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“I was scared. And if I was scared, the probability was that a lot of other people were scared too”.
Manolo Blahnik CEO, Kristina Blahnik, talks to Walpole’s Helen Brocklebank about why the brand’s support of mental wellbeing has taken on new resonance during the pandemic, her work as an ambassador for the Mental Health Foundation, and why, whoever you are, it’s ok to say ‘I’m not ok’.
A few weeks ago, a piece in The New York Times went viral: “There’s a Name for the Blah you’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” Fourteen months into the pandemic, most of us could be forgiven for feeling very ‘blah’ indeed: if you’ve felt joyless or aimless, or sensed a dulling of your motivation and focus, you may be ‘languishing’, caught in a strange no man’s land between depression and the optimum state of mental wellbeing that psychologists call ‘flourishing’. ‘Languishing’, the article said is the ‘neglected middle child of mental health… and it might be the dominant emotion of 2021’.
The focus on physical health – our own, our families, communities, teams and customers – has rightly been paramount, but as we start to move beyond the pandemic, is its lingering legacy less than optimal mental health?
At the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, do we all need to ask ourselves, our friends and colleagues, ‘Are you OK?’.
For Manolo Blahnik CEO, Kristina Blahnik, caring for the mental wellbeing of everyone in the organisation is not only a fundamental priority of leadership, it goes right to the heart of who she is: “I always knew one of my purposes was to normalise and try to create awareness around mental wellbeing, and when the company was growing and we were starting to structure the business, I became aware of the importance of it [mental health] in the workplace and not only in the private life.” Blahnik’s belief is that the brand flourishes best in an environment where all colleagues see mental wellbeing as a collective endeavour: “It’s my responsibility to set the foundation, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure everyone is OK: it’s top down, it’s inside out, and it’s outside in.”
Perhaps it’s only in a crisis leaders can really appreciate the graft they’ve put into building the culture of their brands: As the pandemic took hold last year, the priority Manolo Blahnik had put on mental wellbeing, as well as the partnership with The Mental Health Foundation that began in early 2019, must have seemed very prescient: “From the very beginning of 2020,” says Blahnik, “it was clear there was going to be a mental health problem, and for me, a clear signal was that I was scared.
And if I was scared, the probability was that a lot of other people were going to be scared too, and if we’re scared it’s going to impact our sleep, impact our relationships, our work, every aspect of our lives.”
Her response was to deepen the commitment the organisation had made in the UK to the Mental Health Foundation to help fund vital research into the effects of Covid-19 on mental health, and in the US to work with the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation which aims to eradicate the stigma around mental health in the African American Community, as well as to double down on making sure everyone in the Manolo Blahnik community felt safe, closing stores and offices well in advance of official advice. The emphasis in the company culture on mental wellbeing, built over time, started to pay off: “It’s when you come to a point of crisis as we all did last year,” says Blahnik, “it’s at those points that the voices start saying, ‘I feel safe’, or ‘this has made me smile’, or ‘this has made me feel comfortable’… We already knew a lot last year [when the crisis began] so we were able to fling the doors open, the vulnerability open, and realise this is the moment and say ‘did you know this is where you can find help?’ or ‘here are some little things we can give you. The fact we are very focused on mental health has given us the ability to make sure we have got that right and we know what we’re talking about.”
Interestingly, the approach inside the organisation also created a very natural platform on which to engage with the customer community at a time when it would have felt very strange to sell product:
All we wanted to do was to sell wellbeing” says Blahnik.
“We just wanted to make people smile…[to give] a moment of solace”. Last Spring’s ‘Smile’ campaign did just that – hundreds of thousands of people downloaded line drawings Manolo Blahnik had made of his shoe designs, just to colour them in. It was a simple, peaceful, focused activity that struck a calming chord at a time of emotional tumult, and a reminder that it’s not always the grand gesture that makes the biggest impact, but “little, fun, silly things that make you smile.” Yet the science behind it is well established, points out Blahnik. “There’s nothing more therapeutic than something as simple as the corners of your mouth lifting in an involuntary smile: the chemistry the body creates around that is so powerful it can make a big difference to your wellbeing. The physiological changes that it can make are huge.”
Empathy and honesty also helped, not least when it came to Manolo Blahnik’s community of colleagues, reinforcing the ‘top down, inside out, outside in’ culture of being in it together:
I said: ‘Look, this is terrifying, we’re all terrified, but we will be less terrified if we are able to say, ‘I’m not ok’ and someone is there to pick us up.”
And that’s very much what I’ve seen everywhere in the business – people have really helped each other and at different stages. It creates not only community but also an ecosystem of wellness.”
What of the research project into the mental health legacy of Covid-19 with the Mental Health Foundation, I ask her? One of the findings we can all relate to is the role nature can play in supporting our mood. The ‘Nature’ campaign, like last year’s ‘Smile’, is built on science, yet beautiful in its simplicity, with the cyclical inevitability of the natural world working as a potent metaphor for emotional health. If you’ve been one of the many taking a daily walk over the past months, the sight of once bleak, bare branches suddenly bursting into bud and blossom will have connected you with a powerfully hopeful thought: things will always get better, nature shows us that there is a simple, slow but inevitable improvement around the corner. “I’m a Londoner through and through,” says Blahnik, with whom connecting with nature resonate strongly, “and when I’ve gone away from London, I’ve always wanted to go to the countryside to see the forest or the mountains, to see what the real world is like, it helps you see nothing ever stays the same, the cycle of nature is one of the most powerful evidential proofs that things come back and that things get better, and you’re able to have a much less anxious journey through something that might be difficult.”
It’s a thought that connects to Blahnik’s belief about running the family business: “That’s why I believe in everything going slowly and having a long-term vision on things. Things that are man-made and created overnight have much less longevity than something that organically grows and is allowed to evolve and have its ups and downs and has its journey and experiences.”
Thinking back to what Blahnik says about taking responsibility for our own wellbeing as well as our family, friends and colleagues, I can see how connecting to nature can offer some helpful tools if we’re to move from ‘languishing’ to ‘flourishing’. But as an Ambassador for the Mental Health Foundation, Kristina Blahnik is also aware that psychological wellbeing encompasses a very broad spectrum of emotion, from temporary mild sadness to something much more profoundly debilitating.
As Mental Health Awareness Week begins, I ask her for her advice for people who may be feeling very far from OK: “Just talk. Internalising it allows festering and the growth of the negative. Whoever it is you feel safe with, anyone, voicing something is the first release. You can get lost in your own subjectivity and allowing someone to give you an objective thought or helping you see your blind spot is the thing that will help you find the path to improvement or self-care or care from the outside.” And if we’re feeling OK, what can we do for others, I ask?: “Sometimes you don’t know when you need help. An environment of safety when someone can say to someone ‘I think you’re not ok, it feels like you’re not all right – is there anything I can do?’”. Leaders, in particular, should not be afraid to ask not just ‘is work ok?’ but to go deeper than that and to listen to your instincts because you can feel if someone’s not all right, and then act on it carefully and gently.
Just because it’s not voiced, don’t let it be ignored.”
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