There was something epic about Raf Simons’ offering as guest designer at Florentine Trade show Pitti Immagine Uomo. The designer is not new to the fair. In 2005, he held his 10th anniversary show there, and in 2010 staged a Jil Sander menswear collection at the fair. If those shows were about debuting a new project, this S/S 17 event was about looking back, both at Simons’ own work - hundreds of vintage female mannequins, some taken apart and put back together, littered the space clad in work from Simons archive - and the output of the late great artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose foundation Simons had worked with on the show. Why the glances backwards? Well, now marks a new chapter for Simons. Rumours of his imminent appointment at Calvin Klein are so intense that one can presume they’re true. That’s a big job. Certainly not the ‘something quieter ‘ he talked about on leaving Dior. Maybe this was about celebrating what he’s achieved under his own name - about moving on to a new chapter with his label that responds to the new schedule and new pressures he’ll be under. There was slight hysteria spreading that this could be his final show. It certainly felt like a watershed moment - a turning point or a moment’s reflection. For what? Who knows. Yet.
So what about the clothes? Well, mini Mapplethorpes with curled hair stalked the runway in the photographer's signature black leathers, his jaunty cap perched on their heads. As with Simons’ celebrated Sterling Ruby collaboration, the items on show were branded as Raf Simons x Robert Mapplethorpe. This isn’t the usual art/fashion collaboration, where a few prints are stuck on a t-shirt and bag, but a true union of minds, archives and agendas. Simons had considered Mapplethorpe’s life as well as his work; his muses, his artistic development, his sexuality. Mapplethorpe images appeared on nearly every piece - some flowers, some friends and collaborators, others explicit shots of the human form. They were most effective on billowing shirts reminiscent of those worn by Mapplethorpe’s friend and muse Patti Smith. If the shirts were hers, the trousers were all Mapplethorpe. So too were the bondage style belts that hung around models’ necks. As they walked, spoken word from Dennis Cooper filled the space. Sexuality, pornography and carnal desire seemed to be on Simons’ mind this season. That makes for a good start at Calvin, a brand that relies on frisson, innuendo and knowing winks in its designers and imagery.
Strikingly effective were the oversized, wonky knits that hung from the form in a way that perfectly framed the images printed at the collar of t-shirts. One thought of Mapplethorpe’s early work. The way he stalked shops for magazines to find images of boys to cut out and paste into framed works. That was a bit like how Simons approached this show; uniting, contrasting, combining. There’s a lot of focus on Mapplethorpe’s work at the moment - exhibitions, films, books. Simons' take - an unusual curation - offered something new. Something tender.