Photography and fashion rolled into one

A model presents a creation by designer Raf Simons during the 90th edition of Pitti Uomo in Florence, Italy.
A model presents a creation by designer Raf Simons during the 90th edition of Pitti Uomo in Florence, Italy.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

FLORENCE, ITALY• The doors had only just opened at the Stazione Leopolda, the decommissioned train station where Raf Simons held his spring menswear show, but already there was a throng inside.

The music was pounding, and lights flashing, but when your eyes adjusted to the neon and then the dim, there they were: 266 mannequins wearing vintage Raf Simons, paired in groups or hanging over stairways like partygoers at a thumping club.

The clothes they wore were drawn from 20 years of his namesake menswear collection, but the designer didn't care for the word "retrospective".

"I didn't really want to work too much the way it's usually done when you do a retrospective," he said backstage after the show.

"It doesn't work for my brand; it's a brand that needs to sit in reality. I don't feel it as an installation."

He gestured at the mannequins, who were, he acknowledged with a shrug, all female.

"They become kind of a crowd. They're just a part of the audience."

Where he goes, crowds follow. He uprooted his show from Paris, where it usually takes place, and moved it for a season to Pitti Uomo, the Florentine trade fair where, in 2005, he showed his 10th anniversary collection.

After two decades in the fashion business, he is at a transitional point in his career. In October, he stepped down from Dior, where he had been creative director of its women's collection and though rumours circulate freely, he has not yet announced where he will go next.

For the first time in years, without the usual pressure of another brand to carry as well as his own (before Dior, he spent several years designing Jil Sander, which he also brought to Pitti Uomo, in 2010), he has a single focus: Raf Simons.

On Thursday night, he staged his new collection for a gathering of men and mannequins, his critics and his own past work.

The new collection was made in collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, which reached out to him to explore a partnership two months ago.

"Usually it's the other way around," Simons said. "I said, 'Can we start tomorrow?'"

It is a year of Mapplethorpe, as well as a year of Simons. Twin retrospectives of photographer Mapplethorpe's work are on view, following major Mapplethorpe Foundation gifts, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, one of Simons' favourite cities; and a new documentary, Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures, aired on HBO earlier this year.

So Simons shelved some early plans and set about incorporating Mapplethorpe's photography into his collection: the celebrity portraits as well as the self-portraits, the erotic photos as well as the flowers.

Much of the initial goggling and giggling was over the explicitly erotic pieces, but the show had the scope of a complete catalogue.

Many of the most famous photos were here: portraits of singer Patti Smith and Blondie singer Debbie Harry; Mapplethorpe's leather- gloved hand from the invitation to a major exhibition; the flowers; the classical statuary.

It had been an undertaking, Simons said, to reach out to the sitters to secure permission to use their likenesses.

That the work is so well known was the peculiar challenge of using it. "I wasn't interested to choose five photographs and put them on T-shirts - that's what everyone does," Simons said.

And in fact, as of very recently, you could buy at Uniqlo a T-shirt with the same American flag image Simons used. What was once astonishing is now canonical.

That made for a quieter collection than usual for Simons, even if he called it "probably the most complex collection I ever did, technically speaking", thanks to the challenges of printing the images in high quality on cloth.

The clothes were simpler, riffing on shapes of the past: tunics and big coats, threadbare sweaters, abbreviated pullover vests.

The models looked like Mapplethorpe (down to the leather- man hats on their curly heads) and were dressed like his portraits of Smith, in her plain black trousers and men's shirt.

The looks repeated, with variations; the boys became frames for the images they wore.

At the end of the show, the crowd converged on Simons, offering congratulations and gasping about the bluer bits.

Then the audience departed and, as quiet settled back over the space, the mannequins did, too: Crews appeared to disassemble them and pack the outfits away, back to the archive.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2016, with the headline 'Photography and fashion rolled into one'. Print Edition | Subscribe