BRANDS TO BUYCOTT | #39 WRESTLING DEMONS
Words by Christina Dean
After years spent in the hospitality industry as well in advertising and marketing, and seeing brands pay lip service to change-making ideas but not really delivering on them, Alex Fatho-Bland decided he could actually make a difference, and so the Wrestling Demons project was born.
“The idea was to raise awareness of mental health and various different topics that are important but do it in really creative ways because when anyone talks about mental health, diversity and inclusion, it’s often seen in tones of black, white and grey,” he says. “I wanted to add a bit more colour and flavour to the conversation.”
It began three years ago with a speed dating project where he grouped chefs, artists and bartenders in trios and asked them to discuss their hopes, fears and dreams, expressing the results through food, art and cocktails. In its second year, he moved on to a mental health and hospitality art exhibition held in a derelict town hall. Then came products; Wrestling Demons is now an ethical drinks portfolio that uses different beverages to raise awareness of issues like diversity without discrimination and imposter syndrome, with the proceeds going to fund one-to-one therapy sessions for people in the hospitality industry with Me, Myself in Mind.
Each drink has been made in collaboration with independent drinks producers, with different artists doing the labels, and they’re stocked in places like Dishoom, Le Bab, OXO Tower and The Nomad Hotel as well as being available direct from the producers.
‘Please And Thank You’ rice beer was the first product Alex made, in collaboration with Brewgooder and London Fields Brewery, to raise awareness of staff treatment in hospitality. Talking about the inspiration behind the beer, Alex says, “I would sit in my local pub and hear how badly the staff were talked to, let alone getting a please or a thank you. When someone orders something it’s ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’.” Artists Nic Mac and Iain Macarthur worked on the label artwork together, in a nod to the ‘please and thank you’ gesture, which is one done between two people. Every business that stocked the beer ended up getting one-to-one therapy sessions, the feedback for which is “that it has been game-changing”, and they’re onto a second edition of the beer in partnership with Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing.
The next drink added to the portfolio was the ‘What Does It Mean To Be Different?’ cider, made in partnership with Little Pomona and Cider Is Wine, with a label by David Oku. The cider is meant to open up the idea of diversity without discrimination and was born out of conversations Alex was having with the Cider Is Wine crew about the perception of cider as a drink, which is often seen as either old-fashioned or sickly sweet and artificial. Initially intended as one product, Alex ended up with a double A(pple) side cider, the sparkling ‘Street Food Edition’ and the still ‘Neighbourhood Dining Edition’ after seeing Sam from Le Bab starting to train his front and back of house staff together to break the perceptions of what the other side’s jobs were. The two ciders represent the idea that though there are different styles of restaurants and there are different roles within the industry (like chefs and bartenders or front of house and back of house), everyone is working within the same hospitality space and with the same core principles.
‘Not Made Of Metal’ by Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing and artist Kat Knifedance is a non-alcoholic wheat beer designed to challenge the stigma around not drinking, and was inspired by a partner of Alex’s who was in recovery. “The story is that people think they need drink and drugs to be more creative, that it makes them live like a rock & roll star but the truth is you don’t need those things to be cool and creative, you don’t actually need alcohol as a facilitator to open up and express yourself,” he explains. ‘Miss Ripple’, in collaboration with Trust Water and artist ROOTS is the final drink in the portfolio and is a tribute to those making a positive impact in the world but who suffer from imposter syndrome. Doing water came about after the Trust Water team had seen what Alex had done with the ‘Please and Thank You’ beer and asked him to work his magic with water. As he says, “the packaging is functional, water is water, it’s not fun. I wanted to put the fun back into functional, so I had in my mind this character of Miss Ripple as the brand is about creating positive ripples.”
Alex has another addition to the set coming soon, a wine collaboration done with South African producer BLANKbottle. Owner Pieter Walser, who draws his own labels for the wine, started winemaking as a hobby but always had the aspiration to do the thing that he loved for a job, and that is what inspired Alex. “The story of the wine is that journey of discovery to get to do what you love doing, the good, the bad and the ugly that happens along the way before you get there,” he says.
The involvement of the different artists is a key element of Wrestling Demons and it was partly inspired by an accident that Alex suffered which left him with a brain injury and a severely impacted sense of taste and smell. “I wasn’t getting the sense of satisfaction that I needed so the thing that really helped me was going to art exhibitions. I was eating and drinking with my eyes and that kept me sane,” he explains. The art isn’t just for the labels on the cans and bottles, it also extends to merch, including upcycled fashion and uniform solutions in partnership with Beyond Retro.
Alex has been working with the company on prints done with sustainable ink and laser printing that burns designs into fabric, which is even more sustainable as it involves no chemicals and it doesn’t fade. He says, “if you think of drinks brands and uniforms that are created for the industry, people throw them away. We can now create stuff that has a second life”, and it all feeds into the same goal as proceeds from the sale of such merch goes to fund therapy sessions.
Hospitality is consistently rated as one of the most stressful industries to work in and more needs to be done to support the people in it, and ultimately that is what Wrestling Demons is all about. As Alex puts it, they’re “trying to show brands and businesses, put your money where it can actually do some real good and have some fun whilst doing it.”