Style & Grooming

Remembering the Amazing Style of River Phoenix

To mark the 24th anniversary of the actor’s untimely death, we explore the grunge poster-boy’s life and look

  • TextEmma Elizabeth Davidson

Following a brooding performance in cult coming-of-age classic Stand By Me, River Phoenix was lauded as ‘the vegan James Dean’. Though there have been countless actors compared to the Rebel Without a Cause star – with Leonardo DiCaprio and James Franco amongst them – tragically this one would prove the most accurate. Like Dean before him, Phoenix’s life was cut short in 1993 when he died of a drug overdose outside Johnny Depp’s L.A. club The Viper Room, aged just 23.

Despite his untimely death, Phoenix made his mark on both Hollywood and the world beyond by way of a series of nuanced performances. A stand-out role as a gay street hustler opposite Keanu Reeves in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho made the industry sit up and take notice – far from being a stereotypical teenage heartthrob, the actor became renowned for taking on challenging roles, and in 1989, he was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Running On Empty.

Much like the enduring image of Dean in his tight white t-shirt and leather biker jacket, in the 24 years since he died, Phoenix’s status as a bonafide style icon has been cemented, too. 

With his chin-length blonde hair and a penchant for plaid shirts layered over faded band t-shirts, the actor bore more than a passing resemblance to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Both were pioneers of the lo-fi grunge look that emerged from Seattle in the early 90s, and while Phoenix was known mostly for his movies, it was music that was his first love; on the night of his death, he had been scheduled to appear on stage alongside Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, while Aleka’s Attic, the band he formed with sister Rain, had signed to Island Records a few years previously.

Phoenix’s innate sense of style was cultivated in his time growing up in the controversial Children of God cult; “Rich kids gave us their old clothes. They were the best clothes we ever had. We were these very pure, naïve children” the actor said of his ‘hippy-ish’ childhood. That thrifted, thrown-together look was one that carried him through into adulthood, as he became known for his understated, laidback style – oversized sweatshirts bearing the logos of the charitable causes he supported, stonewashed denim dad-jeans and wire-framed glasses – and the devastating level of insouciance that he wore his clothes with. 

As is usually the case with people heralded for their enviable ability to dress, Phoenix’s style seemed effortless and wholly uncontrived, his grunge-y aesthetic the antithesis of the in-your-face pop stars seen on MTV. Like Cobain, he was emblematic of a ‘new breed’ of man – sensitive and politically-minded with an air of integrity that only intensified his appeal to a generation of young men and women that chose to question the establishment instead of conforming to it.

Sadly, as with his music and his acting career, we never got to see how that style developed. Instead, he was immortalised as the handsome, kind-hearted young man he was in 1993, and although he’s gone, he’s certainly not been forgotten.

More from our Style Icon series:

The Enduring Style of John F. Kennedy Jr.

Why Jim Morrison Was the Ultimate Romantic Rebel

The Spectacular Style of Cecil Beaton