Tracking the Junkie Chic Look

Reports on the advent of fashion with the junkie look. Matsuda clothing advertisement showing reed-thin models; Partnership for a Drug-Free America's anti-heroin campaign that could be mistaken for high fashion.

By Christine Summer, Peter Doskoch, published on September 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

In the seventies and eighties, photographer Nan Goldin—known for heruncontrived drug culture images—saw advertising campaigns she'd shot thrown out at the last minute by designers afraid of her heroin connection. Today, fashion's flirtation with the junkie look—concentration-camp-thin models with pasty complexions sporting blackened eyes, limp hair, and designer outfits—includes Goldin's photos for Matsuda, an upscale clothing company.

Smack is definitely back in style. But is heroin chic or deadly? Despite a rise in use and in overdoses, it's become increasingly difficult to tell. Junkie chic certainly seems to push clothes, especially, says fashion historian Valerie Steele, among the customers at whom it's aimed: teenagers and people in their twenties. And Steele says it's precisely because the look is offensive to most. Maybe at first; but sales at Bloomingdale's New York's "Rent" boutique—which draws its inspiration from the Broadway show about homelessness and drug addiction—have been brisk. (That's reason to take heart: once a look goes mainstream, fashion inevitably moves on.)

Neville Wakefield, coeditor of the book Fashion Now!, sums up the less-than-picture-perfect images by pointing out that fashion has "always been marketed as an intoxicant." Quite the opposite intention of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which recently launched the first national anti-heroin campaign. The hip ads, directed at 18- to 25-year-olds, could easily be mistaken for "high" fashion.

PHOTOS (COLOR): High fashion or sober reflection? A Matsuda clothing advertisement (above); an anti-heroin announcement from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (right).