Exploring how the 19th-century poet influenced River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain, and Hedi Slimane.
By the time he was 21, Arthur Rimbaud had vividly, violently reinvented poetry. He was an enfant terrible in every sense of the term. At 15, he had developed a lifelong habit for running away from home, and for breaking things—furniture, family heirlooms, even a notable marriage. He had a cherubic face and self-described “white-blue eyes”; he grew his hair long and “scummy” because he felt it would help him “reach the unknown by the derangement of all senses.”
The patron saint of lovesick teens, Rimbaud’s sensibilities resonate more than ever in a world that can seem so sterile and loveless. Streetwear, once the preserve of outsider youth, often feels like a passionless commodity, as can love once it’s become digitized, monetized. It’s increasingly easy to live within the pixels of social media and dating apps, taking no real risks when it comes to love. Yet by referencing the fashion of Rimbaud, it becomes possible for anyone to bring decadent romanticism into their modern everyday.
21st century fashion’s preeminent enfant terrible, Hedi Slimane, referenced Rimbaud in one of his first ever collections. The designer’s Dior Homme Spring 2002 collection was titled “Boys Don’t Cry,” and in the program notes, Slimane included the final stanza of the Rimbaud poem “Le Dormeur du Val.” The poem is about a beautiful young soldier lying in the grass, a pure vision of peace. In that final Slimane-selected stanza, Rimbaud reveals the soldier actually has two red holes in his side—that despite having a childlike smile on his face, and sun all over his skin, he’s already been killed.
The poem works perfectly for Slimane’s collection, which is full of teen spirit, shirtless models, and varying motifs of violence. Most memorably, there were gunshot wounds embroidered over the heart of several dress shirts, dripping in red sequins—love wounds on these boys who don’t cry. This bloody, violent heartache seeps through Slimane’s work. It’s that visualization of not knowing how to articulate young heartbreak because it’s so overwhelming, so apocalyptic. As Rimbaud wrote, when still a teenager, “Idle youth, enslaved to everything; by being too sensitive I have wasted my life.”
Another champion of the ruggedly elegant rebel aesthetic, Ann Demeulemeester, has cited Rimbaud as an inspiration throughout her career—with poetry inspiring her moody punk suiting as much as rock music. The designer’s Spring 2012 collection focused on the dejected, nomadic journey of Rimbaud once he’d quit writing altogether. After Rimbaud completed his final work, he’d traveled three continents, most significantly Africa, and most usually barefoot. The poet was shell-shocked from a violent love affair, and had become disgusted with the Parisian society he was once so determined to be a part of. It’s Rimbaud’s characteristic restlessness that Demeulemeester enshrines in one of the final chapters of her own artistic journey (she stepped down from her label in 2013).
It’s arguable that its Rimbaud’s restlessness—his way of rebelling against every system he encountered—inspired these artists just as much as his actual poetry did.
Infamously sensitive actor River Phoenix carried Henry Miller’s biography on Rimbaud everywhere in the years leading up to his own untimely death. “For River to discover himself in Rimbaud’s life and Miller’s prose was simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-pitying,” writes Gavin Edwards in Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind. “Tellingly, he was more interested in Miller’s book than in Rimbaud’s actual writing: he responded to Rimbaud not as a poet, but as a symbol.” River was revered for his style; at odds with his own heartthrob image. He had hoped to portray Rimbaud in a biopic that went on to star a 19-year-old Leo DiCaprio.
So many influential artists have been struck by Rimbaud—punk icon Richard Hell reviewed a biography on him for The New York Times; Mapplethorpe made a collection of photos inspired by A Season in Hell; Kurt Cobain counted him as a favorite poet, with Courtney reading poems from Illuminations at his funeral. But perhaps no artist has been more influenced by Rimbaud than our punk-poet laureate Patti Smith. She’d first met him when she stole a copy of Illuminations from a bus station when she was 16, her eyes reaching his “haughty gaze” from the cover. The photo she described is one of the only ones that’s survived, taken by Etienne Carjat in December 1871, when Rimbaud was 17. He can be seen wearing a pale vest, a dark suit – his typical dandy’s cravat tied around his neck.
If Rimbaud were alive today, what would he look like? How would he dress? How would he feel if he was young, jaded, and in love in 2019? How would the queer poet’s famous assertion that “we must be absolutely modern” fit into now?
I’m almost the age Rimbaud was when he wrote his final poems, and those are the questions that cross my mind all the time. As I pick out a white dress shirt for my day, as I write out a new idea on the subway. Rimbaud’s urgent romanticism has inspired every generation of artists since he stopped writing in 1873, and he’s become an underrated fashion icon, too. Despite not being widely appreciated for it, Rimbaud’s style has become a blueprint for our best artists, from Morrison to Cobain. He may have burnt out at 21, but his adolescent influence has no sign of fading away.