Any Prada-clad, Fekkai-tressed and Gucci-booted fashion victim will tell you: Once the president of the United States and the establishment press wake up to a fashion trend, it's over.
So-called "heroin chic" is over. The recent fashion look distinguished by photo spreads of strung out-looking models slouching in hollow-eyed stupor in designer duds is done.
The disturbing images, however, have left a mark. The New York Times recently traced the sordid and short life and death of a fashion photographer who popularized the look and was hooked on heroin himself. President Clinton picked up on the story in an address to the nation's mayors, blaming the fashion industry for glamorizing heroin and enticing young people to experiment.
The death blow to drug chic actually may have been struck by a mainstream fast-food chicken chain. You've seen the TV spots: Black and white images of haunted, waxy-faced, scrawny models bemoaning the emptiness of their existence. "Eat something!" says the Boston Market guy, set off in robust living color.
The spoof of Calvin Klein's dead-faced fashion campaigns -- perhaps the most visible mainstream image of heroin chic -- finally put the look in its place. Ridicule is a powerful weapon.
The drug chic controversy, though, has brought forth an odd mixture of indignation and acknowledgment from the fashion industry.
Designer Marc Jacobs, one of the industry's brightest young stars, was among the indignant. He told Women's Wear Daily that Clinton's accusations were "the most ridiculous thing.
"Fashion isn't health care," Jacobs observed. "What do you want to see? A cover of Vogue with someone sipping orange juice?"
Implicit in this indignation is a snub of the rubes who shop at strip malls and cannot appreciate the artistic merit of androgynous models posed in slaughterhouses, or women chained to chain-link fences or menaced by gnashing Dobermans.
Looking to outsider culture is a venerable -- and continuing -- fashion photography tradition. Let those who want nice turn to the J. Crew catalog.
In discreet acknowledgment, however, the industry is facing up to the drug problems within.
"Substance abuse has been fashion's occupational hazard for 75 years," says Michael Gross, author of "Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women." His research took a hard look at the corruption of the young and beautiful in the world's most glamorous jobs.
"I can't tell you how many of the early top models in the '30s and '40s died drunk," he says. "Look at the photos of that era -- women are hoisting martinis, hoisting champagne glasses, smoking."
Gross spells out this century's fashion moments with the drugs of the moment.
"The '50s was the decade of amphetamines, diet pills, and models became strung out and addicted. The early '60s saw LSD and pot with a corresponding trippiness in fashion photos. By the '70s, models on cocaine were a presence on a wide range of photo sets and powerful coke imagery permeated fashion photography."
He says the zonked-out heroin look first emerged in the '70s with a parallel source in the rock music world. Who do rock stars date? Models.
Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards "was a walking, talking advertisement for heroin abuse. The amoral fashion business, which is constantly trying to reflect the cutting edge, glorified that rocker look," says Gross.
"Fashion images then weren't selling heroin, they were selling Rolling Stones albums. They're not selling heroin now, but Calvin Klein underwear, another low-price product accessible to average American kids with $10 to drop on a purchase which makes them feel hip."
That need to be cool, distant and different is what drives young people -- and the fashion business, which has to reinvent itself every six months to sell clothes.
John Massad, a Baltimore-based anthropologist specializing in American culture and society, says the scientific term that defines an insider fashion statement is a "boundary maintaining mechanism.
"That mechanism, using a variety of symbols such as clothing, provides a sense of inclusiveness for the group and signals exclusiveness to those who are not [in the group]. That could be anything as temporary as a brand of jeans or as permanent as tattooing or body piercing," Massad says.
When the powerful and voracious fashion industry, which feeds on its young, co-opts, commercializes and polishes these symbols, youth is pushed further and further to create new symbolic trappings.
Consider the twist on youth trends in the last decade.
The hip rediscovered black biker jackets and postured and sneered in them and wore them to class. Fashion retooled them in designer versions and showed them topping Karl Lagerfeld gowns. When biker chic turned up at ladies' luncheons, the young were pressed to find a new look.
They looked in thrift store bins, foolishly believing their elders would not dream of wearing second-hand ripped flannel shirts and sweat-stained long underwear. But it wasn't long before that became the grunge look and showed up in fashion spreads with four-figure price tags.
They took to tattoos and pierced body parts, the last bourgeois ** taboo, only to discover that Roseanne and frisky suburban housewives were following suit.
The leap from tattoo to heroin needles now doesn't seem very great. Hipsters started dressing like junkies -- they ratted and greased their hair, blackened their lips and nails and picked nasty, ill-fitting clothes of clashing patterns and colors that could be tolerated only by creatures who were beyond caring. That red-rimmed, hollow-eyed stare and appearance of neglected hair and hygiene also hit designer runways.
"The look was not really pervasive in the design community," argues Fern Mallis, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which represents the leaders in the industry. "Heroin chic never looked chic, it was only done by a renegade group of magazine editors and stylists who were looking to make waves."
"It is unfair that the whole industry should be blamed for heroin abuses," she adds. "However, we now understand that the imagery of the cutting edge is so much stronger and powerful than we believed. We understand the responsibility of being more responsible."
The governing council of the CFDA will meet to tackle real drug abuses in the industry, she says.
Now that junkies have been banished as fashion's darlings, where will shock chic turn?
Society's newest outcasts may be next. Are we headed for smoker chic? There's a definite hint of tobacco trendiness in the air, with its cigarette-squint attitude and nicotine-stain colors.
Pub Date: 5/29/97