Drugs are the fashion

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 May, 1997, 12:00am

There are few areas the fashion industry will not explore in an effort to shock or seduce the public into spending too much money on clothes.

Benetton has sold sweaters by denoting inter-racial sex, Christ on the cross and a dying AIDS victim. Calvin Klein has flirted with trouble by using sexy under-age teens in provocative poses. And the topless catwalk model has become so over-used as to look almost passe.

Most people who spend their money on more useful items than a US$500 (HK$3,800) shirt do not usually notice or care. But then the President of the United States will say something controversial from the bully pulpit, and fashion once more becomes a political issue.

Unnoticed by The New York Times or Bill Clinton, designers and fashion magazine editors have for about 18 months been exploring a sleazy, unhealthy look to contrast with the expensive chic of the clothes. Otherwise beautiful female models sport dark bags under their eyes and a drawn, pale complexion that comes from too little sleep and not enough daylight; their male counterparts lounge around in Armani suits on the floor of a public bathroom, looking like they are having a designer overdose.

This kind of advertisement or magazine spread has become known as 'heroin chic'. The self-explanatory term comes not just from the fact that the image consultants are trying to turn the seediness of heroin addiction into a fashion statement, but also from the fact that many models and designers on the scene in New York and Los Angeles are avid users of the drug.

Although this imagery has been evident in magazines for some time, it was not until a talented 20-year-old photographer died this year that the media found itself a story. Not only was Davide Sorrenti one of the prime perpetrators of the heroin chic fashion spread, but it was an overdose of the drug that took his young life.

Last week The New York Times ran a front-page story detailing the Sorrenti case, using it as a springboard to launch into an attack on the unsavoury aspects of the drug chic which pervades the fashion world. And that is probably about as far as it would have got had a White House aide not for some reason decided to include the news story in the daily bundle of clippings given to the President to read.

Within a day, Mr Clinton changed the text of a prepared speech to a group of city mayors to denounce the trend, accusing fashion editors of 'glorifying death'.

By an ironic coincidence, the First Lady was at that moment having lunch at the White House with a group of such journalists.

Mr Clinton, who likes to play the expected presidential role of moral guardian - tobacco and TV violence are past examples - had good reason to grasp this issue: as cocaine and crack use drops, heroin is re-emerging as the nation's most fashionable drug, and South American cartels are taking over from traditional Asian suppliers in a bid to maximise profits.

Remember the Summer of Love? You know - free love, free drugs, free music festivals. Well, it turns out that the summer of 1967 is no longer quite so free. In fact, if you want to go back in time, it could well cost you.

Bill Graham Presents - the concert promotion company started by the late 1960s impresario - has applied for a patent to have exclusive rights over the phrase 'Summer of Love'.

If anyone deserves the right to lay claim to those heady days, it would certainly be Graham - who made his name (and millions of dollars) organising all those San Francisco events where famous bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane got their start.

But one has to wonder what the great man, who died a couple of years ago, would make of the unashamedly capitalist move his company is now making in terms of claiming the whole free-love movement as a legal trademark.

One person in particular is furious - a photographic gallery executive, Chet Helms, who learned of the company's move when he called them asking for help in organising an exhibition on 60s counterculture.

When Mr Helms was told he needed permission to use the phrase, he told the company to take a running jump and is going ahead anyway.

On his side is another San Francisco-based promoter who already runs a company called Summer of Love Productions International, and does not like the idea of someone else getting exclusive rights.

So if you are going to San Francisco, be sure to take a lawyer with you - along with the obligatory flower in your hair.

When it comes to legal trademarks, even the President considers himself protected. The White House last week wrote to a fast-food delivery service ordering it to stop using a Clinton impersonator in its radio ads, in which he talks about his legendary love of junk food - notably the firm's submarine sandwiches.

In a chronic display of humour failure, the President's legal counsel says it is not permitted to exploit the leader of the free world's image to promote products.

Even more bizarre: Mother Teresa's lawyers writing to another US food chain last week, asking it to stop making and marketing cinnamon buns which look like the Calcutta Samaritan's wizened old face.

Hard to imagine, but believe me, they do.