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Heroin chic was a look popularized in mid-1990s fashion and characterized by pale skin, dark circles underneath the eyes and angular bone structure. The look, characterised by emaciated features and androgyny, was a reaction against the "healthy" and vibrant look of models such as Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer. A 1996 article in the Los Angeles Times stated that the fashion industry had "a nihilistic vision of beauty" that was reflective of drug addiction and the U.S. News and World Report called the movement a "cynical trend".
At the time during which heroin chic emerged, the popular image of heroin was changing for several reasons. The price of heroin had decreased, and its purity had increased dramatically. In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic had made injecting heroin with unclean needles increasingly risky. Available heroin had become more pure, and inhalation became a more common mode of heroin use.
These changes decreased the stigma surrounding the drug, allowing heroin to find a new market among the middle-class and the wealthy, in contrast to its previous base of the poor and marginalized. Heroin infiltrated pop culture through attention brought to addictions in the early 1990s. In film, the heroin chic trend in fashion coincided with a string of movies in the mid‑1990s—such as The Basketball Diaries, Trainspotting, Kids, Permanent Midnight, and Pulp Fiction—that examined heroin use and drug culture.
This waifish, emaciated, and drug-addicted look was the basis of the 1993 advertising campaign of Calvin Klein featuring Kate Moss. Film director and actor Vincent Gallo contributed to the development of the image through his Calvin Klein fashion shoots.
The trend eventually faded, in part due to the drug-related death of prominent fashion photographer Davide Sorrenti. Sorrenti fell in love with teenage model and heroin addict Jaime King, and began abusing substances himself. Vulnerable due to a lifelong blood disorder, Sorrenti died in 1997 after an injection of an amount that was "not normally considered unusual". In 1999 Vogue dubbed Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen "The Return of the Sexy Model" and the beginning of a new era.
Heroin chic fashion drew much criticism, especially from anti-drug groups. Fashion designers, models such as Kate Moss and Jaime King, and movies such as Trainspotting were blamed for glamorizing heroin use. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton condemned the look. Other commentators denied that fashion images made drug use itself more attractive. "There is no reason to expect that people attracted to the look promoted by Calvin Klein and other advertisers... will also be attracted to heroin, any more than suburban teen-agers who wear baggy pants and backward caps will end up shooting people from moving cars", wrote Jacob Sullum in Reason magazine.