Raf Simons' S&M Style of Robert Mapplethorpe at Pitti Uomo SS17

"At 9pm precisely, the show will start. When the doors of the venue open, quickly take your place within the presentation. Feel free to sit or stand wherever you would like. Feel at ease with the mannequins who will be your companions here this evening, they are part of the installation and live event, as are you. The show will be presented in three parts."

The words of a computerised voice outside Florence's Stazione Leopolda (the venue for the show) prior to Raf Simons' Spring/Summer 2017 collection presented at Pitti Uomo last week. Deep into the darkness, into the expansive hall, transformed with towering industrial scaffolding, red and green lighting and creepy, submissive mannequins bearing the clothes of Simons' past submerged the interior walls. Simons may have declared his archives "no longer relevant" for his Fall 2015 collection, but here they were not only celebrated, but suppressed. Graphics from the ever-famous SS98 Black Palms show, Peter Saville parkas from AW03, his collaboration with Sterling Ruby from AW14 or the super-oversized, distressed Americana collegiate knitwear. It felt like not just a look back before a new chapter for Raf, but a new beginning. I mean it has been more than twenty years since he established his eponymous label, and what, with his departure from Dior late last year because of creative differences and last season paying homage to all of his muses and inspirations from the past two decades, maybe this time for sure he was declaring change. He went back to where it all began, the venue that I mentioned earlier, the dilapidated Stazione Leopolda - the very building in which Raf built an all-white apartment and had three Raf-clad models live in the space for the duration of the installation, back in 1998. A striking realisation, an epiphany if you will. But that wasn't the only time Raf has shown at Pitti trade-show prior to his latest collection, in 2005 he celebrated his namesake label reaching it's tenth anniversary and five years later, in 2010, he was guest designer whilst heading up his tenure at the minimalist Jil Sander. Those in attendance could endlessly gaze into more than twenty years of contemporary menswear history, by arguably the most iconic and influential menswear designer alive. The garments were all worn by hundreds of vintage female mannequins, some with misplaced limbs, taken apart and put back together.

It's important to remember that that was the exact opposite to how he responded to the collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, every print was crisp. "I didn't want to re-crop the photographs, I didn't want to cut them," it was respectful of him to do so. Anyway, the collaboration came about a few months ago when the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation contacted Simons, which the designer stated was abnormal as with past collaborations with artists, Simons had contacted the artist himself beforehand, not the other way around. "Usually when I work with an artist or (on) a big collaboration with an artist, I go ask the artist - this time I was asked to collaborate." Before taking it upon himself to meticulously go through the photographer's archive for two days straight, immersing himself in the documentation of New York's transgressive, gay and fetish scene of the 1970's and 80's. Struck by its emotional impact, Raf set out to not just simply repurpose the work, but express a desire to present the world of an artist he has followed for years to a new audience. "I want to challenge myself also for the Foundation to hopefully make it believable to a different audience ... (to) reach out to different generations, not only people who are following art." Robert Mapplethorpe was not only present in print, literally, but in spirit to. His influence could be found in the shine and studs of one's leather bar trucker hat, the subtle sexuality of a thin, leather belt tied around necks. One could even trace the style of longterm friend of the artist, Patti Smith, who appeared on prints and again in more referential ways, as seen in white open-neck shirts. You could go as far to say Helmut Lang could be referenced, as some photographs were featured in his ad campaigns of the 1990's. Those incredible, oversized Americana jumpers from the unsettling spirit of last season's Twin Peaks-inspired "Nightmares and Dreams" collection that I touched on earlier, made a return in the form of a  framing device around Mapplethorpe's prints, left revealed by the undone, buttoned boatneck of the knits. One man's shock, is another man's brilliance - everything from an erect penis, that demonstrated masculinity in both itself and the wearer, imagine such bravery and defiance it would take to wear one in real life, to the haunting portrait of the late artist Alice Neel. "I was very much in love with the image," said Simons.

There has been speculation recently about whether or not Raf Simons' next big position will be heading up both men's and women's lines at Calvin Klein, former Creative Directors Italo Zucchelli and Francisco Costa - who a couple of months back announced their departure from the brand. Raf's contract with Dior's parent company LVMH is reportedly set to expire at the end of next month and during an interview with Andy Cohen's Sirius XM show, Calvin Klein himself revealed that the new Creative Director will start no later than August of this year. "They are doing something that I had hoped they would have done, which is replace me. Find someone who can with a singular vision oversee everything that is creative. They won't announce who is is publicly because it's under contract. But the whole industry knows." I think that last part just says it all, I do hope that this rumour becomes a reality. Raf would be back designing for a brand so heavily focused on minimalism, just like what he done at his time with Jil Sander, plus it's the perfect opportunity to continue his certain fixation on outsider youths. But if this were his last collection for a while with his full attention, then it sure was a great one. Just what did it mean for Simons to show a retrospective of all the things he's achieved over the last twenty-one years? Maybe it was a prime example that Raf can work at a pace that suits his creative capability. Or just maybe, was it the closing of one chapter before the embarking onto another?
















Images courtesy of Dazed Digital, HighSnobiety and Vogue Runway

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