The Story Behind Raf Simons / Robert Mapplethorpe
A new display in the MoMu Collection presentation focuses on the American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89), and how his work inspired Raf Simons’s Spring-Summer 2017 collection.
In the designs for his own label as well as for other fashion houses, Raf Simons has always enjoyed references to the fine arts. In the past, he has collaborated with artist Sterling Ruby and found inspiration in such films as Christiane F. (1981) and Blue Velvet (1986). Photography also plays an important role in these artistic references and collaborations. Fascinated by the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Simons wanted to integrate it in his fashion designs, but he assumed that it would not be possible to collaborate with an institute such as the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Nevertheless, the Foundation were themselves interested in working with Raf Simons. Impressed by the designer’s collection with Sterling Ruby, they contacted him for a similarly collaborative project. Consequently, Simons devoted his Spring-Summer 2017 collection to Robert Mapplethorpe. This resulted in a series of multi-layered designs because Mapplethorpe, just like Simons, often found inspiration in the work of other artists. He was eager to learn from artistic predecessors – from Michelangelo to Hippolyte Flandrin, from Jacques-Louis David to Wilhelm von Gloeden – as well as to collaborate with his contemporaries, and thus leave his own mark on art history.
They always look pure, his photographs. There is never conflict; there is never an extreme setup. […] To me, it was important, that I would not dominate—with the clothes, with the collection—the work.
Fashion Design and Photography in Dialogue
For Simons it was capital that his designs would not overshadow Mapplethorpe’s photography. In his collection, the photographer’s pure, classic aesthetic is equalled by sober designs, such as tank tops with a neckline completely determined by an inset photograph, or shirts that function as a background for a collage of images and motifs. Simons selected about one hundred photographs from Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre – including portraits of artists whom the designer admires, such as Laurie Anderson, Cindy Sherman, David Byrne, Willem de Kooning and so on – and integrated them into his designs.
Alongside several pieces in primary colours, which are reminiscent of the red and blue underwear in Mapplethorpe’s collage Untitled (Layers of Underwear) (1970), the collection comprises primarily black, white and a few subdued colours borrowed from the photographer’s oeuvre. For example, two shirts with green and white stripes – one with a portrait of artist Alice Neel (1984) and the other with a photograph of a sculpture of the Greek god Hermes (1988) – appear to enter into a dialogue with Mapplethorpe’s 1974 Self Portrait, mounted in a green frame.
Yes, pornography influenced me, but only in terms of the subject, since my attitude when I photograph a flower today isn’t different from when I portray a penis. After all, they’re the same thing.
Flowers and homoeroticism
Homoeroticism and sexuality are important themes in Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre, which includes many explicit images. A number of these can be found in Raf Simons’s collection, although the designer also touches on this theme through a range of other elements. Some silhouettes contain references to sadomasochism and the leather scene, such as black leather caps, overalls, and ribbons draped loosely around the neck, reminiscent of leather collars.
The use of Mapplethorpe’s floral still lifes also evoke a certain eroticism. Through a juxtaposition of still lifes and nude portraits, the photographer emphasized the phallic, sensual aspects of certain flowers. One of the silhouettes on display, for example, includes a belt with photographic reproductions on the front and the back. The one on the front is a pink-coloured photograph of two arums, whose pistils protrude from the calyxes. On the back is a reproduction of Untitled (Layers of Underwear) (1970). In this collage, Mapplethorpe stretched red and blue underwear on a frame. From the fly of one pair of underpants protrudes a black, padded shape evocative of a penis, similar to the pistil emerging from the arum.