Raf Simons Spring 2017.
The controversial, aborted 1989 Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective at Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art was titled “The Perfect Moment.” It proved ironic, as the Mapplethorpe exhibition unleashed a fierce censorship debate and a Cincinnati obscenity trial the following year—the Contemporary Arts Center museum, which was the defendant, was acquitted. It was the first time a museum faced criminal prosecution for the art it displayed. Maybe not so peachy.
By contrast, it feels like the perfect moment for Raf Simons right about now. That’s because of his Spring 2017 runway show, shown to universal acclaim in Florence. It was acclaimed because it unveiled something really special—which is rare, in every field, but especially in fashion and art. That’s what Simons’s show combined, showcasing the second time the designer has chosen to share his label, and the design credit, with a fine artist.
Last time around it was a collaboration with California contemporary artist Sterling Ruby; this time, the estate of Robert Mapplethorpe shared the spotlight for a collection born out of Simons’s passion for the artist’s output. The laborious process of pulling the show together—the usual craft with added transatlantic trips and clearing rights for every single sitter featured in more than a hundred Mapplethorpe images—served not to agitate Simons, but to further immerse him into the universe of the artist.
That’s what Raf Simons was interested in talking about when I met him, three days afterward, a few miles up the track in Milan. Not the will-he-won’t-he rumors that swirl about his appointment as creative director of Calvin Klein, nor his departure from the house of Christian Dior last year, but the work he’s doing right now—a perfect moment for Raf Simons.
How did the collaboration with the Mapplethorpe Foundation first come about? How did they approach you?
They sent an email to me. It came quite unexpectedly, I have to say. I was thinking about things for the show—I can’t say what they are, because it’s something I will work on—but I had his name on a list in my research. He and some other people were on the list. But immediately by Mapplethorpe, I put, “not possible.” I would not approach them, even if I had a strong interest. I do not have fear to approach people usually, but one way or another, it was—I can’t approach Mapplethorpe! I can’t approach the Foundation. And very close to that—maybe only a week or two weeks in between—I get this email.
I reacted immediately, because at first I didn’t understand exactly what they meant. I know what they have done—they have done a lot of shows with other people, like Cindy Sherman, David Hockney, Hedi Slimane. All these people have curated shows in galleries; they let them in the archive to select work and then they have a show. That was so not in my interest. That is the thing I thought they were reaching out to me about. But it wasn’t at all like that. They were very informed about what I did with Sterling and they were very interested to see if I would do something that strongly relates to my label, to my collections, to my fashion shows. It went really fast. I said, “Let’s start right away.” I think they thought, “Maybe, we need to start communication, and let’s see in a couple of months . . .” I felt, as it was already linked to something I wanted to do anyway, it would be nice to skip the whole thing and just focus on that.
Otherwise it wouldn’t free you up to focus on the collection.
Voilà. I knew in the beginning. From the first communication we had, it was very clear that they would give me access. Do what you want, what you feel. Then it was about selecting the works, so I went to the Foundation a couple of times, went through all the work. And I realized, really early on, that when I was going to use people, whoever they are—people we know, people we don’t know—that there was a lot of work to do besides handling the photographs. That in itself was a job—to get in touch with everyone. And I really wanted to do it personally, to get in touch with everyone personally.
Did the contact with those people—that extra level—change your interaction with the work? Your perception?
In some cases, it was very fascinating, because they would start talking about him. For most cases, not; lots of the people he photographed, like the big artists, passed away. Like Alice Neel. But I got in touch with family members, and it was a really beautiful conversation. But it was more about her work.
And Alice Neel wasn’t really a part of his world.
Yes. It was really very much the guys—one very much involved with him was Robert Sherman; another, who was very much involved with him at a certain point in his life, was a person that at the end didn’t allow me to use the photograph. I think it’s fine to talk about—it’s Keso Dekker. Although, I’m a huge fan of the photograph [the 1979 image was used in a Helmut Lang campaign in 1997].
And some of the people from the generation that I am a huge fan of—Cindy Sherman, Laurie Anderson, or David Byrne—these people have only been photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe; they didn’t have a serious or long friendship. It wasn’t like that. He also hired a lot of people. Some of the guys we know well he had relationships with—Jack Walls, Milton Moore—but lots were just hired, as models. It was fascinating to explore and find out. In a way, when you don’t know anything about it except the basics—like Patti [Smith]—you might think that he had all these guys. Which is also not the case. Some were just hired to model. But then he may bump into somebody, have sex with the person, and photograph them!
That research sounds like quite an intense experience, for you.
I don’t want to say it’s resurrecting the ghost of Robert Mapplethorpe, but you’re retracing his steps, people’s recollections, in the direct first person. It’s very different working at a remove to your inspiration.
But also, sometimes it became such a complicated thing to get in touch with the right person; sometimes it could take up to a month to trace. Most people’s reactions were incredible. Which was astonishing to me. Which I didn’t expect. I had chosen a lot of photographs. There were over a hundred photographs, and I think that 74 will go on sale.
We’re not allowed to sell everything. We’re not allowed to sell a dick, for example!
I found the idea of framing so very interesting.
I was very obsessed with the way he was framing. That was a very big thing for me, in the collection. To not make anything too complicated, to try to focus on the framing.