In the late ’90s, supermodel Kate Moss popularized “heroin chic,” a fashion style based around grunge. Today, Cathleen DaCosta ‘10 has repurposed the phrase, turning it from a glamorization of drug addiction into a slogan raising awareness for the opioid epidemic.
At the 2016 New York Fashion Week, DaCosta launched Heroin Is Not Chic, HINC, an organization generating awareness of the worsening opioid epidemic by creating t-shirts and other products. DaCosta employs photographers, bloggers, and designers to aid in the organization’s grassroots social media campaign and share pictures wearing the shirts on their accounts.
“[Fashion Week] is a time when people in the community get together and express themselves through art and music and fashion,” DaCosta said. “[HINC] was expressing ourselves in launching these shirts. I thought it was a poignant time and an appropriate platform.”
DaCosta started HINC with money she raised from a Kickstarter. She used the donations to print the first round of tees.
Following the launch of the shirts, the organization expanded into creating pins and stencils embossed with their slogan, which are available on the HINC website.
More than 115 Americans die every day from overdosing on opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Prescription overdoses combined with synthetic opioid and heroin usage account for the consistent rise in opioid-related deaths since the late 1990s.
HINC is a grassroots nonprofit, meaning the movement will grow as people become interested, share images containing the products, and spread the word about the organization and cause, DaCosta said.
“It is making [addiction] less fashionable and creating a billboard of what this really is,” DaCosta said. “[The goal] is to get people to notice.”
DaCosta said it’s difficult to manage the time and education necessary to choose a mission to support, especially with an issue that affects many people.
“For some stores and designers, it can be hard to put that [slogan] on your chest or wear it on your sleeve,” DaCosta said. “[Heroin is Not Chic is] really important to say and to know because it’s affecting us all.”
As DaCosta worked as a freelance public relations worker for various fashion companies in New York City, she saw that she had not escaped the opioid usage present in her hometown.
“I grew up in Burlington, Vermont, which is a beautiful town, but growing up there, [the epidemic] rattles our community,” DaCosta said. “There are young people who are hugely affected by it.”
The opioid problem in her hometown caused her continued awareness of the epidemic in New York City.
“What I was realizing was this huge epidemic that was affecting all forms of our community,” DaCosta said. “That’s really the [HINC] motto: that there is no face of heroin, it faces us all. It’s a huge epidemic that’s affecting all colors, all shapes, all sizes, and we really need to talk about it.”
Hélène Heath is an influencer and freelance model whom DaCosta contacted while working to circulate photos of her shirts.
“In the ’90s, heroin chic became a thing that was the cool look
, and looking like you didn’t try and were kind of a hot mess was fashionable,” Heath said. “This is changing now, but there is this pressure to look emaciated, which is something along the lines of heroin chic.”
Heath is featured as a model on the HINC Instagram and has posted photos of the shirt on her blog. She has been steadily gaining a following since she began blogging in 2011 and now stands with 11,000 Instagram followers.
“Social media is probably the most effective communication tool of the modern era,” Heath said. “It’s such an important marketing tool that all kinds of brands and people use and because it is so pervasive, it’s effective and you can reach many people who you wouldn’t reach otherwise.”
Fashion designer Prabal Gurung posed in the shirt, which was an exciting moment for DaCosta.
“[Gurung] is very inspiring and is known in the fashion community as somebody who takes risks and stands up for what he believes in,” DaCosta said. “He’s not worried about sales. He cares about doing the right thing.”
As word has spread through social media and DaCosta’s contacts within the fashion industry, more people have wanted to help with the organization’s mission.
“People have been reaching out and showing interest, and that’s really how we’re propelling forward,” DaCosta said.