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James's Runway Review
July 31, 1996, 11:00 pm

Source: Toronto Star

Dark-eyed junkie new fashion icon of '90s nihilism; [Final Edition]
Robin Givhan (Washington Post) Special to the Star. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Aug 01, 1996. pg. B.2

Fashion has gotten high on a bewildering variety of statements - from the glamorous, buxom beauty to the listless, drifting waif and back again to the healthy, vibrant Lolita look, with micro kilts and shrunken sweaters.

Now, in the late '90s, there are some new addictions: '70s redux, mod and a new fin de siecle nihilism that is absorbed by torn clothes and the wasted silhouette and pinched face of the drug addict.

Magazine readers increasingly have seen this gloomy-doomy look in the dark-rimmed vacant eyes of the Gucci models. Instead of the brazen strut of yesterday, catwalkers in recent days regularly assume a slightly dazed, strung-out demeanor on the runway.

More and more models are being photographed slouched in dingy bathrooms or cheap motels, their makeup smeared and their hair unclean, stringy and chaotic. And while they're decked out in the latest pricey designer fashions, the implication is there is a hypodermic just outside of the frame.

The industry comes honestly by this new fascination with the drug culture. Inside the fashion industry, rumors and knowing accounts of heroin and cocaine abuse by models, stylists and fashion commentators have become increasingly common. New tales are met with nonchalance. A recent article in Allure called heroin ``the worst-kept secret in modelling.''

More than a year ago, fashion show audiences chuckled when James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins shuffled awkwardly down the runway at an Anna Sui show. He seemed so dazed that model Amber Valletta had to gently guide him backstage. Was it a put-on or for real? At the time, it was accepted as part of the normal theatrics of a fashion show. (A backup musician for Smashing Pump, Jonathan Melvoin, recently died of a heroin overdose.)

Like the young men in Trainspotting, a film that has put heroin chic on the big screen in an almost documentary format, fashion leaders shoot for the edge, always trying to elude the mundanity of everyday life. They dismiss rules. They shoot for the cynical. They aim to shock.

Recent collections from designers Helmut Lang and Alexander McQueen have reflected this morning-after-a-rough-night style and the perennial human fascination with the seductive aspects of death.

It's a fascination that's long been an important theme in the visual arts. The art historian finds it way back in the medieval painting, song and dance that followed the great plague of 1348-51, known as the Black Death, for example, and in modern Japanese film noir and in cults in the U.S. like those around the late actor James Dean and, of course, Elvis.

Designer Lang is known for his pared-down silhouettes and hollow-cheeked, dour models. McQueen was in the spotlight this spring for his tattered and torn collection of tailored suits and lace blouses, some of them accessorized with crown-of- thorns jewelry.

``I've worked on three films this summer, all three (filmmakers) have said `I want that Helmut Lang, sexy, young junkie aesthetic.' It's huge, absolutely huge,'' says Amee Simmons, a New York artist and stylist.

Fashion didn't conjure up the look of zoned-out kids. The days when fashion could single-handedly create an aesthetic are long gone. Instead, designers have dutifully absorbed it, copied it from the street, from the addicts themselves. They cleaned it up. Validated it. And now they're selling it.

Credit: Robin Givhan