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Fashion Leaders Yank Addict Look Models Taking On Wholesome Appearance In Wake Of Drug-Overdose Death

Sun., May 25, 1997

After years of denial by the fashion industry that heroin use among its players had any relation to the so-called heroin-chic style of fashion photography that has become so prevalent, the fatal overdose of Davide Sorrenti, 20, a promising photographer at the heart of the scene, was like a small bomb going off.

Even if it was a bomb detonated in the home of the person making it, it didn’t dispel the impact.

The period of denial is over. Magazine editors now admit that glamorizing the strung-out heroin addict’s look reflected use among the industry’s young and also had a seductive power that caused damage.

And three months after Sorrenti’s death, the magazines that published his work and have served as catalysts for the look are declaring they are going to move on with a more upbeat mood that will be visible in July issues.

It was a coincidence that Sorrenti’s final fashion photos appeared - with a tribute hastily inserted after his death on Feb. 4 - in the March issue of Detour magazine, along with another editorial layout of models apparently posed in drugged stupor. But considering the amount of drug use in fashion now and the number of magazines publishing such images, such an unhappy coincidence was bound to occur.

The eerie silence in the industry immediately following Sorrenti’s death may have reflected a sense of complicity. By publishing such photos, magazine editors could be seen as enablers, implicitly condoning the lifestyle represented.

Unlike the music industry, which has rallied with interventions and programs to get musicians off drugs, or the film industry, where known users have been subjected to drug tests for insurance on movies, the fashion industry has done little to combat the problem among the young in its ranks.

The only event mounted to commemorate Sorrenti’s death was a photo exhibition in his memory, called the “Art of Fashion Photography,” at a Flatiron district studio during March fashion week in New York. The drugged-looking photos from Detour were on view at that show.

But Michael Williams, a photographer who organized the event and a friend of the Sorrenti family, said all that is changing.

“Photographers now know if you take heroin-type pictures, it’s out of fashion,” Williams said.

Williams asked what direction the editors were taking at a recent meeting at I-D, the English magazine that first published the work of photographers specializing in the look, like Juergen Teller, Craig McDean, David Sims and Terry Richardson.

“They literally said, ‘We are not looking for any heroin pictures,”’ Williams recalled. “That’s what they started off saying.

“We want everything positive and healthy. And I-D isn’t only the cutting edge; it’s the grass-roots leader.”

For three years, the defense for such photography has been that it represents rebellion against phony, airbrushed images.

The rationale that it reflects a new idea of beauty has had a long, successful run, considering how apparent it has been to almost any observer that the models are posed to look sickly, if not drug-addled. They have nonetheless been commissioned because they help sell clothes to young people longing to be cool.

The glibness of the industry in its rationalizations harks back to the Studio 54 era, when a frenetic cocaine esthetic was explained away in much the same manner.

The heroin-chic photos were inspired by real-life subjects of the photojournalism of Larry Clark in the 1960s and Nan Goldin in the ‘70s, images that could be considered deterrents, since they eloquently showed the seedy desperation of addicts. In the 1990s derivation, the staged fashion photos are far from deterrents.

“When people are using, they are almost invariably recruiters,” said Mitchell S. Rosenthal, psychiatrist and president of Phoenix House, a national network of drug-treatment centers. “Because they are in the culture of the communications business, they are communicating a message of acceptability.

“They are also communicating that this is not dangerous: An informed or smart user who’s got it together will know what to do. They are lowering the threshold for use. In a sense, they go forward as proselytizers.”

In the past three years, some version of the look has been seen in almost every fashion magazine.

“It’s been used as an accessory in every shoot,” said Dewey Nicks, a photographer whose cheerful snapshotlike photos do not fall into the heroin-chic category. “It’s the Manolo Blahniks of this particular period,” he added, referring to the high-end designer shoes.

When more commercial photographers began copying the style for high-profile advertising campaigns like those for Calvin Klein over the past four years, the look went mainstream. As did the message.

“The kind of campaign, for example, Calvin Klein has done is not making any connection with how dangerous this is,” Rosenthal said. “They’re out there using those images to promote their business and thinking this is just another fashion statement rather than a statement of encouragement or invitation or acceptability to use drugs. It’s particularly shocking in the case of Klein himself, who has publicly acknowledged his own drug problem.”

Klein checked in to the Hazelden Foundation, a drug and rehabilitation center outside Minneapolis, in May 1988.

Klein declined to comment.


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