The essence of ‘cool’ is notoriously elusive, but as a general rule, it constitutes a sense of insouciance, imperturbability and rejection of any association to such a label. Essentially, anyone in possession of it simply must not care. Enter River Phoenix – undoubtedly one of the coolest public personas of the 20th Century and a bona fide style icon, who exemplified a new wave of ‘unstyled’ casualwear.
Despite tragically succumbing to a drug overdose in 1993 aged just 23, Phoenix’s style endures, and he continues to inform a certain ideal associated with unpretentiousness and authenticity. His nonchalant approach to style, rebellious spirit and premature death sees him oft heralded a 90s James Dean, but the legacy of the actor, activist and musician goes far beyond this reductive comparison. As the poster-boy for grunge, Phoenix didn’t just embody the zeitgeist of his era, but spearheaded it, unintentionally for that matter. With tousled, unkempt hair and a laidback uniform consisting primarily of T-shirts and jeans, he was what James Truman, Editor-in-Chief of the now defunct Details magazine termed “un fashion”. He didn’t mean to infiltrate our sartorial consciousness and we can only imagine his discomfort and bemusement at the incessant examination of his wardrobe, but it is precisely this attitude that garnered him so many devotees in the first place.
Phoenix’s distinctive way of dressing – that thrown-together, verging-on-scruffy look – was developed fortuitously in his formative years, the result of growing up in straitened circumstances. Born to hippy parents who named him River Jude – River for Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and Jude for ‘Hey Jude’ – Phoenix’s upbringing was colourful to say the least. His family were members of the controversial Children of God cult and lived in Venezuela as missionaries, before escaping to Florida, where the Phoenix siblings sang on street corners for money. As they struggled to even afford food, they had little choice but to accept hand-me-downs. “Rich kids gave us their old clothes, which were the best clothes we had ever had,” he told the New York Times. “We were these very pure, naïve, poor children.”