in search of river phoenix's thrift store mystique

Writer Alex Frank on looking for realness in Carhartt jackets and damaged Dr. Martens.

by Alex Frank
28 December 2016, 3:35pm

Our favorite writers muse on their muses as we bring back the "My i-Con" essay series for the second year in a row. From Grimes to Grace Jones, read every heartfelt ode to personal style here

Our favorite writers muse on their muses as we bring back the "My i-Con" essay series for the second year in a row. From Grimes to Grace Jones, read every heartfelt ode to personal style here.

Many of us aspire to a life of freedom, but few of us know how to live one. So, at least, we can look the part. I've been trying to look like River Phoenix ever since, as a college student, I first saw him in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, about a decade and a half after its original 1991 release. Phoenix plays Mike, a gay hustler and roamer in and around Portland, Oregon, who heads out on a road trip with a mentor figure played by Keanu Reeves. Phoenix is physically everything I was not: gangly, feline, blonde, and, most importantly, in possession of a kind of cool carelessness that has stuck with me ever since. By then, I was roughly the same age that Mike was in the movie, but I had chosen a more bourgeois path of academic stability. Though Phoenix was as beautiful in real life as he was in the film, it's when I saw him in this particular context, listless and emotional and dressed with thrift store ease, that I suspected that there might be more and maybe even better options than the ones I had chosen.

In the movie, Mike wears shearling-lined denim, dusty white jeans, damaged boots, and, most famously, a beat up red barn jacket that he'd wrap tightly around himself to keep from the cold — his clothing, like the best costumes, showed on the outside the person who was within, and in this case, that person was a little flimsy, a little defeated, but lovely, too. This coat was recently sold at auction for the surprisingly expensive-but-not-that-expensive price of $7,341 to "a current A-list celebrity, presumably for his private collection" — my guess is James Franco, an avowed Phoenix obsessive.

But the genius of Mike's closet in the movie was how accessible it could be to superficially re-create, even for a college student on a budget. I was stuck in dorm rooms and English classes in Washington, D.C. and not out on the open road, and I'd never have the soft blonde waves that Phoenix had (there's probably a bit of self-loathing in my desire for Phoenix's pretty gentile hair over my own curly Jew-fro), but everything else I could try to emulate, I did. I bought fatigues and Carhartt hoodies from Goodwill, leaned towards earthy tones of rust and moss and mud brown, was happy the more my used Dr. Martens got scuffed up in puddles and snow, and even started to see dirt stains and fabric rips as badges of well-worn honor and experience. The more lived-in your clothes, I thought, the more well-lived your life.

It feels slightly unsavory, now at 30 years old, to admit that I've been chasing the image of a drug-addled narcoleptic prostitute since college, but this desire for some of us to look more radical or broken or untethered than we actually are is a strange pathology of our time and especially the early 90s, when grunge found its way onto the Perry Ellis runway and Courtney Love looked one ripped seam away from scraps.

In the 25 years since the movie's release, the Pacific Coast aesthetic of the film has grown into something of a fashionable ideal for a kind of sensitive hipster easily found in Portland and Los Angeles and Brooklyn, and it's not exactly news that pockmarked sweatshirts have been sold readymade by none other than Kanye West and that you can buy intentionally distressed jeans for hundreds of dollars in 2016.

I suspect that Mike's wardrobe in particular has had an outsized influence on generations since. In the movie, his outfits appeared uncurated, as though he had just thrown on whatever he found in the dumpster, but there are lots of people — including myself, the many people I see dressed like him, and actors like Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt that mirror his mystique — who to this day pursue the look with a consumerist fervor. The ultimate irony, though, is that no amount of money can ever really buy purity or authenticity. You either are delicate and beautiful like Phoenix, or you are not, and you can use your money (like I have) to look more graceful and tender than you actually are, but everyone, including yourself, will probably always see the truth.

And yet, maybe there is something powerful about seeing yourself in Phoenix, in holding him up as an icon of grit and heart. Beneath the aesthetics of vulnerability lies the reality of vulnerability, and Phoenix was one of the first men I ever saw who made softness and sweetness seem as much like masculine virtues as feminine ones. That was important for me at the time, partly because Phoenix's character is a queer man who looks and acts unlike what was readily available in much of the pop culture of my youth (think Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), but also because he possesses an integrity — so believably rendered in the movie that I have to think it was innate to Phoenix himself — that I admire.

In what has become the most famous scene in the movie, Mike admits — while wearing the red workwear coat now covered in dust — to Reeves that he is in love with him. It is one of the realest human interactions I have ever seen onscreen, with Phoenix embodying a sincerity that, then and now, feels aspirational and really hard to actually achieve. It has always seemed like hard-fought freedom, to me, to be entirely and crushingly honest, as Phoenix is here. The truth is that I've never just wanted to look like River Phoenix — I've always wanted, and still want, to be like River Phoenix. I'm not there yet, but sometimes, when my outfit's right, I feel a little closer.

Related: The power of Solange's proudly unconventional style


Text Alex Frank
Photography Nancy R. Schiff / Getty Images

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