Reimagining The Subversive: Raf Simons’ Robert Mapplethorpe Line

Raf Simons is certainly a heavy-hitter in the world of menswear; following the launch of his own label in 1995, the Belgian fashion designer went on to work as creative director at Christian Dior and later as chief creative officer at Calvin Klein. But don’t let his work with those straight-cut labels fool you — Simons has a taste for rebellion.

Well known for his love of subculture and collaboration with other artists—Simons has worked with Sterling Ruby and Linda Farrow in the past—it’s perhaps no surprise that when the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation decided to team up with a fashion designer, Simons was their man. Simons’ subversive approach to design and his ability to find inspiration in music, art, performance, and images made him the natural choice to reimagine iconic works by the ever-controversial Mapplethorpe.

The resulting collaboration is Simons’ Spring/Summer 2017 line, a collection of billowing shirts that feature Mapplethorpe’s work applied via photographic printing. These images range from self portraits to voyeuristic captures of others, including the haunting face of his muse, Patti Smith.

Models previewing the line at his show last year wore belted ties around their necks, a nod to the artist’s fascination with sexuality and BDSM. In a fitting meta-tribute, these young men—any one of whom, aesthetically, would likely have been a muse for Mapplethorpe’s lens—offered up their own bodies as a new canvas for the artist’s work, just as Mapplethorpe had turned his own body into artistic fodder. “If you think about the work, it’s so much about him,” Vogue reported Simons as saying at the show.

The line, fittingly, is also all about him. In some ways, it represents a scaledback version of Simons; he allows this collection to sit in a place of simplicity, a complementary vehicle for showcasing the deceased Mapplethorpe’s work. A muted palette and simple lines provide a framework for the images, transforming the runway into a gallery space — and thus, introducing the American artist’s work to a whole new generation.