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Fashion and Beauty Brands Are Using Mental Health to Connect With 'the Anxious Generation'

Dhani Mau

Millennials and Gen Z are normalizing conversations around mental health, and brands are getting on board.

Inside the Saks Fifth Avenue X Happy Not Perfect installation.

If you live in New York or Los Angeles, this year, you might have come across a massive ad on the side of a building that read, "How Are You, Really?" Or, perhaps you strolled into a Saks Fifth Avenue flagship to find a mindfulness installation replete with a meditation booth. Suddenly, it feels like The Brands are very concerned with our mental health — and, well, it's nice, but it's not just out of the goodness of their hearts.

With increasing frequency, brands and retailers have been eager to cash in on the $4.2 trillion global wellness industry, including those that had previously never really strayed from their roots in fashion and beauty, like Saks and Sephora. But now that the market is flooded with adaptogens, CBD products, bath salts, essential oils, fitness tools and the like, what's next? Lately, brands and retailers, particularly those targeting Gen Z and Millennials, are beginning to go a step further than wellness by addressing a topic that was previously relegated to doctors and therapists: mental health.

Saks Fifth Avenue debuted experiential installations in October and November devoted to mental wellness in partnership with Happy Not Perfect, a mindfulness app and platform created by Poppy Jaime, former co-founder of accessories brand Pop & Suki. Shoppers could participate in the Happy Not Perfect Happiness Challenge which includes eight exercises including "positive psychology, neuroscience and meditation," as described in a press release.

This followed a 2017 commitment by the retailer, and its parent company Hudson's Bay, to distribute $6 million to support mental health services by 2020. In 2018, Saks, Lord & Taylor and Saks Off Fifth launched a campaign and T-shirt that read "The Future Is Stigma Free" with 100% of sales going to Bring Change to Mind, a non-profit focused on ending the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness.

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In October, during Mental Health Awareness week to be exact, wellness brand The Nue Co., known for its probiotic supplements and calming functional fragrance, teamed up with the popular Instagram account-turned-card-game We're Not Really Strangers and The Jed Foundation on its first-ever out-of-home campaign. The account, which photoshops thought-provoking and mental health-related questions and statements onto billboards and the sides of New York City buildings, was able to bring its digital concept to life through the collaboration, which focused on the question, "How Are You, Really?"

There's also the Los Angeles-based streetwear brand Madhappy, which made headlines in October by nabbing an investment from French luxury conglomerate LVMH after just one year in business. In addition to its desirable sweatsuits released in limited drops, celebrity fans and pop-up retail strategy, the brand's broader mission — to normalize conversations about mental health — has helped it grow an engaged community of Gen-Z shoppers.

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In November, mall retailer Express launched a new direct-to-consumer, digitally native brand called UpWest clearly aimed at millennials and Gen Z. It offers cozy leisurewear alongside blankets, pillows and "functional wellness" products "evoking consumers to tap into their mind, body and spirit to help eliminate daily stressors and feel like the best possible version of themselves," per a press release. It's also committed to donating up to $1 million of sales to mental health organizations including Mental Health America.

And that's not all. This year, we also saw Revlon partnering with advocate and model Adwoa Aboah's mental health organization Gurls Talk; Kanye West selling Yeezys to raise money for the National Alliance on Mental Illness; Kate Spade completing $1 million in donations to mental health organizations in honor of its late founder; Aerie introducing mental health initiatives through its Role Models program; and Kenneth Cole forming The Mental Health Coalition, an initiative aiming to destigmatize mental health conditions by bringing together nonprofits, businesses, brands, celebrities and influencers.

Right alongside sustainability, the destigmatization of conversations around mental health is easily one of the biggest cultural phenomena that took place in 2019, seen everywhere from social media to publications like Teen Vogue, to panel discussions, to daytime talk shows. And it's individuals, more than brands, who are responsible for this. Even popular influencers in the beauty and fashion space have begun, per one writer, "pivoting to anxiety," opening up to share details of their own mental health struggles to their followers, which, incidentally, often results in high engagement. A cynic might suggest that these people are talking about mental health issues expressly to boost engagement, but hopefully they're doing it to normalize the topic and help their millions of followers feel less alone. But still: Why are brands doing it?

One reason is the rise of cause marketing and the success of purpose-driven companies like Patagonia, Toms and Warby Parker. Studies have shown that purpose-driven companies are more likely to attract and retain millennial employees, outperform less purposeful competition and appeal to millennial and Gen-Z consumers. "Millennials and Gen Zs, in general, will patronize and support companies that align with their values," reads Deloitte's 2019 survey of these generations. "Younger generations are putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to supporting businesses that make a positive impact on society." According to a 2019 report on Gen Z's beauty shopping habits compiled by WGSN, "Gen Z prizes brands that offer moments of calm, sensorial experiences and products that support their physical, mental and emotional well-being."

Millennials and Gen Zs are also dealing with mental stress at unprecedented levels, so much so that millennials have been dubbed "the anxious generation," attributed to everything from student loans and economic uncertainty, to politics and climate change, to loneliness and a social media-fueled sense of competition. According to a recent American Psychological Association survey, 27% of Gen Zs and 15% of millennials reported their mental health as fair or poor, compared to 13% of Gen Xers, while Gen Zs and millennials were also more likely than older generations to report that they sought professional mental health care. These younger generations are also more open about mental health than older ones.

"Dealing with daily pressures, Gen Z are starting to take a more proactive approach to combat anxiety and prioritize happiness through a balanced lifestyle. They're more open to seeking help from professionals, online communities and their peers," says Jemma Shin, Associate Editor, Consumer Insight at WGSN. "They're finding new ways to lift each other up and actively seek out mental health resources to cope with their anxiety and depression. Similarly, burnt out Millennials are increasingly seeking out mental health content to cope with their uncertain future." That's where brands might come in: "Brands can resonate with consumers on a deeper level by utilizing both online platforms and physical spaces to offer a sense of community and deliver empowering messages."

That deeper resonance is what The Nue Co. Founder Jules Miller was hoping to achieve by partnering with We're Not Really Strangers and its founder Koreen Odiney. "The thing that got me [about WNRS] was not the follower [numbers] or anything else; it was the comments on the posts; it was the fact that her content was actually getting people to open up and be honest with themselves and actually share, and that was what we really wanted to achieve," Miller tells me. And it worked. "The response was really overwhelming," she says of the campaign. Social media engagement was 300% higher on all campaign posts, while traffic to The Nue Co. website jumped 200% and sales of stress-related products increased 20%, according to Miller. 

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As a health-focused company, Miller says, mental health was a natural topic to align with. "Stress is the modern day killer, the World Health Organization has cited it as one of the biggest threats to our health, so in our opinion it's kind of impossible to have a meaningful and relevant conversation around health without talking about mental health," she adds.

"The reality for our consumers is that the world and their lives are stressful," writes UpWest Chief Comfort Officer (yes that's his real title) in an email. "We believe consumers are increasingly interested in brands that place purpose at the center of what they do and how they operate." He feels that the brand's comfort-focused products that "encourage relaxation and rest" align with this vision.

"My approach to mental health is: It should be fun. It should be just like we choose our moisturizer... How do we look after our mind?" explains Happy Not Perfect's Jaime, whose goal is to make taking care of one's mind as easy and accessible as possible. "That is what's so incredible about what Saks has done, is put mental health right next to moisturizer on the shop floor."

Like Saks's experiential installation, Madhappy and UpWest are also tackling mental health through experiences: Madhappy with panels on mental health and a "self-reflection chamber" in one of its summer pop-ups, and UpWest by hosting soundbaths and group meditations.

Of course, mental health is so much more than a product or marketing tool and it's important to note that speaking about it in general terms can minimize the multitude of ways in which millions of people (myself included) are afflicted by mental health conditions every day. Anyone whose mental health is seriously impeding their quality of life should consult a doctor before their nearest luxury department store or experiential retail space. Still, there's a lot to be said for normalization, and for giving back to organizations that do good work.

In today's turbulent retail landscape, it's become clear that brands need to do more than sell things, and with a consumer base that's more conscious about its consumption than ever, brands would be wise to put themselves at an intersection of things they care about — whether its sneakers and sustainability, perfume and meditation or hoodies and mental health. As long as it comes across as authentic, that is.

"It's a case of practicing what you preach," says Miller. "It needs to come from the heart with a real understanding of people's pain points rather than a quick campaign done by an agency."

Homepage photo: Courtesy of The Nue Co.

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