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LCF graduates share their thoughts on mental health and wellbeing

collage of student work. left = multicoloured patterned garment, middle = blue and orange glove puppets, right = multicoloured ombre jumpsuit garment
  • Written byJ. Igiri
  • Published date08 October 2021
collage of student work. left = multicoloured patterned garment, middle = blue and orange glove puppets, right = multicoloured ombre jumpsuit garment
Student Work, from the UAL Graduate Showcase
2021 , London College of Fashion, UAL | Photograph: Monika Dolbniak (Left), Sijie Li (Centre), Diane Wallinger (Right)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes World Mental Health Day as a time to “raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health.”

Prioritising your wellbeing while you study can help you to manage the pressure and enjoy your time at London College of Fashion. The last 12 months has brought a lot of uncertainty, particularly for students navigating changing learning styles and coursework demands. We wanted to find out how some of our 2021 graduates are practicing self-care, while exploring themes of wellbeing and mental health within their creative work.

photo of Diane Wallinger in a multicoloured green, white and purple garment

Diane Wallinger graduated from MA Fashion Futures at London College of Fashion in January, with a project focused on wellbeing and sustainable design. She trained in traditional fashion design and fashion communication, and developed her interest in sustainability throughout the master’s course. Before this, Diane completed a BA (Hons) in Fashion Communication at Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design, and has been interested in exploring wellbeing within her work since then.

Black and white headshot of Monika Dolbniak

Monika Dolbniak is a BA (Hons) Fashion Design Technology: Womenswear graduate from Poland. She creates adaptive wear for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, inspired by her younger brother and the way he approaches his garments.

photo of Sijie Li at a beach

Sijie Li is a fashion accessories designer with a background in leather design. She is fascinated by colours, material combinations, handcraft and playful designs. In her MA Fashion Artefact final project, she focused on using bright colours and soft materials to improve mood.

Each of these recent graduates showcased collections influenced and inspired by varying areas of wellbeing and mental health experiences.

Congratulations on graduating. How did you find this year's virtual graduation process?

Diane: What struck me the most was handing the project in at the end because it was months of work and then you just submit, close your laptop and it's over. I think we have a human need to celebrate every time we achieve something, but we were in the middle of a lockdown so we couldn’t actually do anything different. It was a bit hard to process because we didn’t have that closure or celebration time with friends and family. But it felt nice to receive my diploma by post in the summer.

Monika: I was not able to come in person to the course exhibition, but from the videos I saw it was very impressive. I think all of the students had a chance to show their work, unlike previous years. In terms of the graduation, I am a bit at disappointed. Of course, I understood that it was not possible to meet in person with everyone, but the fact that it was a pre-recorded video didn't really give the atmosphere of graduating. I think it was nice and me and my classmates got really close to each other after this year. Even when we had classes online, we actually made more friends, were very helpful to each other and much more understanding. I think it was a very good experience.

Sijie: It's such a pity that there were no real exhibitions or graduation ceremonies this year, but I feel our online exhibition is great. Uni staff also helped us a lot with taking photos and shooting film.

Could you tell us a bit about your graduate showcase collection and what inspired you to make this specific project?

Rendered graphic of a garment made of duvet / cushion shapes, with multicoloured fabric interior in green, white and purple, posed on a blue background
CARE OF SELF, CARE OF WORLD
2021 , London College of Fashion, UAL | Photograph: Diane Wallinger

Diane: I wanted to pursue my research into wellbeing specifically as a fashion designer. Everyone can do something within their profession. What as a designer can I do to enhance people’s wellbeing?

I believe that maybe unsustainability and unhappiness are linked. I saw statistics about how throughout the years we are getting unhappier, despite having more stuff, so I wanted to explore this. In studies of sustainability, you see a lot of qualities that are needed to actually be prompted to adopt a more sustainable behaviour, and these are linked to qualities that you acquire when you are in a better place mood-wise. For example, when you are feeling happier you might be more able to socialise, so maybe you’d be more likely to collaborate. We need those tools to fight against unsustainability and the psychological pressure of climate change.

Wellbeing is such a wide topic, I had to figure out which part to tap into. I decided to look at self-care practices within the pandemic, using comfort as a source of inspiration - that's why there are a lot of duvet / cushion shapes. Combined with my knowledge from studies on the psychological influence of colours and material, I mixed vibrant colours for positivity with some pastels for comfort and calm.

collage of models in various patterned garments - top row models in front of the word 'friend', middle row in front of the word 'help' and bottom row in front of the word 'love'
Hurricane Therapies
2021 , London College of Fashion, UAL | Photograph: Monika Dolbniak

Monika: I was working in this field for two years on many projects which explored the boundaries that people with autism face with clothes, and the additional requirements that are needed. Within this project I wanted to push my ideas further and focus on delivering and structuring a social therapy through clothes, as a lack of understanding is a common thing that people with autism face.

Each one of the outfits corresponds to a separate therapy, and while I was designing the garments I also designed guidebooks to show the user a specific scenario of how the garment could be worn. For example, the one that shows you how to find friends is very colourful, and in the guidebook you can see that it encourages you to use the garment with other people around you. All the garments have pictograms on them so the user can see what the therapy is for and how to behave while taking part in the therapy. I was more focused on creating tools and accessories rather than fashionable adaptive wear, because I think the main goal of adaptive wear is to be functional.

close up of model in white top with a blue glove puppet on hand, arms crossed
Emotional mask
2021 , London College of Fashion, UAL | Photograph: Sijie Li

Sijie: ‘Emotional mask’ is a response to the increasing issue of social anxiety which was inspired by my personal life as I suffer from social anxiety. This project explores how masks and gloved puppets can perform as playful wearable therapy tools to help express and shift the negative emotions of people with social anxiety.

When I came to the UK I was far away from my family and friends. Everything was very unfamiliar. Coupled with the language barriers, I became more and more afraid of communicating with others and unwilling to share my feelings. I always got embarrassed in social occasions and I felt my social anxiety was getting worse. So, I wanted to design a series of treatment tools to relieve my negative emotions.

What impact do you hope your project will have?

Diane: I feel like in every one of our projects, especially as students, we open up such big doors that there is so much more to explore afterwards. I hope to continue my research, bringing with me the knowledge I already have. I'm really hoping to change perspectives on sustainability and wellbeing. I have no psychology background and my work doesn't aim at healing any mental health issues, it's mostly about ‘maybe you are feeling okay, but what if you were actually feeling good?’

What could we achieve if we were all feeling good and what kind of tools could we get from design? We wear clothing and garments everyday all the time, so I think it probably has an impact on us. I want to try out and find out what this impact is and what could have an influence on it to make it better.

Monika: I want to show that adaptive wear is more than clothes, it needs to be created together with the users. I really hope it will show designers that adaptive wear is no longer an alternative, that it's something that needs to be applied into fashion, because World Health Organization estimates that one in four people is affected with mental health disorders. I think this is a really huge market to show your skills in and there is clearly a demand for it. I hope that this project will show that there is a lot we can do as designers in this field to actually help people and to start designing clothes that apply to their needs, not just what we think it can be or represent.

Sijie: I hope my work can convey a sense of optimism, relieve people's anxiety and release stress. I hope I can change the uneasy emotions of the wearer into playful ones.

What did you find most challenging about being a student?

Diane: As you go into higher studies, you've got less and less teaching, so you're more and more on your own. You are already maybe in a city that you don't know. You meet new people, but you are not spending enough time together to create strong links. You have to be so self-disciplined and efficient to manage everything. You also need to be strong enough to make time for yourself and your friends. I’m really proud of all the people who are studying now during the pandemic, because it was already so hard in normal times without the added layers of complexity. These people are warriors, I admire them. Well done.

Monika: It was difficult for me because it was the first time that I was living by myself. I moved to London straight from high school. I was 18 and didn't know anyone so it was a little bit challenging for me to be more open, get to know people and make new friends. It also challenged my organizational skills because I was on my own for the whole time. But I really liked the college and I think I adapted very quickly. Before Covid I had the chance to meet everyone, my first and second year was in college, so it was really nice to work with people and meet students from around the world.

Sijie: As an international student, the first challenge is the local culture and lifestyle, as well as the language barrier. But the most important thing is to find a suitable learning method. The tutor only gives you suggestions, you should have the ability to think independently.

With everything that’s been going on in the world, have you been able to practice self-care and how did you navigate this while you were studying?

Diane: As soon as I started looking into wellbeing during my BA, I realised I needed to care for myself and my own wellbeing, because I can't be producing work that aims at enhancing other people’s wellbeing if I'm not in a good place. I had a gratitude journal and I also tried to be realistic and respond to my mood – getting enough sleep, exercising, doing yoga, trying to do a 10-minute meditation every morning. These are the kind of things that are different for everyone – some people might hate exercising and it's not the thing that will make them feel better. During my Masters project it was much harder to maintain a good mood because of the lockdown, with the fact that you couldn't see friends at the weekend or go out. I think that there are some things you don't notice that contribute to your self-care routine. It's about finding what's best for you. I think maybe unconsciously, I brought it into my MA project because it was really about encouraging people to take the time to think about caring for themselves, and that self-care could take different forms.

Monika: In first year I tried to use as many sources as possible, but when the real designing started in second year, I had a lot of work to do and I wanted everything to be perfect. In the beginning I was very stressed and I couldn't sleep, but then I decided that I would take my time and remember that I’m studying for myself, not for someone else. I started to do yoga, eat healthier and go on walks.

I think this whole pandemic taught me to step back and showed that it’s just a moment in my life and everything doesn’t depend on it. Now I see it from a distance and I think you need to do your best, but also take care of yourself, because nothing good will happen when you are tired and stressed.

Sijie: Sometimes I was very busy studying and didn’t have the time, but I still took a moment to relax, chat with friends, and hung out when the weather was good. We need to relax to keep good mental health, especially when the pressure is high.

What does good mental health mean to you?

Diane: I think I'm a really lucky person because I never experienced diagnosed mental health issues. I know when I'm on the verge of being overwhelmed or really stressed, and I know when I'm in a better place and how I feel. To me it’s trying to aim for a sense of balance between work, family and friends, and to wake up happy. I've just moved to Amsterdam, I’m in a better place work-wise and I wake up happy every day and I think that's a big sign. If something is disproportionate, that's when you should monitor and see where you might need to take care of yourself.

Monika: For me it means that the user feels comfortable in their body and clothes, that their experience matches the environment they’re in, and that other people understand their choices.

Sijie: Good mental health is the basis of a good life. Having a stable mood will give you a better ability to withstand troubles and pressure, because there are many difficulties and problems we need to face in our daily study and life.

When we have good mental health and stable emotions we can come up with coping strategies under pressure.

What one piece of wellbeing advice would you give to new students?

Diane: Try and learn how you function. You might be a morning person so there is no point staying up late and trying to do work. There is no shame in saying that you go to bed at 10! You might realise there are some foods or exercises that don’t work for you – it’s all really personal, and I don’t think Instagram will tell you anything. You know yourself best, learning how you function is important for managing your studies and your personal life, and aiming for that balance.

Monika: I would say use the school as much as you can. Don’t be afraid to talk to your tutors and friends about your problems because you can be surprised by how many people face the same things as you do, so don’t be afraid to speak up and say your opinion. Respect everyone, their history and where they’re from. Try to do your best, and take care of your mind!

Sijie: Pay attention to your mental health. If you are under pressure, you must seek positive solutions, rather than burying such feelings deep in your heart without pouring it out to anyone.

What excites you the most about stepping into the fashion industry?

collage, two rendered graphics of garments made of duvet / cushion shapes, with multicoloured fabric interiors, left on a pink background, right side on purple background
CARE OF SELF, CARE OF WORLD
2021 , London College of Fashion, UAL | Photograph: Diane Wallinger

Diane: I've always wanted to work in fashion, and next year is going to be 10 years that I've been studying in fashion. I’m still really excited. The industry is huge. It's employing so many people. Fashion is everywhere – we wear clothing all the time, even our bedsheets are textile. This industry has so many issues and it has so much impact. It was pivotal for me to realise that I can actually do what I like and be a change-maker, it's empowering to have all those potential tools. Working in fashion is not futile at all! But it's also quite hard to find a job at a company that aligns with your values, because they might be smaller with less employees and not able to take on interns. I think it's worth trying to fight for those values. If we keep accepting things as they are then nothing will change – even though it's super hard to say no!

graphic of three people in multicoloured garments sitting cross-legged on top of pink, green and orange splotches of colour
Hurricane Therapies
2021 , London College of Fashion, UAL | Photograph: Monika Dolbniak

Monika: For me, the most exciting part is that the adaptive wear industry is not that wide. At the moment there are not that many brands that are doing it, so it's very exciting that I have a wide field to show my skills in and can actually propose totally new offers to customers and to fashion.

I’ll be starting my master in Textiles (specialising in Soft Systems) at the Royal College of Art and I can’t wait to meet new people and learn new things. I hope that maybe in a few years the fashion industry will take adaptive wear into consideration more than it is now. I am very excited for it and if not, I will try as a designer to make it happen.

collage of model in white top and muilticoloured textured glove puppets covering their face
Emotional mask
2021 , London College of Fashion, UAL | Photograph: Sijie Li

Sijie: The most exciting thing is that people like and choose your design, it's like what you design becomes a connecting line that resonates with others. I have great passion for design and I am deeply interested in it. I wish to design my favourite accessories conveying my concepts, and demonstrate my preference through my work, making it part of the people who wear it.

Think five years into the future – what would you love to be doing?

Diane: At some point I would like to do a PhD to really investigate positive fashion, design and wellbeing. But I think I need more maturity and time to prepare my thinking and frame my questions. I'd love to be freelancing in my area. I need more practice in how to market myself, as well as portfolio work and defining who I am. Hopefully in five years I'll be doing a PhD and freelancing, and eventually I'll have my own business. I think it's something that's comes with youth, we are really excited and we want things to happen fast. I'm trying to slow myself down a bit and just take the time to appreciate things before moving on to the next thing! I don't want to launch a business if it will crash in one year because I didn't acquire enough experience.

Monika: My dream is to create a platform that can gather all of the experts and make adaptive wear more visible. I would really like to share my skills and experience with other people and learn from them as well through a co-creative approach to fashion. I would like to see myself in this kind of platform or maybe in a research centre that focuses on working with the customer, creating new things and testing them.

Sijie: I think I will continue to do fashion design in five years, haha, maybe I will have a small studio of my own. Let’s look forward to it~