wear your art on your sleeve: peek inside our raf simons cover story
If artists are the new superstars, Raf Simons’ walking Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition for spring/summer 17 was fan merch at its finest.
Anna wears all clothing Raf Simons spring/summer 17.
But is it art? It's the obnoxious catchphrase used far too often by the fashion media to playfully question its own intellectuality. And yet it was, nonetheless, the good question raised by Raf Simons this summer when he devoted his entire spring/summer 17 collection to the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. In the tradition of designers before him dating back to Elsa Schiaparelli's Picasso-inspired surrealism, Simons has fused fashion and art before. But unlike the hand-painted coats and paint-splattered shirts from his Sterling Ruby collaboration in 2014, this wasn't intricate art-on-canvas. It was, quite simply, photo prints on garments—really nice garments, but an elevated take on the merchandise you'd buy at the show of a famous artist. "I wanted to do a show where every boy is the representation of one work," Simons says. "I wanted to approach it very curatorially, like you would a museum show, which was often done by other people when it comes to Mapplethorpe's work—but always in a gallery, always in the same context and form. So I thought the biggest challenge for me would be not to show his work in a gallery but in relation to my own environment."
Simons let every photograph take centre stage, framing the garment it was printed on with his own work— fashion—while styling it up with the leather daddy motorcycle magic dust that defined Mapplethorpe's own look. Simons was approached by Mapplethorpe's Estate, spent two afternoons flicking through the archive of categorised books - "famous people, black guys, flowers, self-portraits, polaroids" - and decided to go all in. "I was familiar with a lot of Mapplethorpe's work but there was also a lot I'd never seen before. I was quite struck by the impact on me of certain people that he photographed: artists I admire who've passed away, like Alice Neel, for example. I very much love Willem de Kooning, and I told them it was very important to juxtapose that kind of work with work that we all know, as well as the work Mapplethorpe was criticised for, like the sex scenes. It got banned in museums. I think it's important to show everything." And so he did, including the most elegant dick pic ever taken, proudly carried on a top by Jonas Glöer, who's posed naked for Simons' friend the photographer Willy Vanderperre in the past himself. The show was a 360-degree scope on an icon: the most elaborately produced tribute band in the world, you might say.
These days, of course, we are living in an era of fan-fuelled merchandise. When you grew up before the internet, nothing makes you feel ancient quite like seeing Justin Bieber in a washed-out Marilyn Manson tour T-shirt from 1994, the year Bieber was actually born. Been there, done that, got the T-shirts—literally. Unlike most of the high fashion we drain our bank accounts for these days, the value of entertainment and art merchandise actually increases the older it gets. If we risked our lives back then for the right pop idol T-shirt, it's nothing compared to the lengths the Instagram generation will go to in order to get their hands on it now. It's nostalgia for a pre-Instagram era when things weren't as accessible and everything felt more real. This is the craving for authenticity thats has created Vetements; where Titanic hoodies and Champion tracksuits with a design twist easily earn a £600 price tag, and Yeezy, which is effectively Kanye West's extended collection of tour merchandise.
Like Justin Bieber's Purpose Tour hoodies, Kanye's Saint Pablo Tour line has a strong whiff of Vetements to it—and Vetements an even stronger whiff of 90s' concert merch about it. Talk about coming full circle. While Simons' collection was another creature altogether, it was as much a part of a zeitgeist where a picture tells a thousands words, especially if it's shot by one of pop culture's most admired photographers. "When you look at Mapplethorpe's work it's so much about him. With some artists their personalities don't connect to the work, but in his case it really does. He could even shoot a flower very sexually, so you have to take that in and give it serious consideration," Simons says. It was pop idol merchandise but also an education for Simons' younger fans, the Instagram generation, who'll save up and buy it because Simons - like Vetements and Yeezy - touches that holy grail of esoteric fashion.
"For me, it's not so important that everything is explained and analysed. If it works it works. I wanted to challenge myself for the Estate to make it believable hopefully to a different audience that wouldn't see Mapplethorpe's work in a gallery, contextually and curatorially," Simons says. "Also, I reach out to different generations, I think. Not only to people who know a lot about art." So is it art? Some of us would lean towards no, and that was the best part about Simons' collection. It didn't try to incorporate Mapplethorpe's artworks into the garments, but rather display them on the garments in an appreciative way, which was ultimately quite innocent. It was Mapplethorpe merchandise to open the eyes of a new generation to one of the 20th century's most influential photographers. As far as washed-out iconic T-shirts from the 90s go, Simons will have fashion's perhaps only-ever contender at his very own disposal when he joins Calvin Klein as Creative Director this season: the cK T-shirt, as worn by any teenager in the 90s with just an inch of self-respect.
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Mario Sorrenti
Fashion director Alastair McKimm
Hair Ward at The Wall Group. Make-up Diane Kendal at Julian Watson Agency. Nail technician Honey at Exposure. Photography assistance Felix Kim. Lighting technician Lars Beaulieu. Digital technician Johnny Vicari. Styling assistance Lauren Davis, Sydney Rose Thomas. Hair assistance Billy Schaedler. Make-up assistance Caoilfhionn Gifford. Production Katie Fash, Christopher Cassetti, Richie Fraschilla. Casting director Angus Munro for AM Casting (Streeters NY). Model Anna Ewers at Women Paris.