Davide Sorrenti’s girlfriend at the time, Jaime King, became the poster girl for the heroin chic movement. All images courtesy of the Davide Sorrenti archive.

Francesca Sor­ren­ti on the rise and demise of hero­in chic

The end of heroin chic’s popularity coincided with the shocking death of photographer Davide Sorrenti. A new documentary celebrates his life and work and questions why he was intrinsically tied to the movement.

In one of the most recog­nis­able images by the late pho­tog­ra­ph­er Davide Sor­ren­ti of his girl­friend Jaime King, she is sprawled across a sofa, cig­a­rette smoul­der­ing, hands pulling at her ripped tights. The spaghet­ti straps of her top frame her ema­ci­at­ed fig­ure. Her clav­i­cles and gan­g­ly arms appear shock­ing­ly thin. It wasn’t an out­take from an inti­mate night at home – though that is where much of the pair’s image­mak­ing occurred – but a pho­to that was actu­al­ly pub­lished in a mid-90s issue of the fash­ion mag­a­zine Detour. It spat in the eye of the con­ven­tion­al female beau­ty du jour – the busty glama­zon super­mod­els on every bill­board and in every mag­a­zine spread.

By this point, the 3rd sum­mer of love” – promised by The Face in a strapline accom­pa­ny­ing Cor­rine Day’s icon­ic 1993 cov­er of a teenage Kate Moss on the beach – had firm­ly arrived. And it wasn’t a warm and wel­com­ing sum­mer, either; it was instead marked by the nihilism of the grunge movement’s insid­i­ous creep into main­stream cul­ture, large­ly via the music of Nir­vana and films like The Bas­ket­ball Diaries and Lar­ry Clark’s Kids. But just as quick­ly as the trend ignit­ed the cre­ative fires of some of the fash­ion industry’s biggest names (Marc Jacobs’ col­lec­tion for Per­ry Ellis, for one), it was snuffed out. In hind­sight, it’s clear that much of the rea­son for grunge’s rapid demise was the movement’s destruc­tive bed­fel­low: hero­in chic.

Even if it’s in the tabloid media’s nature to always pin the blame on a spe­cif­ic cul­prit, iden­ti­fy­ing the gen­e­sis of hero­in chic in the fash­ion world is near impos­si­ble. And those who were fur­ther­ing its aes­thet­ic mer­its large­ly didn’t mean to. Leonar­do DiCaprio told Detour in 1996 that he made The Bas­ket­ball Diaries to help make some kind of state­ment against hero­in.” On the con­trary, it only helped to glam­ourise the trend.

A new doc­u­men­tary by first-time direc­tor Charles Cur­ran, See Know Evil, remem­bers the life and work of Davide Sor­ren­ti – broth­er of Mario, boyfriend of Jaime, and dear friend to many of the names who have now come to define 90s coun­ter­cul­ture – and attempts to dis­pel some of the myths sur­round­ing the move­ment, in par­tic­u­lar that Davide’s death at the age of 20 was in some way its inevitable, trag­ic conclusion.

Davide’s death was paint­ed in the media as the result of a hero­in over­dose,” explains Francesca Sor­ren­ti, Davide’s moth­er and a close col­lab­o­ra­tor with Cur­ran on the doc­u­men­tary. There wasn’t enough hero­in in his sys­tem to kill a fly.” In truth, the cause of death was nev­er con­clu­sive­ly deter­mined, but the like­li­est cause was that Sor­ren­ti had fall­en behind on his fort­night­ly blood trans­fu­sions, a neces­si­ty giv­en his genet­ic blood dis­or­der, thalassemia.

Davide’s death was paint­ed in the media as the result of a hero­in over­dose. There wasn’t enough hero­in in his sys­tem to kill a fly” – Francesca Sorrenti

Once this myth is cleared up, it’s obvi­ous that the mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Sorrenti’s work – as a gonzo-style trip through the seami­er cor­ners of 90s youth cul­ture – per­haps says more about the cen­so­ri­ous atti­tude of the tabloid media than the young photographer’s cir­cle of friends. These move­ments always start some­where, and it’s usu­al­ly in the media,” con­tin­ues Francesca. You watch the news and it’s all about lay­ing the blame on an indi­vid­ual, about point­ing the fin­ger. They’re always the first to con­demn what they created.” 

That isn’t to say that there wasn’t a dark­er truth to what the media was print­ing. What hap­pened in the 90s with the fash­ion indus­try is that nobody took con­trol [of the drug prob­lem],” she adds, speak­ing from the per­spec­tive of hav­ing been a fash­ion pho­tog­ra­ph­er her­self. But it was across the board: it wasn’t just one enti­ty, the design­ers or the mod­el­ling agen­cies specifically.”

Amy Spindler, [a style edi­tor] from the New York Times was a friend of mine,” Francesca con­tin­ues. I remem­ber she came to my apart­ment to say that [drug use was] get­ting out of hand. You would go to a fash­ion show, and there were mod­els nod­ding out. I was on a pho­to­shoot in LA, and this girl came who said she was on sleep­ing pills because she took a flight, but she was on hero­in. I called her agency and told them I wouldn’t shoot her; I want­ed her moth­er to come here and pick her up. You heard sto­ries about fash­ion edi­tors hold­ing up girls against the wall in order to shoot. Kids would be call­ing up their agents to get coke. All of a sud­den, it was one big par­ty, and I was against it. Lit­tle did I know I was going to be the victim…”

Francesca Sorrenti.

Even if Davide became the poster boy for hero­in chic, the pain that colours his work was the prod­uct of his life­long ill­ness, not addic­tion. If you look at his pho­tog­ra­phy, it’s not about drugs; it’s about him cre­at­ing this kind of dream world,” says Francesca. He would tell me that it was as much about his suf­fer­ing as it was his dreams. If you look at the bod­ies in his pic­tures, they’re always mov­ing – it’s very trance-like.”

It’s true: just look at the many por­traits Davide took of his girl­friend Jaime King, the mod­el-turned-actress who was heav­i­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the move­ment, but recov­ered from her hero­in addic­tion and has now remained clean for over 20 years. While one infa­mous pho­to­graph depict­ing King pos­si­bly prepar­ing to shoot up has remained con­tro­ver­sial, the bulk are just images of two run­away kids liv­ing the fast life in down­town Man­hat­tan – a woozy, exhil­a­rat­ing tes­ta­ment to the all-con­sum­ing rap­ture of young love. 

It’s the time­less­ness of these inti­mate por­traits of love and friend­ship that has prompt­ed a resur­gence of inter­est in Davide’s work – par­tic­u­lar­ly thanks to social media plat­forms, where the once-near-for­got­ten photographer’s work has inspired a new gen­er­a­tion of young artists, includ­ing Char­lie Cur­ran, the direc­tor, who was just 20 when he began work on the sev­en-year project. We’re going through a 90s moment right now,” says Francesca, but I was amazed to see the kids at the screen­ings who had found Davide’s work over the inter­net. I had a young girl come up to me and say, I’ve been a fan of Davide’s work since I was young.’ I said, How old are you?’ She was 25!”

It was part­ly thanks to this mount­ing inter­est that Francesca final­ly felt ready to rein­tro­duce Davide’s work to the world. It took me a long time to feel ready to do some­thing like this,” she explains, because at the begin­ning, every time I looked at his pic­tures, it just became too much for me, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly. I would maybe spend a week after­wards feel­ing moody and not want­i­ng to get out of bed, but lit­tle by lit­tle I had to deal with it. It was very heart-wrench­ing the first time I saw the rough cut.”

It took me a long time to feel ready to do some­thing like this because at the begin­ning, every time I looked at his pic­tures, it just became too much for me, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly” – Francesca Sorrenti

The rela­tion­ship between fash­ion and addic­tion will always be fraught, as design­ers today con­tin­ue to flirt with drug ref­er­ences: take Raf Simons’ ode to Cook­ie Mueller and Glenn O’Brien’s tragi­com­ic play Drugs for his AW18 menswear col­lec­tion (along­side some more taste­less ref­er­ences to the infa­mous hero­in-addict­ed teen run­away Chris­tiane F.), or the Moschi­no pill bot­tle purs­es Jere­my Scott sent down the run­way for AW16, which were pulled from pro­duc­tion for their impli­ca­tions of glam­or­is­ing drug use. 

The fash­ion indus­try is once again under­go­ing a moment of reck­on­ing, grap­pling with its dubi­ous treat­ment of mod­els in very dif­fer­ent ways: from sex­u­al exploita­tion to the cast­ing of under­age girls, both of which the major fash­ion hous­es are only now begin­ning to ful­ly address. It’s not just mod­els either,” says Francesca. The indus­try is always tak­ing advan­tage of young peo­ple in so many dif­fer­ent ways. You’re see­ing these big places use young pho­tog­ra­phers and styl­ists, but they’re tak­ing advan­tage of them on an eco­nom­ic lev­el. They say, Let’s use these kids because they cost half as much’.”

But it’s not all about con­tro­ver­sy. One of the extra­or­di­nary things about this moment was indus­try gate­keep­ers open­ing the door to a whole gen­er­a­tion of young cre­atives, who have since gone on to become some of fashion’s most leg­endary pho­tog­ra­phers and styl­ists. It was a gen­er­a­tional refresh that has rarely been repeat­ed: and cer­tain­ly at no oth­er point in the his­to­ry of mag­a­zine pub­lish­ing would a teenag­er like Davide be com­mis­sioned to shoot his friends for a major magazine.

As Francesca remem­bers it, Davide’s inten­tion was nev­er to become a fash­ion pho­tog­ra­ph­er, but sim­ply to doc­u­ment what was hap­pen­ing around him. It’s this, per­haps, that is what makes the images so stag­ger­ing with­in a fash­ion con­text. There’s a moment in the film where Davide is being inter­viewed by Richard Ave­don, and he says some­thing I always said: It’s there, you see it, you shoot it’,” says Francesca. I was so shocked see­ing that because I don’t think he even remem­bered it was some­thing I used to say. It was so beau­ti­ful to see that he thought about things in the same way as I did.” It’s a max­im that could apply to the entire gen­er­a­tion. They shot what they saw, and not every­thing they saw was pret­ty. That isn’t fash­ion: it’s real life.

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