CHASING DRAGONS

Long before Yves Saint Laurent launched Opium, glamour and debauchery were already joined at the hip. Here, one of Britain's leading fashion commentators surveys 30 years of style and substance abuse

It All Happens backstage at fashion shows. Backstage is the home of the apocryphal, scurrilous anecdote; the place where models are bound to misbehave, where designers and stylists disgrace themselves, the place where celebrities put their faith in the anonymity of the situation only to be betrayed by malevolent make-up artists or hairdressers with nothing better to do than try and ruin someone else's reputation. There is no better place for dishing the dirt.

The stories are legion, though they almost always focus either on sex or drugs, and usually a combination of both: the fashion designer who insists on fellating his models before sending them down the catwalk; the ancient supermodel whose nasal membranes are so shot her assistant has to blow cocaine up her backside by way of a straw; the slightly younger but no less famous supermodel who - still, to this day, they say - injects heroin between her toes so as to avoid detection. Okay, the last one might not necessarily be true, but it doesn't disguise the fact that drugs and fashion go together like strawberries and cream.

Some of the stories are definitely true. Once, some years ago, when I was barely out of my teens, I was invited to model in a fashion show for a Japanese designer in Kyoto, the cherry blossom capital of Honshu. Having had my designer bondage trousers pulled about on the catwalk by an extremely demonstrative model - who at that time, was one of the most famous in the world - I sought her out backstage, looking to give her a piece of my mind, only eventually to find her crouched over a toilet bowl injecting herself with what I soon found out to be heroin. In those days, the drug was rife; apparently it still is. The fashion business, like the worlds of music and film, is full of the immature and insecure, people for whom the rush of adulation is only tolerable when heightened by the rush of narcotics.

And last week this news reached the President of the United States, who made an impassioned speech decrying the use of "heroin chic" imagery in fashion magazines and advertisements. Spurred on by photographs of "drug- crazed" models clipped from fashion magazines by his aides - and by the lobbying of Francesca Sorrenti, mother of the trendy fashion photographer Davide Sorrenti, whose recent death from a drug overdose at the age of 20 caused understandable shockwaves throughout the industry - Clinton put the Smack Factor issue firmly back on the agenda. "You do not need to glamorise addiction to sell clothes," he said. "The glorification of heroin is not creative, it's destructive. It's not beautiful, it's ugly."

For the last eight years, the fashion industry has exploited this type of imagery, alternatively known as "grunge photography" and "trailer-park chic" - imagery which initially seemed to embrace not only ravaged-looking drug addicts but also underage prostitutes, corpulent rednecks and murderous car mechanics. As a reaction to the stylised consumerism of the mid- to late Eighties, glossy lifestyle magazines sought to elevate the sordid, the ordinary and the unseemly to exalted, and often exotic heights. In the trailer-park world briefly inhabited by the Western world's image- mongers, waitresses who looked like the victims of domestic violence mingled with pimps, down-at-heel rock stars and - making yet another appearance - disenfranchised youth.

'Twas ever thus. Ever since the Forties, when the slipstreams of fashion and music truly blended together for the first time, drugs have been a popular lubricant, both in the real world and in the imaginary. One only has to study the lives of counter-cultural heroes like Charlie Parker and James Dean to see that even in those days ambition and expression relied on narcotic associations.

It is an association which has attracted some strange bedfellows, not least Yves Saint Laurent, arguably the greatest fashion designer of the 20th century. Drawing parallels between the burgeoning acid culture of the mid-Sixties and the drug experiments of 19th-century poets such as Cole-ridge, Shelley and Baudelaire, Saint Laurent immersed himself in hallucinogenics, adding LSD to an already crowded smorgasbord of medicinal downers, opiates and kif. It is likely that no one outside of his own circle would have noticed, or cared, if dear old Yves hadn't started showing all-in-one jumpsuits and Moroccan safari jackets mixed with ostrich feathers hipsters and bizarrely coloured breast-less chiffon dresses. The designer also dabbled in cocaine and a particularly inventive array of sedatives, though these failed to inspire any designs to match the extravagant and startling creations which he fashioned after his, by now notorious, acid binges.

And while drink and drugs played havoc with his personal (and occasionally his professional) life, he had a last laugh, of sorts, launching the highly successful perfume Opium in 1977. Such was the furore caused by this contentiously named smell that, at the scent's New York launch, on a Chinese junk moored alongside the Brooklyn Bridge on the East River, no fewer than 33 television crews turned up to cover it. According to Alice Rawsthorn's exhaustive 1996 biography of Saint Laurent, when a reporter asked fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland, who was holding court on deck, what she thought of the designer's new perfume, she replied without missing a beat, "I like the smell of money." No one could have been in any doubt as to the designer's understandably exact motives.

This ambivalent relationship between fashion and drugs has festered for decades, primarily in that amorphous underworld known as "street style", and in Britain especially it is rare to see a youth cult exposed which doesn't have its accompanying narcotic. Back in the Sixties the mods had their speed, their "black bombers" and amphetamine sulphate; a few years later the squeezed radicals (as those hippies now like to call themselves) had their psychedelics and their pot; while, during the Seventies, speed made a comeback among punks and art students before being superceded by the aspirational godsend of cocaine, disco and upwardly mobile urban professionals.

But it was ecstasy which really picked British youth culture up and swung it around in the air (usually ending up in a few fallow acres on the wrong side of the M25). The "E" generation was the first British "street" groundswell to make the cover of Time magazine since the days of Johnny Rotten, safety pins and torn fishnet tights. With its talismanic "Smiley" T-shirts, floppy hair and even floppier music, the ecstasy generation (one part elitist, one part raver and two parts yob) encouraged a move away from consumerism and aspiration towards inward-looking drugs - such as heroin. The commercial icono- graphy soon followed, and in media spectacles like Trainspotting we saw the popularisation of a kind of lifestyle which even the most downwardly mobile student might have found hard to understand.

It was with the movie version of Irvine Welsh's novel that fashion's seamier underbelly achieved critical mass. Coinciding with Trainspotting was the publication last year of Fashion: Photography of the Nineties (Scalo), a bald collection of iconographic images edited by Camilla Nickerson and Neville Wakefield. Fundamentally a catalogue of austere and occasionally shocking images, it proudly mixed "postures of anxiety, insecurity and sexual uncertainty" - the authors' words - with fashion's more traditional celebrations. Collecting together the work of Corinne Day, Steven Meisel, David Sims and Terry Richardson among many others, it proved that fashion photography had come a great distance - if not exactly a long way - since the airbrushed narcissism of the Eighties, or even the Seventies and Sixties come to that.

But, like so many things in fashion, this fad was not so much an expression of a particular cultural bent, but rather just another example of the "adventure of poverty": an instantly recognisable pose for any self-respecting weekend hipster. Fashion still has the ability to shock in ways to which we think we've become immune, and over the years it has encouraged us to look like tramps, prostitutes, hoodlums, and now even heroin addicts, gawd bless 'em. Fashion, by its very nature, is fanciful, particularly at the younger end of the market.

Fashion is play-acting, a way of artificially presenting one's self to the world, an elaborate form of disguise or fancy dress. It could be argued that pretending to look like a heroin addict (sad, though that may be) is no more reprehensible than masquerading as a member of the Beider Meinhoff gang or an undernourished Nepalese peasant, both looks that fashion has asked us to emulate. The market place will continue to nurture the malevolent and administer the dangerous. To grow up at the tail end of this century means developing many different skins, not least those impervious to needles.

As For This "heroin chic", the industry has already cried "Enough, already", and as a few journalists pointed out when the Clinton story first broke, the sartorial soothsayers and weathervanes have already moved on, with everyone from i-D to Vogue claiming that darkened eyes, pellucid skin and skinny, emaciated arms are no longer part of their visual agenda. At least they have at The Face, anyway, the magazine which was initially accused of being most culpable in this regard. In a piece published soon after Clinton's outburst, The Face's Laura Craik was resolute: "Are we ineffectual husks, blown hither and thither by the bombardment of seductive words and images blaring from our radios, stereos, monitors, TVs, cinemas, books and magazines? We create and nurture our own desire to be satiated."

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll will forever be a part of the image business, no matter how they are decoded, but for the time being at least it seems that the penchant for visualising the more nihilistic aspects of adolescent exploration is slightly past its sell-by-date.

Anyone for half a shandy and a jazz woodbine?

! Dylan Jones is group editor of `Arena' and `Arena Homme Plus' magazines.

In 1977, Opium caused a furore (above); in 1997, the death of Davide Sorrenti (below left) prompted the President to speak out

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