Dress for Success: Apparel Brand Uses T-Shirts to Destigmatize Mental Illness

Wear Your Label’s summer collection features tank tops that declare, ‘Sad but Rad,’ and ‘Self-Care Isn’t Selfish.’
A Wear Your Label tank top. (Photo: Kelsey Schroeder)
May 9, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

“How would you define mental health?” Kyle MacNevin, the 23-year-old cofounder of clothing brand Wear Your Label, said on Friday night at the opening of a two-day pop-up shop in Santa Monica, California.

There isn’t a simple, nonacademic definition, MacNevin and his cofounder, 22-year-old Kayley Reed, said. The two entrepreneurs are working to change perceptions about what it means to be mentally healthy.

“We often define having mental health as not having mental illness,” MacNevin said. “Like, ‘I’m healthy because I’m not depressed.’ ‘I’m healthy because I’m not schizophrenic.’ That has a negative connotation.”

To counter those connotations, the Canada-based business partners have designed T-shirts and tank tops with slogans such as “Anxious but Courageous” and “It’s Okay Not to Be Okay.” They use the garments to encourage their customers to embrace their mental health labels without shame. Their apparel also features self-care tags—similar to washing instructions—that were developed with help from mental health professionals. The tags remind people to meditate, stretch, and laugh.

Stigma Isn’t Over tank. (Photo: Kelsey Schroeder)

“We create clothes to create visibility,” MacNevin said. “Mental illness is often a quite invisible thing. And if you can’t see it, you often make predispositions or judge. And when you judge something, you can often stigmatize it.”

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Mental illness affects one in four adults, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But fear of judgment can prevent people from seeking help. The World Bank estimates that untreated mental illnesses cost the global economy $1 trillion a year.

If Friday night’s event was any evidence, the goal to end stigma around mental health has resonated widely. The small venue was packed with supporters and featured art and food from similarly minded organizations.

(Photo: Samantha Cowan)

Along with Wear Your Label, the pop-up shop featured photography from the Broken Light Collective, an online photo gallery designed for people affected by mental illness. The Depressed Cake Shop, a global community of bakers trying to end the stigma of mental illness, sold a bevy of desserts. Each of the baked goods has a grayish color to “signify the gray cloud that can descend over a beautiful world when someone is struggling with mental health issues,” as the Depressed Cake Shop website explains. A portion of the proceeds from the pop-up will support mental health programs at St. Joseph Center of Venice, a local organization that supports low-income and homeless people.

Both MacNevin and Reed wore Wear Your Label bracelets, their different colors signifying specific mental health disorders or traumatic events. MacNevin wore a green threaded piece representing anxiety disorders, and Reed sported a rose quartz beaded bracelet meant for survivors of sexual assault. Although subtle, the bracelets created a sense of camaraderie among attendees, and fans who identified the pair by their bracelets expressed gratitude and excitement.

“I get to hear messages from people every day who are going through similar things,” Reed said, noting that the shared experiences help make the stress of running a start-up worth it.

MacNevin and Reed met two years ago in Canada while working with a mental health organization, and they bonded over their personal battles. MacNevin lives with generalized anxiety disorder and ADHD, and Reed has struggled with an eating disorder. They started out creating clothing to empower people with mental illnesses, but after a flurry of media coverage in May of last year, Wear Your Label took off.

“We went from two kids screen-printing everything in a small studio in Fredericton [New Brunswick], shipping all our orders,” Reed said, “and things just went like—” She made a whooshing sound to indicate how quickly everything changed.

Wear Your Label founders, Kyle MacNevin and Kayley Reed.

(Photo: Samantha Cowan)

“We had so many back orders that we had to call everyone we knew to help screen-print shirts,” MacNevin said.

Over the past year, Wear Your Label has shown at New York Fashion Week, expanded into home decor, and worked with global organizations such as the World Bank to raise awareness about mental health.

MacNevin and Reed hope their clothing will foster conversations and encourage a lifestyle in which it’s normal to talk about mental health. That said, they acknowledge that wearing their mental health status on their sleeves isn’t always easy.

“When I wear a Wear Your Label garment, it’s a statement to the world that I am a walking, open-door policy to talk about mental health,” MacNevin said, adding that he only wears the brand’s clothing when he feels particularly healthy. “It’s hard sharing your story...but if we can provide a vehicle for conversation, then that’s a really good step.”