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How Mental Health and the Pandemic Pushed This Brand to the Next Level

leisure labs
Photographed by Axel Angeles

Daniel Henson finds mental clarity and comfort with apparel brand Leisure Lab. 

When you're in the middle of a panic attack, suffocated by that heart-pounding feeling of dread, comfort feels about the furthest thing from reach. So maybe it makes sense that Daniel Henson -- who knows that near-drowning anxiety so well -- would found Leisure Lab and offer a life raft of comfort, one minimalist outfit at a time.

The made-in-Los Angeles online brand got its start with men's shorts and during lockdown expanded into elevated essentials made of sustainable fabrics for everyone, from tailored-fit pants with four-way stretch to breezy tank dresses.

Instead of chasing trends, Leisure Lab focuses on fit and feel for outfits to take you from workouts to hangouts (or, during a global pandemic, from the home office to the couch). From the slick everyday pants to shirts of silky fabrics, the pieces proffer the same ease of lived-in sweats. Producing at a pace tied to demand is also more sustainable -- mentally and environmentally -- than cranking out six to 10 collections a year, like other brands.

leisure labs

leisure labs

leisure labs

Top and Bottom: Daniel Henson, photographed by Axel Angeles. Center: Leisure Lab fashion, courtesy Leisure Lab.

As easy as the clothes feel, Henson's journey to the launch was no cakewalk. "Mental health has been a struggle for me as a gay man for as long as I can remember," he says. "I grew up with a very religious dad and a church that made me believe I had demons inside me for who I really was."

Henson spent most of his childhood in Winter Haven, Fla., and felt torn between the joy fashion brought him -- the baggy JNCO jeans of the '90s, the shoes he saved for -- and the fear of being shunned for his sexuality. Even with a move during college that saw him switching from business at the University of South Florida to heading to L.A. and studying at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, the old traumas trailed him. New ones piled up too, as he was alone in a new city, broke, and bogged down by self-doubt. He sought help from a psychiatrist, but his meds ignited an anxiety attack so intense that it landed him in the emergency room, thinking he was having a heart attack.

After wrestling with depression, depersonalization, and anxiety for years, he landed a job as a senior designer at Marco Marco in 2015. Still, he thought bigger. Henson posted photos of his own designs online for a while, and once he was able to drum up enough interest, he decided to launch his own leisure brand with business partner Darren Chandlee in April 2019.

While that huge step thrilled Henson, it also dumped gasoline on his anxiety. He could barely sleep and dropped over 25 pounds. Finally, he decided to check into a residential mental health facility, where he could barely sit through group meetings because he was sure he was going to die. Once back home, convinced he'd just be a burden on those around him, he planned to take his own life. But as he peered into the abyss before following through, a moment of clarity burned through the clouds.

"I decided I was not going to give a fuck if this took me the rest of my life to climb out of," he says. "I'm going to do everything in my power to get out of this and become the best version of myself."

In the nearly two years since that turning point, he's advocated for mental health awareness online and embraced his journey as fuel for his fashions. "Designing something on the minimal side has enabled me to keep my anxiety at bay," he says. "By keeping my aesthetic simple, clean, and minimalist, I have brought the same energy into my mindset at work, which has really been a blessing in my continued healing."

With eight employees, Leisure Lab still sits in a scrappy sweet spot where it can pivot, which came in handy last year when, at the start of the pandemic, someone broke into Leisure Lab's storage unit and wiped out most of the merchandise. The thief left behind a few rolls of fabric, and the team decided that the only way forward was by making masks.

The masks flew off their site -- especially after a surprise shout-out from Anderson Cooper on CNN that May -- and they couldn't upload inventory fast enough. The sales allowed expansion into women's and kids' apparel even while Leisure Lab donated masks to a women's shelter in Los Angeles, the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, and other organizations.

"It was a pretty crazy mind-fuck to be faced with what looked like the end, to pivot and create new, and then grow more than ever," Henson says.

As for the future, he'd love to grow Leisure Lab into a Lululemon-esque success story. Already, you can sense a shift with his limited edition collection, made to order using fabrics from local boutiques. With tie-dye, glittering textiles, and saturated patterns, the pieces are bursts of brightness that seem inspired by his journey towards healing.

"I have a lot of big dreams and ideas in this head and a lot of good I would love to spread in this world," he says.

leisure labs

leisure labs

leisure labs

Leisure Lab staff and fashion, all courtesy Leisure Labs.

A version of this story first appeared in Out's 2021 Hollywood Issue. Jake Borelli is featured on the cover alongside Ryan O'Connell and Alexandra Grey. It is the first print issue under the editorial direction of editor-in-chief David Artavia. The issue is out on newsstands on March 3, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News +.

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