'Heroin chic’ and the tangled legacy of photographer Davide Sorrenti
A new documentary about the late fashion photographer, who died at the age of 20, recalls the rise of the controversial look with which he made his name
Thu 23 May 2019 16.17 BST Last modified on Thu 23 May 2019 18.22 BST
‘His images were spontaneous, raw and honest.’
There is a sequence in See Know Evil, a new documentary-biography of the late photographer Davide Sorrenti, when the then US president, Bill Clinton, takes time out of a prayer breakfast to comment on “heroin chic”, the provocatively titled mid-90s style of fashion photography that was accused of glamourising super-skinny, strung-out models.
The president clearly liked to keep an eye on fashion – he had previously complained about Calvin Klein photographs of half-dressed adolescents – but this was a more forceful, overtly political interjection.
“You do not need to glamourise addiction to sell clothes,” Clinton remarked. “The glorification of heroin is not creative, it’s destructive. It’s not beautiful; it’s ugly. And this is not about art; it’s about life and death. And glorifying death is not good for any society.”
The president’s comments were occasioned by Sorrenti’s accidental death three months earlier, in February 1997, and the grunge-inspired realist aesthetic Sorrenti and others had introduced into the fashion magazines of the day.
A Puckish member of the Sorrenti photography family and barely out of his teens, Sorrenti died in circumstances attributed to heroin, a drug in which he had only recently begun to dabble, as well as underlying health problems. Only a small amount was found in his blood – “hardly enough to kill a fly,” says his mother, the fashion photographer Francesca Sorrenti – but it served to ensure he would be linked to what would become the heroin chic aesthetic, a phrase coined at Sorrenti’s wake by Interview editor Ingrid Sischy, who turned to Francesca to say: “This is heroin, this isn’t chic. This has got to stop, this heroin chic.”
An article in the New York Times a few months after his death, titled A Death Tarnishes Fashion’s Heroin Look, argued that “the eerie silence in the fashion industry immediately following Mr Sorrenti’s death may have reflected a sense of complicity.” Sorrenti’s death “was like a small bomb going off,” wrote the journalist, Amy Spindler, obliterating denial by the industry that heroin use among its players had any relation to the so-called heroin-chic style of fashion photography.
Francesca responded to her son’s death by summoning the forces of fashion to join an awareness campaign around the dangers of the drug. She rounded on image-makers and designers. She called out fashion houses who, she claimed, permitted drugged models to walk in their shows, and the stylists who held up slumping models long enough to get the shot. She harangued Elite Models owner John Casablancas on CNN until he confirmed that yes, there was a drug problem in his business.
Industry leaders responded, making elaborate promises to care for those in their charge with a code of conduct. Heroin chic, or at least any promotion of it, was shelved. Her son’s passing, she says, “saved a lot of kids and it ended heroin chic … That’s his legacy and it’s a pretty good one.”
See Know Evil’s first-time director Charlie Curran’s quest to pay respect to Sorrenti’s talent and unpick the tangled legacy of 90s photography was initiated by the work of British fashion academic Rebecca Arnold. He happened on her book Fashion, Desire and Anxiety, which seeks to examine why fashion periodically takes a dark turn – a way, she writes, “of probing our relationship with consumerism by constructing identities that use stylish dress as a route to self-creation and yet ultimately to self-destruction”.
Curran’s film, then, serves as an examination both of the life of Sorrenti and of a moment in style that, rightly or wrongly, he has come to represent. Former art director of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine Richard Pandisco, who gave Sorrenti his first commission, thinks that conflation of drug addiction with a certain style is too easy – and that its influence and reach is often overstated. “I remember it as yet another small trend,” he says, “but it caught the attention of people who like to create controversy and exploded. But if you ask me what it was like then, it was nothing.”
To Arnold, the images that were seen as relating to drug use were the extreme end of the wider rejection of the super glossy fashion magazines of the early 90s. She argues that the images associated with heroin chic, starting with Corinne Day’s pictures of Kate Moss in a grungy apartment printed some years earlier in British Vogue, wouldn’t have drawn much comment had they been published in a style magazine such as The Face. But placed in fashion magazines accustomed to shots of perfect women and perfect lifestyles, they were jarring.
It’s an aesthetic that had antecedents, among them Bob Richardson’s “suicide” pictures of Angelica Huston for Nova in 1971, Nan Goldin’s career-making images of her own drug addiction and the decadence of the New York downtown scene in the late 70s and early 80s , Larry Clark’s Tulsa, and Guy Bourdin’s images of women as bored, drugged dolls. What was different with the new guard of 90s photographers and stylists was, according to Arnold, that they “wanted to connect fashion to youth culture, to be fashion and critique it at the same time. They blurred the lines between life and art in a way that many found uncomfortable.
‘He was expressing his own journey through the medium of fashion photography.’
For Arnold, drug culture portrayed by other mediums gets a relatively free ride next to depictions in fashion. This was, she points out, the era of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Larry Clark’s Kids and Kurt Cobain. “We need to ask ourselves why fashion shouldn’t comment on darker things in the culture, because if you look at the history of fashion, it’s not just about women with perfect bodies and perfect lives,” she says. Perhaps it is because of its use of aspiration and fantasy to sell clothing – the grim realities of drug addiction in Trainspotting were, after all, never branded as aspirational.
Arnold thinks there’s more to it, though. “It’s far easier to say the fashion industry has a problem, accusing it of glamourising death, than to say we have a problem in our youth culture,” she says.
Sorrenti wasn’t, in fact, a fashion photographer. “He was expressing his own journey through the medium of fashion photography because that was the language he was taught,” Curran says. “He’d explain he was a reportage photographer and he was self-aware enough to know how important the youth revolution of the late 90s was. So he documented it.”
Despite dying so young, Sorrenti had already made a name for himself. He chronicled the New York bohemian life he’d been born into, training his Leica camera on the actor Mila Jovovich, the model Jade Berreau, and his girlfriend Jaime King, an addict at the time who has since gone on to become an actor. A 1996 shot Sorrenti had taken of her in torn leggings against a backdrop of fellow drug users such as Kurt Cobain would later, King noted, get them into “so much trouble”.
‘The industry definitely flew too close to the sun.’
“His images were spontaneous, raw and honest,” recalls Pandisco. “But he knew the rules. He knew the stylists, what they liked. He knew the street and the street artists. He was sweet and adorable and all the models knew and loved him. He had a long road ahead.”
He photographed his family, he shot his graffiti tags around the city as well as anything that caught his attention. “He was this loving and funny kid,” says Francesca, “who loved a bunch of things. He loved opera and hip-hop, he loved golf and skateboarding.”
Sorrenti lived knowing his life would not be long. He suffered from a rare blood disorder, thalassemia, that required bi-monthly transfusions, an experience that coloured his work. “His images were mainly melancholic,” recalls his mother. “He had a little bit of everything. He had a streak of juvenile delinquency, a streak of compassion. The sad part is he dealt with a lot of pain in his life.”
In some respects, his photographs, painterly in spirit, seemed to reflect the urgency and awkwardness of his own existence. He seemed to enjoy capturing his subjects as their poses began to appear uncomfortable or otherworldly. Other examples of his work revealed the influence of a British style of fashion photography that had rejected the glamour of the supermodel era and instead focused on a more intimate, imperfect style. And in 1996, none fitted that bill better than his pictures of King in their New York apartment just off Washington Square.
“In that moment, the industry definitely flew too close to the sun,” says photographer Glen Luchford. He has an uncynical take on how it came to pass: “I’m not sure that the fashion industry, especially in the US, quite realised what they were endorsing. They just saw it as the new interesting thing and had to have a slice of it. Only when it went tits up did anyone then think: ‘Maybe that was a mistake?!’”
Whether this is unrealistically forgiving or not, it is safe to say there won’t be a revival of heroin chic. One its leading perpetrators, Goldin, now leads a campaign to force major art institutions to refuse support from the Sackler family, the former owners of Purdue Pharma and makers of OxyContin, the drug widely held responsible for causing the US opiate addiction crisis.
But maybe, says Curran, we should look at that period more objectively, not least because fashion is at the inflection point of another big change and remains, 20 years on, prone to dramatic flare-ups. With some justification, Curran argues that the aesthetic of fashion photography and designers we live with today was born in the 90s .
“It was a pivotal time and it’s only now that we’re starting to fully grasp it. The same sensitivities that heroin chic provoked then, now sometimes come through as accusations of cultural appropriation.” Either way, fashion remains held to a different standard, as Arnold argues, and that is not always to its advantage. As Curran says: “Fashion needs to be a mirror to society but it doesn’t necessarily have to be worried about what society says back.”
See Know Evil is screening at Everyman cinemas around the UK from 24 to 26 May
'The incitement of misogyny in pursuit of profit.' Illustration by Matt Kenyon
If fashion is your primary means of expression, I pity you
Vogue's editor says she is bored by questions about thin models. But then, she's selling clothes for a misogynistic industry
The Guardian, Thursday 20 March 2014 / http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/20/fashion-express-youreslf-pity-vogue-models?CMP=fb_gu
Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, is bored with being asked why models are so thin. She said this on Radio 2 to Lily Allen, who acted like a frightened child but nonetheless asked Shulman tough questions that fashion journalists won't ask. Fashion journalists are notoriously prostrate beneath the clothes; their shtick is to act like Vladimir Putin's acolytes trapped in Topshop, screaming about belts, and if you break out and speak the truth, you become Liz Jones, an outcast in your own genre.
Allen said images of thin models made her feel "crap". Well, they don't make me feel crap, answered Shulman (I paraphrase) – so who cares what you think? Anyway, Shulman is bored with this thin-themed twaddle; such a fashion word, "bored", so passive aggressive, so unanswerable. You may be right but you're dull; this is no-platforming in the style of Mean Girls. In fact Shulman can't even really stretch to being "bored", despite being paid what I presume is a large salary for a slender workload; she is, in fact, only "sort of" bored, because this phrasing better expresses the exact proportions of her ennui, which I can only presume is definitely overweight.
She told Allen that looking at overweight women didn't make her feel good, as if overweight is the only alternative, in her mind, to significantly malnourished. Shulman has written to designers asking for larger sample sizes. (I read that in another piece of iconography posing as an interview.) But that was it. She is, at the end of things, only an advocate for the clothes. She calls herself a journalist; but she is a saleswoman.
The answer to the original question of why models are so thin – and do prepare to be bored, because I cannot give you a new answer because the old answer is boring (as is the old question, of course): it is the incitement of misogyny in pursuit of profit.
What fashion considers to be the ideal is barely a woman. This is so obviously the case there is almost nothing else to say. In this dystopia Shulman can, in her defence, tell Lily Allen that the Vogue cover girl for April, Nigella Lawson, is a "totally real person" – as opposed to what? Lawson is a woman of extraordinary beauty, but to Shulman, obviously deadened by an unceasing parade of tiny, malleable teenagers (she says "clothes to our kind of western eye look better on a thinner frame"), Nigella is simply "real".
But fashion's fantasy woman – her default fault, if you will – is a mere scrape of a woman, a woman who has had no time to actually be a woman: too young, too small, a vulnerable thing I often imagine crawling from an egg in Karl Lagerfeld's fridge. (And he is a man so pathologically isolated, his stated muse is now a cat called Choupette with a Twitter feed. Sample tweet: "Anna Wintour sits SECOND ROW at @MaisonValentino? Tres Horror!") It is as if fashion closed its eyes and dreamed up the woman who most closely resembles dust.
Why? Some say it is because designers are all gay, and are afraid of big bottoms and so forth, but this is nonsense, and homophobic; fashion is full of straight women capable of revolution, if they weren't all hostages in Topshop and so very bored.
Shulman says that fashion sells a fantasy, a wonderland, and this may be true for the few thousand women who can afford to wear couture; but it is a wonderland where happiness is as fleeting as any narcotic (six collections a year?). And it is, above all, monetised.
If fashion is your primary means of expression, you are, for me, only to be pitied – because women have better means of expression nowadays. Is it a coincidence that the fashion houses' most avid customers are the female relatives of the tyrants of the Middle East? Fashion is obsessed with surfaces; and it is full of victims.
I would not say that all fashion people are unhappy, but it does seem to attract the unhappy, the soon to be surgically enhanced. And so this child creature, this ideal, is no coincidence. She is a complex sales strategy; both fragile and remote. Because she cannot be impersonated, she sells self-loathing, as Lily Allen noted, and therefore clothing, perfumes and the rest. It is not the wonderland that Shulman espoused, but it is an escape from something that can never be successfully eluded for any length of time – yourself.
If fashion is truly, as apologists suggest, dedicated to female self-expression, then why have trends? Why have a homogeneous law of beauty that cannot be bent? Why have subservient media that behave, so shamefully, like a marketing subsidiary? Why call it "fashion" at all?
In fact, the fashion industry is the most perfect expression of the late capitalist business model. It pretends to sell free choice, but is conventional. It is conservative, racist, misogynist, a terrible polluter, and a fearsome hierarchy. It is covetous, exploitative of models, workers and customers, and it is often tasteless: Vogue Italia's 2006 State of Emergency, for instance, photographed models being sexually assaulted by a tableau of men dressed like Batman, to celebrate – or commemorate – 9/11.
And all this it does, as Alexandra Shulman has demonstrated, with a tiny yawn – a cat's yawn, perhaps? – and entirely without shame.
• Twitter: @TanyaGold1
Former Vogue editor: The truth about size zero
The fashion industry is not a pretty business. Here, one of its own, the former editor of Australian Vogue Kirstie Clements describes a thin-obsessed culture in which starving models eat tissues and resort to surgery when dieting isn't enough
The Guardian, Friday 5 July 2013 / http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2013/jul/05/vogue-truth-size-zero-kirstie-clements
One of the most controversial aspects of fashion magazines, and the fashion industry, is models. Specifically, how young they are and how thin they are. It's a topic that continues to create endless debate, in the press and in the community. As the editor of Australian Vogue, my opinion was constantly sought on these issues, and the images we produced in the magazine were closely scrutinised. It's a precarious subject, and there are many unpleasant truths beneath the surface that are not discussed or acknowledged publicly.
When I first began dealing with models in the late 1980s we were generally drawing from a pool of local girls, who were naturally willowy and slim, had glowing skin, shiny hair and loads of energy. They ate lunch, sparingly for sure, but they ate. They were not skin and bones. I don't think anyone believes that a model can eat anything she wants, not exercise and still stay a flawless size 8 (except when they are very young), so whatever regime these girls were following was keeping them healthy.
But I began to recognise the signs that other models were using different methods to stay svelte. I was dressing a model from the US on a beauty shoot, and I noticed scars and scabs on her knees. When I queried her about them she said, nonchalantly: "Oh yes. Because I'm always so hungry, I faint a lot." She thought it was normal to pass out every day, sometimes more than once.
On another shoot I was chatting to one of the top Australian models during lunch. She had just moved to Paris and was sharing a small apartment with another model. I asked her how that was working out. "I get a lot of time by myself actually," she said, picking at her salad. "My flatmate is a 'fit model', so she's in hospital on a drip a lot of the time." A fit model is one who is used in the top designer ateliers, or workrooms, and is the body around which the clothes are designed. That the ideal body shape used as a starting point for a collection should be a female on the brink of hospitalisation from starvation is frightening.
The longer I worked with models, the more the food deprivation became obvious. Cigarettes and Diet Coke were dietary staples. Sometimes you would see the tell-tale signs of anorexia, where a girl develops a light fuzz on her face and arms as her body struggles to stay warm. I have never, in all my career, heard a model say "I'm hot", not even if you wrapped her in fur and put her in the middle of the desert.
Society is understandably concerned about the issues surrounding body image and eating disorders, and the dangerous and unrealistic messages being sent to young women via fashion journals. When it comes to who should be blamed for the portrayal of overly thin models, magazine editors are in the direct line of fire, but it is more complex than that. The "fit" model begins the fashion process: designer outfits are created around a live, in-house skeleton. Few designers have a curvy or petite fit model. These collections are then sent to the runway, worn by tall, pin-thin models because that's the way the designer wants to see the clothes fall. There will also be casting directors and stylists involved who have a vision of the type of woman they envisage wearing these clothes. For some bizarre reason, it seems they prefer her to be young, coltish, 6ft tall and built like a prepubescent boy.
It is too simplistic to blame misogynistic men, although in some cases I believe that criticism is deserved. There are a few male fashion designers I would like to personally strangle. But there are many female fashion editors who perpetuate the stereotype, women who often have a major eating disorder of their own. They get so caught up in the hype of how brilliant clothes look on a size 4, they cannot see the inherent danger in the message. It cannot be denied that visually, clothes fall better on a slimmer frame, but there is slim, and then there is scary skinny.
Despite protestations by women who recognise the danger of portraying any one body type as "perfect", the situation is not improving. If you look back at the heady days of the supermodels in the late 80s and early 90s, beauties such as Cindy Crawford, Eva Herzigová and Claudia Schiffer look positively curvaceous compared to the sylphs of today. There was a period in the last three years when some of the girls on the runways were so young and thin, and the shoes they were modelling so high, it actually seemed barbaric. I would watch the ready-to-wear shows on the edge of my seat, apprehensive and anxious. I'm not comfortable witnessing teen waifs almost on the point of collapse
After the shows, the collection is made available for the press to use for their shoots. These are the samples we all work with and they are obviously the size of the model who wore them on the runway. Thus, a stylist must cast a model who will fit into these tiny sizes. And they have become smaller since the early 90s. We've had couture dresses arrive from Europe that are so minuscule they resemble christening robes. There are no bigger samples available, and the designer probably has no interest in seeing their clothes on larger women. Many high fashion labels are aghast at the idea of producing a size 14, and they certainly wouldn't want to see it displayed in the pages of the glossies.
As a Vogue editor I was of the opinion that we didn't necessarily need to feature size 14-plus models in every issue. It is a fashion magazine; we are showcasing the clothes. I am of the belief that an intelligent reader understands that a model is chosen because she carries clothes well. Some fashion suits a curvier girl, some doesn't. I see no problem with presenting a healthy, toned, Australian size 10 [UK 8-10]. But as sample sizes from the runway shows became smaller, 10 was no longer an option and the girls were dieting drastically to stay in the game.
It is the ultimate vicious cycle. A model who puts on a few kilos can't get into a sample size on a casting and gets reprimanded by her agency. She begins to diet, loses the weight, and is praised by all for how good she looks. But instead of staying at that weight, and trying to maintain it through a sensible diet and exercise, she thinks losing more will make her even more desirable. And no one tells her to stop.
Girls who can't diet their breasts away will have surgical reductions. They then enter into dangerous patterns of behaviour that the industry – shockingly – begins to accept as par for the course. We had a term for this spiral in the office. When a model who was getting good work in Australia starved herself down two sizes in order to be cast in the overseas shows – the first step to an international career – we would say in the office that she'd become "Paris thin". This dubious achievement was generally accompanied by mood swings, extreme fatigue, binge eating and sometimes bouts of self-harming. All in the quest to fit into a Balenciaga sample.
Not every model has an eating disorder, but I would suggest that every model is not eating as much as she would like to. In 1995 I cast a lovely Russian model for a studio shoot in Paris, and I noticed that by mid-afternoon she hadn't eaten a thing (we always catered). Her energy was fading, so I suggested we stop so she could have a snack. She shook her head and replied: "No, no. It is my job not to eat." It was one of the only sentences she knew how to say in English.
A few years later we booked another Russian girl, who was also starving herself, on a trip to Marrakech. When the team went out to dinner at night she ordered nothing, but then hunger would get the better of her and she would pick small pieces of food off other people's plates. I've seen it happen on many trips. The models somehow rationalise that if they didn't order anything, then they didn't really take in the calories. They can tell their booker at the agency before they sleep that they only had a salad. By the end of the trip, she didn't have the energy to even sit up; she could barely open her eyes. We actually had her lie down next to a fountain to get the last shot.
In 2004, a fashion season in which the girls were expected to be particularly bone-thin, I was having lunch in New York with a top agent who confidentially expressed her concern to me, as she did not want to be the one to expose the conspiracy. "It's getting very serious," she said. She lowered her tone and glanced around to see if anyone at the nearby tables could hear. "The top casting directors are demanding that they be thinner and thinner. I've got four girls in hospital. And a couple of the others have resorted to eating tissues. Apparently they swell up and fill your stomach."
I was horrified to hear what the industry was covering up and I felt complicit. We were all complicit. But in my experience it is practically impossible to get a photographer or a fashion editor – male or female – to acknowledge the repercussions of using very thin girls. They don't want to. For them, it's all about the drama of the photograph. They convince themselves that the girls are just genetically blessed, or have achieved it through energetic bouts of yoga and eating goji berries.
I was at the baggage carousel with a fashion editor collecting our luggage after a trip and I noticed a woman standing nearby. She was the most painfully thin person I had ever seen, and my heart went out to her. I pointed her out to the editor who scrutinised the poor woman and said: "I know it sounds terrible, but I think she looks really great." The industry is rife with this level of body dysmorphia from mature women.
In my early years at the magazine there was no minimum age limit on models, and there were occasions that girls under the age of 16 were used. Under my editorship, the fashion office found a new favourite model – Katie Braatvedt, a 15-year-old from New Zealand. We had her under contract: the idea being that Vogue grooms and protects the girls at the beginning of their careers. But in April 2007 I ran a cover of Katie wearing an Alex Perry gown standing in a treehouse, and received a storm of protest, from readers and the media, accusing us of sexualising children. I lamely debated the point, claiming that the photographs were meant to be innocent and charming, but in the end I had to agree wholeheartedly with the readers. I felt foolish even trying to justify it. I immediately instigated a policy that we would not employ models under the age of 16. Internationally Vogue has since launched a project called Health Initiative, instigated by the US Vogue editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, which bans the use of models under 16 and pledges that they will not use models they know to be suffering from eating disorders. The first part you can police. The second is disingenuous nonsense, because unless you are monitoring their diet 24/7, you just can't be sure.
I had no dealings with Wintour during those years, and on the few occasions we were introduced, her sense of froideur was palpable. The deference she commands from people is astonishing to watch. There appears to exist some kind of psychological condition that causes seemingly sane and successful adults to prostrate themselves in her presence. It's not just respect – it's something else. People actually want to be scared witless of her, so she obliges. After they had met me, people would often say: "You're so nice and normal" – often I think with a tinge of disappointment, wishing I'd been just a little bit like Wintour. I could never win. I was either expected to be terrifying or snobbish. And I don't consider myself either.
Being a Vogue editor is precarious. It's a job everybody in the industry desires, and most people are convinced they could do it better. I was harder on myself than anybody would be if I made a mistake, and when you're the editor of Vogue, your slip-ups are very public. Traditional publishing is under enormous pressure, with declining revenues and readership, and decisions are being made to radically cut costs and do anything to please the advertiser. For me, this is perilous. I still believe in the magic.
This is an edited extract from The Vogue Factor by Kirstie Clements. Buy it for £8.99 (RRP £12.99) at guardianbookshop.co.uk or call 0330 333 6846.