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Clinton Condemns "Heroin Chic" in Fashion Industry Following New York Times Story


July 1997

On May 21, President Clinton strongly condemned the fashion industry for capitalizing on "heroin chic," the style of fashion advertising, shows and photography that allegedly glamorizes the "strung-out" look of heroin addicts (Jonathan Peterson, "Fashion Industry Scolded by Clinton for `Heroin Chic'," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), May 22, 1997, p. A4; Christopher Wren, "Clinton Calls Fashion Ads' `Heroin Chic' Deplorable," New York Times, May 22, 1997, p. A22).

The President made the critical remarks in a speech following a New York Times story on "heroin chic" and the lethal overdose of fashion photographer and heroin addict Davide Sorrenti. Sorrenti, 20, died of a heroin overdose in February. A promising fashion photographer, he was well-known for his photographs of seemingly strung-out heroin-addicted models. The "heroin chic" look had been popular in the 1990s, but was passing and with Sorrenti's death, it may come to an end. The expose of the "heroin chic" phenomenon in the New York Times article said the trend is over (Amy Spindler, "A Death Tarnishes Fashion's `Heroin Look'," New York Times, May 20, 1997, p. A1).

Clinton, addressing a study group on drug control organized by the United States Conference of Mayors, which was visiting the White House, chose to glamorize the anti-heroin theme. He accused the fashion industry of purposely portraying heroin use as glamorous in order to sell clothes. "The glorification of heroin is not creative, it's destructive," Clinton said. "It's not beautiful, it is ugly. And this is not about art, it's about life and death." He said such advertising entices young people to try heroin. [According to the 1996 Monitoring the Future Survey, the percentage of 8th-, 10th - and 12th-graders who used heroin in the last year was 1.6%, 1.2% and 1.0% respectively, and the percentage who used heroin in the last month was 0.7%, 0.5% and 0.5% respectively. These are increases from 1991, when the percentage of 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders who used heroin in the last year was .7%, .5% and .4% respectively, and the percentage who used heroin in the last month was .3%, .2% and .2% respectively - RCT.]

Fashion industry leaders accepted some responsibility for drug problems in their industry. Magazine editors promised that upcoming issues of their publications will show new, positive, and healthy images. Editors say that Sorrenti's death, coupled with the Times article, and Clinton's speech, was a wake-up call to the industry. "The President's right," said Patrick McCarthy, editorial director of W Magazine said. "He has stated the obvious, but when the President of the United States states it, he states it even louder. It will have an effect."

The Council of Fashion Designers of America set up a committee that met on June 10 to formulate plans to discourage drug use. One idea under consideration is a public service campaign (Constance C.R. White, "Patterns," New York Times, June 10, 1997, p. A37).

But Sorrenti's mother, Francesca, a well-known fashion photographer, says that changing the face of fashion photography won't change the problem of addiction among models. "The bottom line is these pictures can be smiling all they want and the girl behind the smile might be on drugs," she said. "Heroin chic isn't what we're projecting, it's what we are."

Designer Marc Jacobs, however, called Clinton's remarks "ridiculous." "Fashion isn't health care," he said. "What do you want to see? A cover of Vogue with someone sipping orange juice?" Executive Director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Fern Mallis, argued that "heroin-chic" was never pervasive in the industry, and was only done by a certain group of people. "It is unfair that the whole industry should be blamed for heroin abuses," she said. "However," she added, "We understand the responsibility of being more responsible" (emphasis added) (Vida Roberts, "Fashion's Bad Habit," The Baltimore Sun, May 29, 1997, p. B1).