Six years have gone since Raf Simons was invited to showcase a collection during the Pitti Uomo event: in June 2010, the designer was Creative Director at Jil Sander and the label's show took place outside Florence, at Villa Gamberaia, in Settignano.
You may argue that, in fashion terms, almost a century has gone since then and, in this time span, Simons moved on, becoming the Creative Director at Dior, then leaving last year what had probably become for him a gilded cage. While he is rumoured to be going to Calvin Klein pretty soon, he has been enjoying life, recovering his time and focusing on "slower" projects such as designing textiles for Danish company Kvadrat.
Yesterday evening Simons showcased his new menswear collection at the Stazione Leopolda, in Florence, turned for the occasion into a sort of club reminiscent of the temporary autonomous zones recreated during raves in anonymous warehouses.
Coloured spotlights and electronic music provided the background for the dummies scattered around the space wearing Simons' designs from the previous collections of his menswear label (celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, so this was a retrospective as well).
One of them - the 2001 camouflage jacket with a picture of missing member of Manic Street Preacher Richey Edwards carving "4Real" on his arm with a reproduction of the original "Have you seen Richey?" press release issued by South Wales Police in February 1995 (a jacket Kanye West adopted every now and then in more recent years…) - brought back memories of other times, other places and other fashion issues.
When Simons used the image, the South Wales Police started investigating the matter since they considered it as an unauthorized use of a document that was supposed to be employed to help the police and Richey's family to find him, rather than to be reproduced on designer clothes.
This time Simons left behind the Manic Street Preachers and copyright issues and refocused on one of his passions - art - with a collection that paid homage to photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Simons didn't have to worry about copyright issues for this collection, since he was contacted by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation who asked him if he wanted to use images for his work (third-party rights were also cleared with all the sitters, so no copyrights were infringed in this collection – let's hope Jeremy Scott learns something from the legal aspects of this collection…).
Simons browsed through Mapplethorpe's archive (apparently it features something like 120,000 negatives and 3,500 Polaroids...) and picked graphically stylized black-and-white photographs from different times.
Images included in the garments go from sexualized still lives of calla lilies and antique statues to portraits of Debbie Harry and artist, poet, and musician Patti Smith and self-portraits, not to mention provocative photographs of an erect phallus on the back of a jacket or on the front of a white shirt.
The pictures were applied to oversized cotton shirts, apron tops, apron skirts and coats, garments matched with skinny trousers or with ample knitted sweaters.
S&M bad boy fantasies were symbolized by the leather strips around the neck of the models: some of them also sported hairstyles reminiscent of a young Mapplethorpe, or faux leather hats, but there was an S&M edge also in the tabard-like cropped dungarees with metallic buckles (a reference to Mapplethorpe’s fascination with frames, maybe?).
In a way Simons tried to reunite the X, Y and Z Portfolios: published between 1978 and 1981 they reflected a divided nature of Mapplethorpe's work between homosexual sadomasochistic imagery (X); floral still lifes (Y); and nude portraits of African-American men (Z; the portfolios were only exhibited in their entirety in 2012).
Though there was unity in Mapplethorpe's technique when it came to arrangement, composition, use of shadow and light, elegance and consistency, there was always duality and controversy symbolized in the division of shows he had in 1977 in New York: an exhibition of photographs of flowers at the Holly Solomon Gallery and one of male nudes and sadomasochistic imagery (selections from the X Portfolio) at the Kitchen.
To mark further this separation between respectability and perversion, Mapplethorpe created a double self-portrait: one showed the artist's hand wearing a formal shirt and Cartier watch; in the other the same hand was wearing a black leather glove and studded metal bracelet. Both the hands wrote the word "pictures".
Simons tried to reunite this dichotomy and the portfolios by including in the same ensemble (reproduced on an apron top & skirt), these two hand images, almost to say that S&M, with its strict behavioral codes, leather equipment and clothes (key elements in Mapplethorpe's pictures), is similar to fashion, both represent games of attraction and power, pain and pleasure, besides, they are both theatres in which bodies are displayed.
Mapplethorpe played in life with mainstream acceptance and underground resistance and you could argue that fashion designers do the same, Simons in particular has played a lot with this dichotomy, trying to be accepted into a mainstream fashion house while bringing resistance with him at the same time.
The metaphor stands and the way Simons tried to reunite Maplethorpe's portfolio as a curator would do, selecting and framing pieces to be showcased in an exhibition, was also interesting.
Besides, the collaboration was perfectly timed with the Mapplethorpe revival: the two-venue show dedicated to him and enditled "The Perfect Medium" is currently on at LACMA and at the Getty Museum (until July; though later this year the shows will fuse and tour to other cities, including Montreal and Sydney) and satisfied Simons' desire for working with an artist, something he loves doing.
That said, while Mapplethorpe is still a controversial photographer, capable of provoking strong reactions with his uninhibited images that still have the power to challenge concepts of sex, gender and morality, this collection of lilies and (faux) leather wasn't that strong but was a bit cold, it didn't mark a fashion revolution of any kind and didn't have the power to elicit the hottest of controversies, in a nutshell it seemed to complement Gosha Rubchinskiy's show.
The Russian designer went back to casuals and the '80s via Italian sportswear labels; Simons, for what regarded some silhouettes (see the loose distressed sweaters) and moods, to raves and the '90s.
You would have naturally expected a little bit more from an intense and mature designer like him, maybe something more original than just prints (albeit courtesy of a master of provocation...), for example as Simons loves the rave environment he may have found interesting links with radical Italian discos, and clubs such as UFO and Superstudio's. But maybe that's asking too much, after all nowadays in fashion stepping into the past is a much safer and less complicated option than inventing from scratch a more original future.
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