Raf, Mapplethorpe and Remediation


There’s been a lot of appropriation going on in fashion recently, or rather, remediation. In a landscape dominated by high-street vs high end collaborations and endless licensing deals that have seen everything from Hogarth to Princess Peach being used to sell clothes, people seem to have forgotten about design. My problem is, we as consumers are being conned and pandered to by designers. We no longer buy clothes because of the quality or the design, but because of someone’s use of a Renaissance painting or popular video game character. Capitalism and creativity are uneasy bedfellows.

Raf Simons just presented his SS17 show at Pitti and it would appear that he’s drawn most of his inspiration from the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. This puts me in an awkward position because I love Raf, almost as much as I love Mapplethorpe, so where do I stand on this collection? In the years before Raf came along my main designer obsession was Helmut Lang. Lang famously used Mapplethorpe imagery in ad campaigns, a move which big fashion brands continue to use.

The Helmut Lang store in New York housed Louise Bourgeois sculptures from Lang’s own collection, so his involvement with art was always tethered to his own artistry in the world of fashion. In 1996 Lang collaborated with Jenny Holzer for the Florence Biennale on a piece entitled I Smell You On My Clothes. Holzer’s LED installations displayed slogans like YOU ARE THE ONE. YOU ARE THE ONE WHO DID THIS TO ME. YOU ARE MY OWN. Lang provided a scent which smelled like clean shirts, dirty linen, sweat and semen. Some time after this Holzer’s work began to influence Lang’s clothes, this wasn’t a collaboration but rather an organic response to their work together. One of Raf’s most successful collections of the last few years was a collaboration with painter Sterling Ruby. So deeply entrenched were they both in the creation of this collection they shared dual branding, taking equal claim for the garments they created.

I can’t help but compare Lang to Simons as the former’s use of Mapplethorpes imagery was so groundbreaking that Raf’s use seems to pale in comparison. That’s not to say I wouldn’t wear it but I expect more from Raf. Having said all that there are some interesting elements to Raf’s designs. In many ways the clothes act as frames for the Mapplethorpe images. Jumpers with oversized necklines sag to reveal the prints. Coats held in place with straps form an almost prefect frame for chest prints. Some people point out ‘shocking’ imagery of naked men as a key feature here, but these shocks have worn thin in the decades since The Perfect Moment upset the U.S. Congress and had gallery owners and curators charged with obscenity. If we subtract Mapplethorpe’s works from Raf’s collection what we are left with isn’t terribly inspiring which must mean that the success of the collection relies a little too heavily on Mapplethorpe.

Photo via W Mag