Saturday, June 18, 2016

BEAUTY: Clothing--Raf Simons

Raf Simons has certainly been around...he has been head of Jil Sander, Dior, and of course his own eponymous line all of which generally show at Paris Fashion Week, so it is noteworthy that Simons just presented his SS '17 collection at Pitti Uomo in Florence, Italy. Ostensibly a trade show, Pitti Immagine Uomo also introduces guest designers and holds special events for lesser known designers where careers have been launched. Simons has shown at Pitti before, in 2005, and here he is eleven years later, eschewing Paris for a remarkable collection, not only for fashion but for the art world as well.

Simons is no stranger to the world of art. He is an avid modern art collector, has featured the work of Franky Claeys, Peter Saville, Picasso, and Brian Calvin. He has worked many times with the American artist Sterling Ruby, on storefront designs in 2008, on a capsule collection of bleached denim wear jeans and jackets in 2009, and for a highly oblique, conceptual FW '14-'15 collection, previously here. As if he needs more art world cred, he has been a consultant for the Cigrang Freres art collection in Belgium since 2000. So it makes a certain kind of sense that the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation--established by the photographer himself to protect his work before he died of complications due to AIDS in 1989--reached out to Simons in an effort to disseminate Mapplethorpe's work beyond the art world.

In case you don't know, Robert Mapplethorpe was a highly influential, highly sought-after photographer in the 1970s and 80s whose work exploring the gay BDSM-leather culture somehow existed beautifully alongside his minimalistic still lives of flowers and portraits of celebrities. For this collection Simons was granted full access to Mapplethorpe's archives and chose photos from all of those genres.

The work of Mapplethorpe has a direct, graphic boldness to it and so do the clothing designs of Simons. The mix seems to be perfect. He used many of Mapplethorpe's self-portraits (excluding the most famous one of himself in only leather chaps with a bull whip handle inserted in his rectum, an image that provoked a national controversy and debate about obscenity and censorship in 1989 when it was part of an exhibit featuring work from his "X portfolio" of erotic imagery), along with striking black and white photos of flowers, and images of celebrities Patti Smith (he shot her iconic "Horses" album cover), Debbie Harry, David Byrne, and Laurie Anderson. The presentation of the photos themselves--mounted on leather aprons or as chest pieces--seem to elevate them to gallery status with the clean, spartan clothing around them acting as a frame.

"Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art. He worked without apology, investing the homosexual with grandeur, masculinity, and enviable nobility. Without affectation, he created a presence that was wholly male without sacrificing feminine grace. He was not looking to make a political statement or an announcement of his evolving sexual persuasion. He was presenting something new, something not seen or explored as he saw and explored it. Robert sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism. As Cocteau said of a Genet poem, 'His obscenity is never obscene.'"
--Patti Smith, from JUST KIDS, her memoir about her time with Mapplethorpe

The collection features a lot of discreet touches which reference this kind of underground gay subculture--black leather biker caps, black leather overalls which invoke the ubiquitous leather harness, and thin black belts worn around the necks of models as a leash (or possible reference to erotic auto-asphyxiation). Interestingly, in the intervening years, these things are no longer so "underground" and are recognizable to most. Mapplethorpe died at the height of the AIDS crisis in a world that was hostile to gay people and their basic human rights. Of course we have come a long way since then, but the internalized homophobia that drove a man to slaughter 49 people in Orlando, FLA just this week is proof that there is still a lot of work to be done.

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