Staying healthy has been most people’s top priority over the past year and a half. But did you ever expect wellness to dominate your wardrobe?
Of all the trends to hit streetwear throughout the pandemic, none struck a nerve like “Wellnesscore,” a design ideology focused on wellness-centric messaging that promotes exercise, meditation, and even rest. Wellnesscore ranges from vague, like Madhappy’s celebrity-loved “Local Optimist ' sweatshirt, to explicit pieces such as Union’s “For Your Mind'' T-shirt, which displays a medical chart of bipolar disorder.
Adidas and Palace, manwhile, just announced a full collection based on wellness, called “Palaste,” with a spa-themed campaign and a slogan that’s literally “Open your mind Open your heart. Open your wallet.”
As this trend has grown throughout the pandemic, with more and more brands incorporating wellness into their graphic design, its intentions are becoming murky— it’s one thing to make leisurewear, and quite another to stylize mental health. It might not be long before wellnesscore clashes with another product of the pandemic: unrelenting accountability, holding brands to actually practice what they preach. Without tangible activism or consulting from within the mental health industry, wellnesscore blurs into toxic positivity at best, and damaging insensitivity at worst.
“A little shout out to those of you going through it these days, keep your head up!” reads the product description for Union LA’s bipolar T-shirt, centering around one of the most stigmatized and misunderstood mental illnesses. The rest of the product description is rap lyrics. Madhappy — which claims to be “on a mission to make the world a more optimistic place” — has no ongoing affiliation with any mental health initiatives.
Unlike purely aesthetic trends, a rise in health-based messaging reflects a global shift in priorities. Physical and mental wellness have been inseparable from the year-long pandemic conversation, and fashion (particularly streetwear) often uses blatant graphics or aesthetic symbolism to reflect current cultural values. But trying to market mental health is an ethical fine line between activism and exploitation — a notion that many streetwear brands seem ill-equipped for.
“[The pandemic] opened a lot of eyes to mental health being very real,” said Liz Beecroft, a licensed therapist and social worker. “But I think a lot of people jumped the gun a little bit, running to make a shirt on it because it was such a buzzword last year.”
“If you're really about that life, how are you giving back to the mental health community?”
Beecroft has been a sneakerhead and streetwear fan her entire life. However, as she progressed in her mental health career and incorporated it into her social media, her trained eye saw wellnesscore’s dark side. “There are brands that are literally known as the 'mental health brands' of streetwear. As a naive person a couple years ago, I was a supporter,” she said. “Now, as a professional within the mental health space, pulling back the curtain, it looks like virtue signaling and value propositioning.”
Mental health messaging needs mental health activism to back it up, Beecroft said, especially when brands are the ones profiting off $90 T-shirts under the vague ethos of just “raising awareness.” Donating to a cause, providing tangible resources, or working with a mental health professional (not a mental health Instagram influencer, whose only accreditation is calling themselves an “advocate”) are some ways that brands can do the work. “If you're really about that life, how are you giving back to the mental health community?” she said. “It could be as simple as a hangtag with a list of hotlines or resources, anything giving people a tool to use.”
“At the end of the day, wellness, to us, is about people.”
Seeing the rise of wellnesscore, Beecroft turned her private practice, MENTL.SESH, into a consulting resource for streetwear brands. She’s worked with the leadership of industry figures, including Bodega and StockX, training them to build a wellness-centric company culture as well as how to ethically create products around mental health. A licensed voice like hers in the room is essential, Beecroft said. Brands need someone to catch imagery, or even vocabulary, that the untrained eye wouldn’t realize is insensitive — possibly harmful — to a customer with a mental illness.
On the consumer side, Beecroft said, accountability is essential. Measuring mental wellness, or the activism around it, isn’t always quantifiable. Instead, deciding what’s real and what’s fake comes from a largely personal place.
“Do your research, ask: what is this brand, or this product, doing for my mental health?” said Beecroft. “Are they working with mental health professionals, do you see them talking about the work they're doing internally?” If the answer is no, the “cause” they’re supporting might just be empty, toxic positivity.
One example of a brand doing the work is Total Luxury Spa, which launched in late 2013 as a venture of Daniel Desure’s creative studio, Commonwealth Projects. Total Luxury Spa has garnered a cult-following over the years for its utopian wellness-based graphics, all of which have direct ties to Desure’s South Los Angeles community.
Although Desure’s perception of wellness has evolved since 2013 — especially living in Los Angeles, where “wellness” is commodified to meme-worthy heights — Total Luxury Spa is anchored in community first and foremost. “A lot of times, when we hear the word 'wellness' we think of things like Goop, things that are branded, skincare lines and all that,” he said. “But at the end of the day, wellness, to us, is about people.”
For A Cause
Total Luxury Spa’s last major collection, “Liquid State,” centered around local sustainability. In addition to donating partial proceeds to Friends of the LA River, the brand changed their entire production method, permanently switching to 100% recycled T-shirts and eco-friendly packaging.
“We infuse them with real ideas of what we want that world to look like.”
In 2019, the brand donated partial proceeds to a local vegan restaurant through its “Crenshaw Wellness'' collection, as well as The Umoja Center to combat gentrification. What’s more, Total Luxury Spa is also closely intertwined with Tropics, another Commonwealth Projects initiative, that hosts wellness workshops with meditation, fresh juice, and plant-based foods.
The brand’s graphic design is inspired by utopian ideals of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which stressed communal wellness and detachment from the rat race. “We use our graphics as tools for conversation, but we infuse them with real ideas of what we want that world to look like — or we try to create that world,” said Desure.
These values are reflected in Total Luxury Spa’s events and wellness initiatives. In February it curated The Garden Series, a virtual music series and accompanying collection with proceeds donated to a local performance space, The World Stage. In July, the brand hosted Go Skate Day in a nearby park, and enlisted other brands to provide free food and gear for hundreds of local skaters. “The whole neighborhood got together, there were no fights, there was no gang activity. It was beautiful, everyone getting along in a really magical way,” said Desure. “That, to me, is wellness.”
DeSure saw the wellnesscore trend emerging pre-pandemic, but admits that COVID-19 “poured gasoline on the fire.” While the trend’s inflation makes him understandably uneasy, he and his brand have been living in the wellness space long enough to ride it out. “The shirts that we create are synonymous with the work that we do, the conversations that we're having,” he said. “They have real people behind them, real things happening behind them.”
Wellnesscore in streetwear shows no signs of slowing down; more and more brands are eager to spin their aesthetic on the concept of health. As the conversation around mental wellness in particular gets more crowded, respecting the medical reality behind the logos only becomes more important. With the help of licensed professionals and brands actually committed to giving back, wellnesscore could be more than just a souvenir of our pandemic year. It can be a lasting medium for destigmatizing and nourishing mental health.