Marie Oakes is a former fashion designer for the likes of Alexander McQueen, Mulberry and M&S – as well as a burnout expert. Is there a link between the two? Here she explains all and why she works with all sorts of businesses nowadays to help others
On a beautiful sunny day, in a park in Christchurch, New Zealand, fashion designer Marie Oakes found herself having a breakdown. But how had it come to this? Marie had wanted to be a fashion designer since the age of eight and, having fulfilled her dream, she appeared to have it all. As she says: ‘I was very fortunate. I went to work for some amazing designers: Alexander McQueen, Mulberry…’
In her 20s, she recalls, ‘my life looked amazing. I got to travel the world and dance with celebrities at VIP parties.’ Despite the six-figure salary and the lifestyle, Marie says: ‘On paper I had everything but actually I had nothing.’ Behind the scenes I was a bit of a mess. I didn’t know how to look after myself.’
She had developed an eating disorder around the age of 18/19, when she was living away from home for the first time. A 13-year struggle with bulimia, alcohol and depression ensued. At one point she was taking six to eight laxatives every night, plus she was going out and drinking every night. ‘I was on a real roller coaster.’
When she went to work for Mulberry, Marie found herself in the office at 7am and the last one to leave. ‘I was given quite a big role,’ she says. Her job even took her to New York for two months, to design a collection. But, as she adds, ‘it all became too much.’
At one stage, she weighed seven stone. Whereas her then husband had Type 1 diabetes and was three stone overweight.’ Both would think nothing of drinking until 4am. She recalls her husband going for an appointment at Norfolk & Norwich Hospital and the doctors indicating to him that if his lifestyle didn’t change, he could be dead within five years.
‘For both of us that was a massive wake-up call,’ recalls Marie. ‘Overnight he gave up drinking and smoking.’ Her husband decided to enter the New York marathon, which would involve nine months of training – and no drinking or smoking. Maria, meanwhile, kept drinking.
She then noticed something. ‘My husband’s mood was better – and his energy was better. I thought ‘this is your opportunity, Maria – the wake-up call you need. I’m going to sign up to the New York marathon as well.’
With the bulimia, there had been a time when Maria was throwing up 10 times a day. Training for the marathon, she started to see food for what it was: fuel.
And she adds: ‘We both ran the New York marathon which was amazing. But that was only half of the story. I got headhunted to go to New Zealand. Although running made me feel really strong and powerful, but I hadn’t done any work on my mind.’
She describes new work environment as ‘toxic’ and was having to deliver 12 collections a year. ‘I would push and push and push.’ A typical day would involve Maria being in the pool at 5am then doing a 5k run after work.
Then, at the age of 32, after around six months of living and working like this, it all came to a head in the park. ‘It was a beautiful day, but I was uncontrollably crying. I thought ‘this is not life – I can’t do this anymore’. The next day I handed in my notice and two days later we got on a plane and flew home.
‘When I came back that’s when I started to piece my life back together really,’ says Maria. She went into retail management, working for Top Shop, LK Bennett and House of Fraser.
But she also needed to work on herself. ‘For me one of the toughest things is that people don’t get the help they need straight away. What I first told my mum about the bulimia, she was brilliant.’ But Marie was told that there was a three-year waiting list to get help.
Considering she had returned from New Zealand with ‘no money and no job’, Marie makes the point: ‘I had to get well on my own. You can learn to do that.’ For instance, she borrowed books from the library, such as Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life, and The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters. She also watched Brené Brown’s TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability.
‘I really learned about myself – and I really learned about resilience – how to manage stress, deal with anxiety and deal with life in general. Stress and anxiety don’t go away. There isn’t a magic pill. But you can make it your best friend.
‘I didn’t know who I was or even what music I liked. I was drinking a lot – at least a bottle of wine a night – and then I’d wake up the next day and feel awful for the day.’
Maria adds: ‘I’ve been sober for seven years now, and that was a massive part of recovery really, moving from burnout and from surviving to thriving. It took five years to bounce back.’
Marie has long since reached the conclusion: ‘I had to go on that journey and turn it around for myself. I feel quite blessed I went through burn out I now have such a happier, more fulfilled and purposeful life.’
And the journey has led to Marie putting her energy into becoming something of an expert in burnout. ‘What I’m really passionate about is helping other people not to have to go through that.’
That’s when she started thinking: ‘How can I help other people? How can I help people who are feeling like I was feeling?’
Becoming a fashion designer turned out to be not quite the dream she had hoped it would be, as she says: ‘I wasn’t prepared to go out into the big wide world. Talent alone is not enough. You have to show up,’ as she explains: ‘I wasn’t showing up at home; I wasn’t showing up at work – I missed dates, family occasions, I’d got all my priorities wrong.
So, what has she learnt on her journey? ‘Status and money are not the be all and end all.’ And she adds: ‘Drinking for all those years numbs the good stuff as well as the bad stuff.’
She describes it as a ‘monotone’ existence. ‘Now I experience sadness and I experience joy,’ she says. ‘I’m not saying I have all the answers at all.
‘I’m learning to be me – I’m learning to be my friend. It is a long journey and I walk on a tightrope every day, trying not to fall off. The key thing is to learn how to get well and learn how to stay well.’
In 2017, Marie founded The Trend Academy, to empower fashion brands, creatives, students and graduates with the right skills to thrive in the fashion industry. She says: ‘I want to help people in fashion like me know the industry they are getting in to. It’s an amazing industry but there are pitfalls.’
She was invited to speak at a fashion trade show called Pure London and, after telling her story, she recalls: ‘I had so many people come up to me.’ Apparently, it had been the first time anyone in the industry had talked about mental health.
For the last couple of years Marie has been a Wellbeing and Resilience Speaker, working with businesses to help them unlock their potential. ‘If we work with people early enough, they will not extinguish or burn out before their time,’ says Marie. ‘It has really taken off. Wellbeing has gone to the top of everyone’s agenda.’
She adds: ‘It’s not a tick box exercise – I’m very passionate about it. It’s about taking ownership and responsibility and for many years I gave that responsibility away.
‘Learning how to say no in the right way’ is one of the things Marie is passionate about. ‘We can all learn how to do that better.’
‘The big thing over the last six months has been bringing teams together and companies together. A lot of companies don’t know what to do and how to help. It’s about asking your team what they need – it’s really about opening up that conversation.’
Marie recently witnessed a CEO and his team having open conversations about mental health. ‘It was a lovely thing. People realise they are not alone.’
Marie does creativity and burnout talks and workshops, and not just related to the fashion industry, as she says: ‘What I experienced isn’t specific to fashion It’s transferable to different industries. I’m so driven and passionate to equip people with the know-how of what I didn’t know at 18. I love it.
‘I still lecture in fashion and branding, but I bring in the wellbeing bit. I love the fashion industry. Fashion is always going to be where my heart is – it’s where I came from and what I know. But I’m very happy to help anyone.’