Davide Sorrenti’s photographs defined an era—and, unfairly, came to define 'Heroin Chic.’ Here, Francesca Sorrenti describes her son's bright, painful genius, and sets the record straight.
Alongside his brother Mario and peers like Glen Luchford and Harmony Korine, Davide Sorrenti captured the mad and gritty youth culture of New York, which came to define the era. In just a year and a half, the work of the previously little-known, but pivotal, ‘90s fashion photographer has been inescapable. It’s been featured in the full-length documentary See Know Evil by Charlie Curran, in the extensive exhibition Our Beutyfull Future at Camera Club Projects in New York, and now in a second edition—the first 750 copies sold out immediately—of Davide Sorrenti ArgueSKE 1994-1997 (IDEA Books). The retrospective monograph features Davide’s photographs, graffiti, tearsheets, and other ephemera, and releases at Dashwood Books in New York tonight, February 25.
Unfortunately, after his death, which was wrongfully attributed to a heroin overdose, Davide’s work unfairly came to define ‘Heroin Chic.’ What most people didn’t know was that Davide suffered from a serious illness that was rapidly deteriorating his body and caused him constant pain. “I sometimes would say, ‘Your girls always look like they’re sad,’” reflected his mother, Francesca Sorrenti, as we sat in the living room of her Downtown Brooklyn apartment a few months ago.” And he said, ‘Well I’m melancholy and that’s what I project. And sometimes it’s not even really that; it’s a dream world. I’m projecting a dream world.’”
Over our six-hour conversation, Francesca discussed Davide, raising her tight-knit family, and how one woman created such an empire of creative talent.
Paige Silveria: Tell me about your earlier years in New York.
Francesca Sorrenti: When I was 18, I ran away from home in Queens to Manhattan. I lived a crazy life; I stayed with a girlfriend for a bit who was a groupie and seeing Marty from the Jefferson Airplane. I found a job at a small club called The Scene and met a lot of groups there: Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin. At the time, some groups who were really hot played in stadiums, but mostly they played in small venues. You just hung out and partied. At Max’s Kansas City, I met Donna Jordan and I started hanging out with her and Jane Forth. At night there’d be Lou Reed or [Pablo] Picasso. It was really a scene. I was friendly with Karl Lagerfeld, who was a young guy in his 20s, and Antonio Lopez.
I had met Andy [Warhol] at The Scene and he invited me down to The Factory, but it was too crazy for me. I’ve always been on the outskirts. I wasn’t too wild. I always thought I’d write a book called, What’s A Good Catholic Schoolgirl Like You Doing In A Place Like This? I’m not religious, but I went to Catholic school and have all of those fears. [Laughs] You don’t think about it; you’re just fearful. It’s in the back of your mind: ‘Oh, I’m not going there! It’s not going to end well.’
Paige: You also spent time in Italy?
Francesca: Since I was 11, we’d go to Italy in the summertime. My mother inherited all this property from her father. We’d go down to Naples, Capri, or the little town that my mother was brought up in. It’s funny because my mother was so chic and glamorous when she was young, but the town she grew up in was so small.
Paige: Where did she get it from?
Francesca: It was in her blood! Her family was extremely wealthy. I remember when I first walked into my grandmother’s place, there were these huge 30-foot wooden doors pushing open into the courtyard. She had this huge terrace. Below the house, all of the workers who served her lived. She didn’t even have running water. Every day they would bring her cauldrons up for the kitchen and bathroom. In America, we were used to taking showers every day. So we’d be on the terrace with the cauldrons taking baths. People would say, ‘If you take a bath every day, you’ll die.’ They didn’t really have schooling. So there were these two worlds: up on top at the castle and then down at the bottom, where it was so poor.
Paige: When did you meet your first husband?
Francesca: I met Ricardo, who’s the father of my three kids, one summer while I was there. He came from a very well-to-do family of builders and architects. We had a great life in Italy. It was a great time to be in Europe. Here we were, these funky parents dressing unusually. When Mario was born, he came out of the hospital wearing these old jean overalls I’d found. In fashion, everything was new.
Paige: What did you do for work?
Francesca: I had my own little jean shop that I was forced to close, because I got robbed all the time because it was Naples. [Laughs] And then I was offered a job at Fiorucci, which was a mega company. They allowed me to work out of Naples because I had kids. I’d go to Milan maybe once a week. Those were the days when you could get on the plane, literally, if the steps were still attached.
Paige: What was it like working for Fiorucci back then?
Francesca: I was there [from] ’73 until 1980 and it was amazing. In the beginning I was in charge of designing recycled denim. We were a team of friends, a community. It wasn’t just about making clothes; it was about going to the store, meeting the customers, doing the window dressing. We were never exhausted. We were always laughing. I remember once getting kicked out of this big fashion convention for ready-to-wear. In the ’70s, fashion shows were only for couture. And at these conventions, the big companies would build these huge closed-off rooms, so you couldn’t see their designs. Once, with my American accent, I pretended to be a buyer from Chicago and snuck in. My friends had put this big sticker on my back saying, ‘I’m with Fiorucci.’ I had maybe three-to-five minutes to look at everything before someone noticed the sign on my back and I was escorted out of the building. Everyone was clapping for me, because we were all spies. It was fun. Then I changed my outfit and put a hat on and went back in through another entrance.
Paige: When was Davide born?
Francesca: In 1976. At the time, they didn’t know much about the illness, Thalassemia. It was rampant in Italy; it’s a Mediterrean disease. Those with the illness weren’t living long at the time. A transfusion at the time only lasted a week. I was devastated.
Paige: How old was he when he was diagnosed?
Francesca: He was a year and one month, and he was on his deathbed. I was in Africa and I had this horrible dream; I knew that something was wrong and that I had to call home. It was like mother’s intuition. So I called and my mother said that Davide wasn’t well. So I flew back from Algiers. I looked at him and I didn’t want to believe it, but it popped into my head that he had Thalassemia. It was really hard, bringing Davide back to life and dealing with it. Bringing him to the hospital and doing so much. I went back to Fiorucci and just fell out of love. I wanted to go home to New York. I didn’t want to be there anymore. And there were other factors too.
Paige: What were they?
Francesca: Well my husband and I had broken up two years prior. I would have acquired, as I got older, a reputation as a divorcee. People would tell me I had to be more womanly and settle down. ‘Stop dressing like a freak. Take care of your kids.’ There was still a lot of classism back then, especially in Naples. When you come from a well-to-do family, you stay that way; you don’t mingle. At some point you put on that pleated skirt and the twinset. Be a proper woman. But then I would come to New York for work. And there was Studio 54 and Xenon, shiny stretch pants and sequin tops. And I’d take Davide with me sometimes to go to the hospitals here. People would tell me, ‘You have children? You’re too young!’ In America I was too young and in Italy I was too old. Being separated, you have every male neighbor knocking on your door asking, ‘Do you need any help?’— just the Italian way. ‘No I don’t need help.’ And so I decided to just go home. I didn’t see a good future for my kids. And then Davide, there [were more treatment options] for his illness in the States.
Paige: What was treatment like for him in Europe?
Francesca: I had gotten together this Thalassemia committee to get more progress for the illness. I would bring them news from New York, where one of the best centers was. In Naples, I used to see parents from the rural areas come into the hospital with six kids, and three had Thalassemia. They wouldn’t be transfused in time, so they’d start to be deformed. If you don’t get the blood, your extremities grow longer, your face distorts. I’ll never forget being at the hospital just after he was diagnosed and seeing all of these children that were so disproportionate. I went into the bathroom and banged my head on the wall. I cracked my skull. That’s how freaked out I was. It was a very hard time. But it gave me strength. It all made me stronger.
Paige: After moving to New York, you worked at a coffee shop for a while and did other odd jobs. Then your first job in fashion was styling?
Francesca: Where you made your money as a stylist then was through catalogs. They were like books. If you wanted to find out about an outfit, you’d go to the credits in the back. I did really well with it. This woman who hired me, she thought I had all of this experience working in Italy. She says, ‘You know it really doesn’t pay much; it’s only $500 a day. $800 for the shoot.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh shit!’ I went to the coffee shop and said, ‘Fuck you,’ and threw my dress at the owner; they were so vile. So things got better and we moved to a bigger apartment on E 16th Street. I met my current partner, Steve. We’ve been together ever since.
Paige: What were your kids up to?
Francesca: Mario became a fashion model. Davide started to dress real cool like his brother. This was before grunge had hit. Johnny Depp had this TV show, 21 Jump Street. Davide was 13 and he resembled Johnny Depp; he emulated him. He’d do his hair like him. He always had a knack for style. Then the ’90s came along. Mario had a girlfriend then named Kate Moss, a nobody, just a young girl. They were in love. The story is that he brought her over to stay with us at our apartment. He was doing a job for Interview, his first magazine [assignment]. He told them that he’d like to use his girlfriend. Joe Mckenna said, ‘No.’ But Mario convinced him. And that was Kate’s first exposure. There are so many stories about this, but this is the real one. From there, their careers really started. Davide was very influenced by his older brother. And they were still very close. Of course there were fights; ‘You touched my film! Fuck!’ Davide started experimenting. He started walking around with a camera. He wasn’t feeling well. Unfortunately, by the time he was 18, his bones were that of an 80-year-old. He suffered a lot in his back, his legs, his stomach. But he never said anything. Then he started to smoke a lot of weed. He said it made him feel so good when he smoked, so I allowed him. It helped him with his pain.
Paige: What was your first photo job?
Francesca: In the ’90s Mario told me to pick up a camera, so I did. I was really lucky because I had all of this experience from all of the different things I’d done. Mario said, ‘Ma, you’re such a player. You’re always workin’ it.’ My first job was a catalogue for Macy’s. Patrick Demarchelier usually did it. And they gave it to me, this mega catalogue. I freaked out. It turned out amazing. It was their best-selling catalogue ever. This is when department stores were mega. Steven Meisel was an art director there, at Macy’s. There are a lot of things people don’t know about the past; they just get to the glamour part of fashion. And then all of a sudden there was this whole grunge movement going on and drugs started to come into the scene.
Paige: When did drugs begin to change things?
Francesca: It’s really nobody’s fault. We had the ‘60s; there was Woodstock, pot, Haight-Ashbury, communes, hippies. It was a global youth movement. In the ’90s, it was the youth within the fashion industry. Kids were coming in from London and getting hired by Americans because they’re English—I don’t think we ever detached ourselves from loving the English. And they were bringing a lot of drugs with them. The well-to-do European kids always had a problem with heroin. In Naples, I had friends who did heroin that were very wealthy. It was the rich man’s drug. But there was this whole movement. We were about to come out of the recession. And these kids came in with all of these great ideas, this kind of photography and way of dressing. Fashion was unfashion. Girls didn’t have to wash their hair; they didn’t have to wear makeup. They could just wear their clothes any way that they wanted to.
Paige: Was there a nihilistic bent?
Francesca: It was just out of control. You’d go to modeling agencies and all of the bookers were kids. And all of the people, I don’t want to name names, but a lot of the designers and company owners, since the recession of ‘89, had been going under. So they were giving free reign to bring business back: ‘Wow, this is amazing. Go on a trip. Shoot whatever you want.’ It was all about Kurt Cobain and Nan Goldin, these tortured souls. People became idols, and justly. Kurt’s music was fabulous. Nan’s pictures are beautiful. But the kids wanted to be her and she had issues. Kurt kills himself, and now suicide is cool. You would say to a kid, ‘You’re going to die.’ And they say, ‘Oh well, Kurt died.’
Paige: How did your kids cope with it?
Francesca: Davide would come home sometimes and say, ‘Hey ma, you have to help this girl who’s on drugs.’ I started to see girls on set who were wasted and I knew it wasn’t pot. I sent girls home. I called their mothers. I sent kids to rehab. And then Davide met James [King]. They fell in love. James had her problem. But you know, they never did heroin together. Never. She was very aware of how sick he was. Davide tried to help her. It didn’t work. They always fought. They loved each other. They were so in-tune. Then one day in August of ‘96, he ends up in the hospital. I found out later that the real culprit wasn’t heroin; it was half a pill of Oxycodone. Anything he did, it was minimum. He’d only have a pill here and there, because he took a long time to recoup. He had the body of an 80-year-old. He had osteoporosis. He had liver deterioration. So he knew he couldn’t overdo it. But then he tried heroin, and ended up in the hospital again. No one knew about the Oxycodone.
Paige: That must have been so scary. He was so young and yet had all of these constraints.
Francesca: Towards the end he was very heartbroken. He just didn’t know where he was heading. And he didn’t feel well. He became a little lax with his transfusions. It just snowballed, the whole thing. But to talk about his talent, to call it ‘Heroin Chic’? Really? I was over his body saying, ‘This is not cool. This is not chic.’ And then Ingrid Sischy calls it ‘Heroin Chic.’ Years later I was at Zac Posen’s—at the time he was a student at Central Saint Martins and Vanina was staying with him and they invited me to visit. Zac was fabulous and had these amazing fashion books. He had this one encyclopedia of fashion. I was looking in the back for Mario’s name. And they had Davide’s name and it says, ‘Davide Sorrenti, ended the era of Heroin Chic.’ And, well, that is a true statement. Kids were dying of overdose. People were dying of suicide. It got really dark. But it didn’t start that way. It started with a sense of freedom. We can do what we want. But society cannot survive in anarchy. So few of us know how to be civilized and be moderate. If we were, it would be utopia. But we’re not. And unfortunately that’s the way it is. I just happen to have three very talented kids who were sponges and voyeurs like their mother and father and stepfather.