The Fashion World Gets Spiritual

Illustration Patrik Svensson

"You’re only as good as your last photo," says Harry Josh, who has styled famous hair including that of Gisele Bündchen, Lily Aldridge, and Olivia Munn. He’s a pressured guy in a pressured business. “Our jobs are incredibly stressful and volatile and competitive,” he says. You are so replaceable and people underneath you are just waiting for you to fail.”

So when a model friend, Natane Boudreau, urged him to take up meditation to ease his stress, he was intrigued—albeit skeptical that it could work for him. ”I always thought I was one of those people who could never quiet my mind,” he says. “I’ve got a million things to do. The last thing I have time for is to waste 20 minutes meditating.”

But, working through the meditation-teaching David Lynch  for which Boudreau is an adviser to the fashion and art worlds, Josh decided to give it a try. He attended the foundation’s four-day training course, was given his own private mantra (the word or sound you repeat to yourself while meditating) and started meditating twice a day for 20 minutes. 
"Holy shit," he says a year later. "It’s changed my life. People say to me now, ‘You’re never stressed out, you’re always happy.’ In the studio, I’ll go do it in a bathroom stall on a lunch break and come back recharged." Meditation’s not only made him calmer but more creative, he says. Recently, a major fashion magazine told him to create a 1920s bobbed look for a famous actress with long hair. "Originally, she gave me a flat-out no," he says of the actress. But while doing his mantra, he had the idea to create a mood board to show her. "I pulled these beautiful images of wigs I had cut in period styles," he says. "That changed her mind. And it all came out of meditation."
Josh is not alone. Even though various forms of meditation have been around for thousands of years, rooted in the ancient teachings of religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism—and even though fashion figures including Donna Karan and Christy Turlington Burns have been extolling the benefits of the meditative life for some time now—it suddenly seems as though everyone in the industry is taking to meditation with the same gusto they once seized on yoga, colonics and juice fasts. The roster of converts includes Bündchen (who took three-day meditative “vow of silence” in Costa Rica), fellow supermodel Karlie Kloss and Council of Fashion Designers of America CEO Steven Kolb. 
"It’s like she told two friends, and she told two friends," says Josh, quoting the classic shampoo commercial. “Everyone in fashion goes to the gym, but this is fitness for the brain.”

These days, it feels like everybody in fashion is going to the David Lynch Foundation (DLF)—the meditation nonprofit, founded by the Twin Peaks creator in 2005, that teaches a style of transcendental meditation (TM). The group has been welcoming masses of fashionistas, who love TM’s simple and straightforward approach, calling for two 20-minute sessions daily. Foundation director Bob Roth says that the number of fashion folk coming into the foundation’s offices in New York and L.A. has increased 500 percent in the last six months alone. 
"There’s certainly toxic stress in that community," Roth says of the fashion world, stressing that the foundation serves all comers seeking healing through meditation, from war veterans to formerly battered women to inner-city teens. (The foundation charges professional types for its services, putting those proceeds into its free outreach programs.)
Of course, it may seem silly to compare the stress of the runway to the PTSD of domestic-abuse survivors or veterans back from Iraq or Afghanistan, but you can’t argue that the business breeds a certain level of anxiety. “It’s about time!” said Karan, asked what she thought of the fashion world embracing meditation. “Once upon a time, most people thought the word yoga meant putting a leg around your head, but those of us who practiced it knew it was about finding yourself within the chaos, centering yourself. And yoga and meditation work hand-in-hand that way.”
Says DLF disciple Nian Fish, an industry vet who just produced Fashion Week shows for Calvin Klein, Tory Burch and Victoria Beckham, “Our culture runs way too fast,” and fashion folks “are culprits of that times a thousand. We’re always looking for the new, the new, the new, trying to keep up with the Ghesquières. We don’t have time to be with ourselves at all. I meditate to listen to what else is out there.” (Yet even she admits that, during last Fashion Week, she slept between one and four hours a night and didn’t meditate at all.)

The DLF is hardly the only institution seeding meditative practice among fashionistas. Many flock to the classes of Thom Knowles, a snowy-bearded guru who teaches Vedic Meditation, which traces its origins to India 5,000 years back. “The tone of his voice is very even and calming without speaking down at you,” says Nicole Esposito, who works at Full Picture, which produces “Project Runway.” In May, designer friends of hers urged her to do a 4-day retreat with Knowles at Menla, the Catskills retreat started by Uma Thurman’s father. Six months later, she’s meditating twice daily. She does her first round right out of bed. “I don’t jump up and grab my phone anymore,” she says.

Some are even betting that such peace of mind is, well, scalable. In Los Angeles, former fashion editor Suze Yalof Schartz has launched Unplug, a white-walled studio which offers à la carte meditation sessions in a model she hopes will echo that of Soul Cycle for spin classes or Drybar for blowouts. In other words, just drop in, meditate, and move on with your frenzied day, hopefully feeling slightly more centered.

The practice appears poised particularly to help models, whose self-esteem is often at the mercy of the latest casting session. At a recent industry health summit sponsored by the CFDA, the former CoverGirl model Kiara Kabukuru talked about the role meditation has played in helping her heal emotionally after a bike accident in 2000 that disfigured her face in the prime of her career. (After years of reconstructive surgery, she returned to modeling in 2008.)

"At a certain point I realized that meditation is pretty much the most important thing you can do for your sanity aside from sleep," Kabakuru told Yahoo Style, saying that she had only recently taken up TM after years of doing more elaborate forms. "TM’s the simplest kind in that you don’t have to do anything but remember your mantra."

But what exactly does meditation feel like? Many fashion folks cite Roth, who compares the mind’s incessant daily chatter—gotta do this, can you believe she said that?!?—to waves on the ocean’s surface. He says that meditating allows practitioners to sink to a level of quiet and calm below the frenzy. This is achieved not by forcefully batting away intrusive thoughts but simply by accepting them amid the rhythmic inner recitation of one’s mantra, which may be a word or even just a sound. 
"There’s no push or stress to find yourself in a certain place," says Kolb, who usually does his first 20-minute round immediately upon waking and often closes his CFDA office door in the afternoon to do his second round. "Wherever you go with it, you go."
No doubt. But it can still be hard to square the ancient, humble practice of meditation with an often narcissistic, surface-driven industry that is known for rushing madly from one wellness fad to another. And it’s also hard to believe that meditation is going to make angels—or even functionally decent people—out of some of the hard-driving fashion personalities currently singing its praises. (Yoga certainly didn’t.) Does the practice really have the staying power to make the fashion world not only calmer but—dare we say it—nicer? 
Perhaps but as Kabukuru explains, what’s important isn’t why fashion folk come to meditation but what they get out of it. ”Even if you take up meditation because everyone else is doing it,” she says, “if you commit to it, it’s going to change your life.”