[T]he rise and corruptible influence of “heroin chic” was a popular news story in the mid-90s. In tandem with the War On Drugs and AIDS fears it was a time when moral panic was easily digested news content. Heroin usage rates were rising, particularly among the white middle-classes. Governments claimed the fashion editorials circulating in magazines were propagating an aspirational lifestyle, but of degenerates and reprobates, of addiction and dissolution. Bill Clinton decried the trend saying that “fashion photos in the last few years have made heroin addiction seem glamorous and sexy and cool” Sexy and cool ? It really was a great way to sell clothing.
In hindsight, what’s interesting about the heroin chic era is that there was suddenly a market for advertising this kind of imagery. An image closer to death than life was very appealing. Dilapidated pictures of Jaime King and Kate Moss in black underwear weren’t addicting young people to heroin, it was encouraging them to buy a new fragrance.
Photographers Davide Sorrenti, Corinne Day and Nan Goldin along with brands like Calvin Klein were scrutinised for an aestheticising strung-out, emaciated fashion models usually with legs akimbo in some lo-fi studio bedsit. It’s nothing unusual to a millennial audience but at the time it was an opposite message from the decadent (but equally nefarious) glamour and excess of the 1980s. It was a different way to be sold something that was supposedly belonging to luxury. The connotations of drugs in fashion were changing, fashionable drugs were no longer done off a silver spoon in Studio 54, but intravenously with no make-up and a mop of unwashed hair.
90s films like Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation painted a picture of absolute and spaced out disillusionment. It wasn’t heroin, but a cultural mood on the cusp of grunge and of retaliation to the decade before it. A few brands leapt at the opportunity to document something real, and the more controversial the better. The healthy-looking Cindy Crawford types had been sidelined for an instance of connection with the nihilism of Generation X.
In 2016, a reference to “heroin chic” is code for: ripped jeans and oversized clothing, bleached hair, GCSE photography projects, Kate Moss fan blogs, dark circles under the eyes, squalid bath-tubs, Kurt Cobain coffee table books, possibly owning Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black on vinyl, vintage Calvin Klein ads and people who really really like Sky Ferreira.
Davide Sorrenti, who took the infamous photos of Jaime King that along with Kate Moss would come to define heroin chic died of a narcotic overdose in 1997, promptly ending the look’s popularity in magazines and billboards.
Are accusations of fashion’s link to drug use unfounded? No. But is it any more controversial than drug use in the world of competitive sports? Music? Finance? Also, no. Drugs, insidious by nature, can seep into any industry where there is a profit to be made.
To be frank the worst thing about heroin chic is the name, it’s the conflation of those two worlds: disease-riddlded drug dependency and moneyed glamour, that was so troubling to people like Bill Clinton. But as Jefferson Hack expressed at the time “fashion has a responsibility to deal with issues. It would be more destructive if fashion featured only happy, smiley people. Fashion has been dealing with real life issues since the Eighties and heroin has infiltrated every part of society. To ignore it is damaging.”
The images of this short-lived and highly criticised fashion era are less about exploiting heroin addiction as a platform to sell clothes, but about fashion reflecting and visualising the status quo, about people wanting to look like the antithesis of success. The decades preceding saw many changes including presidential assassinations, nuclear tensions, baby boomers and technological advances. The popularity of the heroin chic style at the end of the century is a reaction to the numbness of capitalist success and ennui of pop culture in the grungey 90s.