Last month, Nordstrom made the call to pull Jeremy Scott’s pill-centric Moschino capsule collection (get it? Capsule collection?) after shoppers complained that it glamorizes opioid addiction. The decision felt like an acquiescence to a more conservative segment of America, or a return to the Reagan-era "Just Say No" environment, as Scott’s "Valley of the Dolls"-inspired designs were only the latest in a long history of designers taking inspiration from drug culture.
In 1999, for instance, Andrew Groves really went for it with his runway show entitled "Cocaine Nights," in which he covered the runway with a white powder and put models in dresses constructed of stainless-steel razor blades. Then there was the popular "heroin chic" look of the '90s — hollowed-out cheeks, smudged eyeliner and fearsomely skinny models — best exemplified by a young Kate Moss. And, now, it seems that designers are turning to drugs for artistic inspiration more than ever: Vetements’s lighter heels, Hood by Air’s BIC lighter earrings, Marc Jacobs’s raver-inspired Spring 2017 show and Alexander Wang's fall 2016 collection with profuse marijuana leaf motifs are leading the trend.
Which raises the question: What exactly is behind fashion's addiction to drugs, both on and off the runway?
As far as public opinion goes, fashion and drugs go together better than crop tops and high-waisted shorts. There’s the perception that behind the curtain of every runway show is a schizophrenic mess of makeup artists, designers and models maintaining their light figures and hefty partying with a smorgasbord of substances. Which, let’s be real, isn't entirely unfounded. It'd be hard to write the biography of many of fashion's most respected players without mentioning some personal battle with substance abuse. John Galliano, Naomi Campbell, Coco Chanel… the list goes on and on. We both romanticize and admonish the convoluted role drugs play in the fashion system (proven by the near reverence of Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow after their suicides, which followed very public battles with drug and alcohol addiction). We idolized Kate Moss for popularizing the "heroin chic" look in the '90s, but attacked her when she was caught on camera doing cocaine in a club... and readily embraced her again not long after. (With the exception of Galliano losing his job, few fashion personalities have suffered any real consequences from their experimentation with drugs.)
The controversy surrounding Moschino’s latest collection hit after Randy Anderson, an alcohol and drug counselor in Minneapolis, started an online petition with over 2,000 signatures demanding that Saks and Nordstrom remove the capsule collection from their stores. Anderson called the collection "an insult to all the mothers who call him each week to say they lost a child from a prescription drug overdose." Saks still stocks the collection, while Nordstrom, which initially refused to remove the collection, soon gave into the pleas. "We've heard from some customers about this collection, and we're sorry to learn they’re disappointed," Nordstrom told Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Every customer we serve has unique tastes, which is why we offer a wide range of products. We're one of several retailers offering this collection and we can't speak on behalf of the designer or their intentions."
Interestingly enough, Nordstrom is still in the drug business — stocking Wang's marijuana motif pieces. Wang somehow, someway turned the grassy pattern revered by frat bros and slapped on everything from tube socks to frisbees into a chic, LES-ready design, a strong example of trickle-up theory. BIC lighter earrings and heels, 24K-gold joint holders, cigarette carton phone cases… everything about "lighting up" has become fashionable. Further appropriating the attire of Taco Bell's biggest demographic, Saint Laurent released a $900 Baja hoodie, turning couch-potato garb into luxury fashion. Wang, always a clairvoyant, could not have embossed marijuana leaves on $600 grained leather at a better time, especially with California and Massachusetts legalizing the recreational use of marijuana last week. With support for weed legalization over 50 percent among Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, weed is obviously a safe enough bet for Nordstrom, which happens to be based in the very weed-friendly Seattle, WA.
If anything, drug-centric pieces like the "Just Say Moschi-NO" shirt seem more like an appeal to irony-loving millennials — a generation that grew up under heavy-handed, scare tactic-filled anti-drug campaigns, to only end up wearing vintage D.A.R.E. T-shirts while passing a joint. Scott has always used Moschino to comment on the seedy, undeniable truths of modern Western culture: our obsession with consumption, the ubiquity of brands, slogans and packaging, nostalgia for childhood, etc. His capsule collection only continues the trend, commenting on the over-medicated society we live in. According to a U.S. News report, 61 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug a day; the "Just Say No" campaign is largely regarded as a failure; and "Valley of the Dolls," with its tragic pill-centric plot lines, has always possessed a cult following. (The collection was also simply a play on words: The spring 2017 Moschino runway show featured models made to look like paper dolls, wearing outfits with white tabs sticking out.) The people who complain Scott’s collection glamorizes and normalizes prescription-drug addiction are missing his point exactly: prescription-drug culture has already been glamorized and normalized ad nauseam.
The outrage surrounding Moschino's capsule collection calls to mind the furor "heroin chic" sparked in the '90s. Back then, there was an intense fight against drug use and drug trafficking, led by President Bill Clinton. Interestingly enough, it was also a golden era of drug-centric media. "Trainspotting," which starred Ewan McGregor and focused on youths' heroin addiction, was insanely popular. All across the news were sensationalized reports of heroin becoming "trendy" among youngsters (as the drug had become purer and, dare we say, "safer"). Fashion, always one to follow trends, thus appropriated the look of a drug addict.
As with many things concerning high fashion, the general public just didn’t get it. The outrage reached such a boiling point that the White House even weighed in on the aesthetic. "You do not need to glamorize addiction to sell clothes," President Clinton said in the summer of 1997. "The glorification of heroin is not creative; it's destructive. It's not beautiful; it's ugly. And this is not about art; it's about life and death. And glorifying death is not good for any society."
That same year, Davide Sorrenti — a prominent fashion photographer whose brother Mario is still an industry favorite — died of an overdose, and fashion responded. Brands begun to adopt a healthier, fuller look with their models; the explosion of Gisele Bundchen onto the scene the best example of this pivot.
"Clearly people were upset by 'heroin chic,' and people accused me of it," Calvin Klein admitted to the New York Times in a 1998 interview. "We thought it was creative, but it was perceived as drug addicts and messy. People don't want that now." And now, 18 years later, some people still don't, as evidenced by Scott's latest collection. The question is really whether or not the designer cares
Save for a cute Chanel tweed suit, high fashion is rarely conservative. When designers like Raf Simons plaster an erect penis on their jackets, you have to wonder if the real mission is not to sell clothes, but to make all of Middle America clutch their pearls. Whether it's queerness, gender fluidity, sex or recreational drug use, fashion has (and always will be) a space to challenge the norm, giggling in between cigarette puffs as conservatives squirm in their seats. As marijuana legalization becomes ever more popular, it’s likely the weed motifs will slowly become square and designers like Wang will be move on to harder drugs. Hey, Fox News, maybe you were right about the "gateway drug" theory all along.