Pin It
heroin chic
via Instagram (@guccisamo)

How ketamine chic became the new heroin chic

It’s cool to dress like an unwashed urchin, emerging from the landfill of consumer culture like a blabbering Minion

Trends are dead! Long live trends! People don’t know what to wear! But wear this! TikTok trends are fake! But not Indie Sleaze! Blokecore! Barbiecore! Namecore! Trendcore!1!!@!!!

This is what happens when you spend too much time on websites, where the language of trend reporting has completely buckled in on itself. In April, fashion critic Rachel Tashijan described the whole thing as a “mass psychosis”, citing the internet’s feverish attempt to funnel algorithmic junk into deep and meaningful categories. This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon – magazines have always made outsized statements about fashion fads – it’s just that they are now competing with thinkfluencers, TikTok essayists, and Substackers to coin phrases like “Vibe Shift” in order to cash-out on clicks and send 30-something Twitter into a meltdown. Trend, and fashion more generally, is about so much more than being the first to identify the next big thing – which is almost always a mirage, fading as quickly as it’s labelled.

The real issue is that people seem to have forgotten what the word “trend” actually means, how it moves with and against culture, creating networks of taste and ideology. This can be hard to distinguish when there’s just so much culture happening at once, but in London, young people are beginning to clamber out of the chaotic consumer landscape: grubby scene kids and ragtag meme-merchants living on a diet of Elf bars, Monster, and SoundCloud rap. Musicians like Luke Blovad, designers like James Wallace who treat Minions as muses, tacking their turgid little bodies onto all-swamping hoodies. Teens adorned with Eurotrash truckers, wraparound sunnies, anthropomorphic plushie-hats, airbrushed sweaters, camouflage mini skirts, sharpied jeans, and Spongebob tees. They are the feral love children of Chief Keef and Trisha Paytas, destined for greatness but slumped into a barbiturate haze in front of South Park. 

“My style is meta-ironic, ketamine chic, Pinterest vibes,” says @oatmilkandcodeine. “Truthfully, I don’t think about it that much but I feel like it’s about making what is traditionally seen as ugly appealing”. A stew of early web references, thrifted grunge, lowbrow cartoon characters, and “anything obnoxious or fake is always good,” @babydoublecup says. “I’ll find things at carboot sales and markets, I just enjoy wearing things I find funny. I don’t pay much attention to fashion on social media – watching the Tumblr and Coachella era on YouTube probably contributed the most to how I dress.” Born in the early 2000s, these kids reclaim the kind of fashion that millennials would write-off as embarrassing: UGGs, COMME des FUCKDOWN caps, Starbucks merch, and Patrick Star pyjamas. “I’ve always loved Starbies, shopping, and texting boys. It’s just fun to be purposefully cringe because then it’s harder to do so accidentally.” There’s a thin line between BoredApe and AngryBirds, but it’s one that Ketamine Chic knowingly treads.

‘I approach life as a joke. The way we consume is never going to make us happy, so being able to find the irony in all of it will make you enlightened’ – @oatmilkandcodeine

All of that “cringe” trickles down to the language of Ketamine Chic, too, its figureheads repeating “X_X” and “epic cool” back to each other like they’re chatting on a Web 1.0 chatroom. “2010s swag is just swag,” @oatmilkandcodeine says. “It feels so wrong to be nostalgic for that time but also so right.” That fashion trends have sped up is one of the biggest myths propagating style writing. Andrew Luecke, the author of COOL: Style, Sound, and Subversion, has said “for trends that come back based on nostalgia, there still seems to be a ten-year cycle in place.” There’s some wiggle room, of course, but it generally takes four years for a look to make it into the mainstream, where it then peaks for two years before down-trending and tailing off for another four. The breathlessness with which digital media reports on trends might give the appearance of an accelerated cycle, but if anything, trends are now calcified into permanence. And, almost ten years since Smosh went viral, Ketamine Chic is right on time. As Luecke argues, it’s the access to information that has gone into overdrive, “crystallising trends into tiny separate fractals going nowhere.” 

In turn, this has fuelled a mash-up culture where the aesthetics of disparate eras and social tribes are megamixed almost endlessly. So we have the 2010s redux of 90s tattoo chokers alongside 00s mini bags, Etnies sneakers, hirsute Harajuku boots, and Snapchat’s dog filter. The overall impact is less retina-burning and more brain-melting – much like the turbo-saturated, charred effects applied to Ketamine Chic photography, parodying the laboured uploads of early Instagrammers with arm’s length selfies, a deep-fried patina, and fish-eye lenses. There’s a sense of nihilism to it all; the no-rules, everything-at-once, chuck-it-on-the-bonfire-and-watch-it-glisten outlook. “I approach life as a joke. The way we consume is never going to make us happy, so being able to find the irony in all of it will make you enlightened. Embrace the meme. In fact, make everything a meme because everything is a joke,” @oatmilkandcodiene says. 

I like buying the stupidest things I can find from shopping malls because I have a morbid fascination with how senseless and confusing consumer culture is@guccisamo

“I like buying the stupidest things I can find from shopping malls because I have a morbid fascination with how senseless and confusing consumer culture is,” @guccisamo adds. “I’m quite overwhelmed with all the different eras and styles that I have unlimited access to, I almost feel exhausted by trying to do it all. I feel like Ketamine Chic is a comfort-based response to the overwhelming abundance of media and culture that we are exposed to daily.” So these people travel back through the landfill of the last decade, picking through its detritus only to find their once-loved belongings jumbled, scorched, but familiar. The cute becomes sinister. Ultimately, subcultures provide webs of meaning for people when the world gives them little else and Ketamine Chic has grown from emergent club nights like Swagchella, Yassification party, and Trash Pharmacy – which all service the same micro-scene. “That music scene relies on a kind of satirical and drug-induced approach to fashion. A lot of it’s born out of emo culture, where everyone is an outcast anyway, so people feel free to dress as weirdly as they want.”

“These nights are really the best place for challenging what’s acceptable to wear,” @guccisamo says. As one of the proponents of Ketamine Chic, and a regular performer at Swagchella, last season he was asked to join Balenciaga’s troupe of misshapen models, walking alongside Bella Hadid and Hansi Schmidt through a man-made snow globe. But his image could be mapped on the other runways, too, where plenty of clothes came torn, tattered, and stained. Almost everything at Acne Studios was overdyed, like Ketamine Chic’s signature box-coloured hairdo, Martine Rose mirrored its penchant for tattered caps and goofy t-shirts, while Diesel, Demna, and Mowalola gave us Eurotrash branding alongside janky memes, and Collina Strada threw dresses over jeans with scene kid insouciance. And then there’s Lotta Volkova’s preternatural Instagram grid, Crocs, and emerging brands like the grotty 8Palms, VENICEW’s googly-eyed shoulder bags, Fidan Novruzova and its troll-like mules, and 25FNYC’s internet-flavoured accessories (all Live Laugh Lobotomy bags and communist g-strings).

‘Minions’ dumbfoundedness at life speaks to me, I think that’s why they are so relatable’ –  @oatmilkandcodeine

It’s not that there’s some kind of mystic feedback loop between the fashion houses and this rabble of teenagers but the venn diagram does appear to be closing in. Still, we don’t need to legitimise Ketamine Chic’s unkempt aesthetic by claiming some designer is doing the same in Paris, because unlike its predecessor Heroin Chic, it’s aligned with internet – not runway – literacy. In fact, it actively corrodes fashion’s obsession with being Serious and Cool, with the figure of Kate Moss glitching into a Minion as if she were part of a ketaminic brain malfunction. And that Ketamine Chic has appointed a mascot in a blabbering, yellow alien says it all. “Their dumbfoundedness at life speaks to me, I think that’s why they are so relatable,” @oatmilkandcodeine says. But they’re also a celebration of artifice, a life in which everything – even fashion trends – are considered fake. Then again, perhaps it’s best to just “embrace the meme”.