atmosphere where the different managerial levels mingled with their subordinates. This form of leadership, where idea exchange is made fluid between management and workers, is described by Amabile & Kramer (2012) as an important nourisher to a healthy inner work life.

An aspect that showed to be a double-edged blade in the case of Alaïa was his alleged stubbornness to show his collections only when he deemed them ready, without any regards to the fashion show calendars. While Nicklaus (2012a) credits this as a reason for Alaïa’s dropping sales and fallout with the press in the 1990’s, both the documentary and the exhibition at The Design Museum (2018), credit the designer’s value for his incubation and verification periods as vital for the quality and apparent timelessness of his work. Unlike Montana, Alaïa kept working until his death in 2017 (The Business of Fashion, 2019).

Prigent (2009) follows the employees at Jean Paul Gaultier’s studio and ateliers 72 hours before an Haute Couture fashion show. This period is regularly referred to in this documentary as high on stress levels due to demanding tasks, and –as illustrated by the work disparity between day and night shift seamstresses– potential for interpersonal conflicts. The events are explained to be taking place six days after the presentation of the menswear show. It is important to keep in mind the frequency in which similar events happen because this implies little resting period. This leads to a high level of psychological strain that has also been linked to physiological manifestations. Sapolsky (1996) explains how adrenal steroids called glucocorticoids are secreted during moments of stress, and have harmful effects on the brain. He explains that secreted over months, these steroids may kill hippocampal neurons, which may in turn affect the individual’s episodic memory (Tulving & Markowitsch, 1998). This could be an explanation for the depersonalization and negative self-evaluation related to burnout (Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1989).

An important aspect to consider in the case of Gaultier’s studio is whether the worker’s motivations are intrinsic or extrinsic (Lu, 1999). Prigent (2009) shows creatives working for the sake of creation, as in the case of Claudia who was tasked with restructuring the individual scales of alligator skin with a crochet to make a sweater-like dress. Starting off the documentary with scales scattered across her workspace and with a few assistants around, her knowledge of her craft and the objective laid out in the form of a designer’s sketch helped her go into a state of flow, where her system 2 is in a constant state of work (see Csikszentmihalyi, 2004; Kahneman, 2011), or what Amabile & Kramer (2012) call “being on a mission”. Despite finishing her garment between 30 to 50 minutes after the scheduled runway time, Claudia is shown to enjoy seeing what she called “her baby” showcased down the runway.

In contrast, Prigent (2009) also shows the case of Clotilde, the product designer specialized in embroidery that is faced with multiple readjustments to her assigned piece. She works on an all-over embroidered dress that faces multiple modifications that move it back in production constantly. From changes of materials, to facing the need to rework entire patterns; she mentions, while re-embroidering over-night, that she often finds her work demoralizing. Discouragement is listed by Amabile & Kramer (2012) as one of the four main toxins that lead to poor inner work life. Clotilde’s motivations can’t be intrinsic because her main goal is to be rid of the project, and her overexertion of system 2 may be attributed to her saturated cognitive load, that can in turn lead to her depleted ego which may also explain why she confesses to her discouragement on camera.

Insofar as the stressors inherent to the fashion industry may be unavoidable due to the nature of the implied work, their frequency is becoming highly problematic. A prolonged time of ego depletion and stress can lead to negative psychological and physiological problems and may be attributed to the designer burnout alluded to in fashion media. Even though alternatives are being explored by new fashion enterprises (Sharkey, 2018), what can be stated from this analysis is that the current pace of the fashion industry –if one considers designers’ creativity and well-being as a resource– it not sustainable at best, and maliciously abusive at worst.


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