A smack in the face for the gurus of heroin chic

Clinton accuses the fashion industry of glorifying addiction

Tamsin Blanchard
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:49

President Bill Clinton yesterday fired a broadside at the fashion industry for using "heroin chic" to sell clothes. "The glorification of heroin is not creative, it is destructive," he said.

But despite the intervention of the world's most powerful leader, the fashion industry has become inured to endless images of skinny girls with pale skin and limp arms; boys with deep-set eyes and vacant stares; and models lying smacked out on some grubby floor.

The President's broadside that "fashion photos in the last few years have made heroin addiction seem glamorous and sexy and cool" was the culmination of a campaign which followed the death of a 20-year-old fashion photographer, Davide Sorrenti, of a heroin overdose in New York three months ago.

Sorrenti's mother, Francesca, herself a well-respected fashion photographer, has taken up a crusade against drug culture and vulnerable under-age models. In New York, heroin is the fashionable drug. Davide was not an isolated addict: friends, models and other photographers did it with him. Francesca Sorrenti condemns the industry for ignoring the drug problem prevalent within it. Instead of questioning a model who tries to cover up her needle marks, she says, fashion editors frequently turn a blind eye.

In London, style magazines such as Dazed & Confused, The Face and i-D have all used pictures of wasted, pale and skinny. According to Paul Hunwick, deputy editor of i-D, "heroin chic" does not exist: it is just another media soundbite. "There was a period in fashion photography when models were thinner," he said. "But that whole look happened over a year ago. It was a reaction to the vulgarity of the Eighties. As a magazine, we have never promoted heroin. We want young, healthy, happy, stylish people on our pages."

At Dazed & Confused, the editor, Jefferson Hack, said "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." He said it was unfair to point the finger at the fashion industry for what is an age-old problem. Photographers and stylists are merely soaking up the influences around them.

Photographers call this type of work art. They have been inspired by the images of Nan Goldin, the American photographer whose real-life documentary reportage in the Eighties of junkies and sick and dying friends has become the height of fashion. Her pictures of James King, the girlfriend of Davide Sorrenti, looking pale and hollow-eyed, were used by the Matsuda fashion company last year

The gritty photographs of Larry Clark, the director who made the film, Kids, have also been a major influence, not least on the advertising campaigns of Calvin Klein.

The British photographer Corinne Day has been attacked for pushing heroin chic. She was the photographer who first shot Kate Moss but she is outraged that her pictures should be labelled "heroin chic". "The idea that any of my images could be mistaken for coming from or condoning the use of heroin is a contradiction and hypocrisy," she said yesterday. "My style is about authenticity, naturally documented and developed through an artistic eye. Never has heroin played a part in my ideas. The shutting eyelids are blinks and we thought it would be funny to show something so natural."

Whether they are using drugs is another matter. One booker at a leading London model agency has watched heroin come and go as the fashionable drug since the mid-Eighties. "It happens about every 10 years," he said. "Someone inevitably dies and it's not cool anymore because everyone gets freaked out. In the past year, it's become the popular drug again."

There is a certain glamour attached with the "tragic beauty" associated with heroin addiction. "The idea that junkies have glowing skin is rubbish," said the booker. He claimed it was all part of the mythology of the Sixties and added that his message was clear: "We don't tolerate drug-addict models. It's not a moral thing; with bookings worth pounds 30,000 to pounds 200,000 a day, you simply can't afford to take risks."

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