The clothes, mostly black and white like Mapplethorpe’s images, often acted as frames for the photographs, as in a pair of leather overalls with a Mapplethorpe image sitting squarely in the center, or printed aprons that hung from the waist. The photos covered a range of Mapplethorpe’s work, including his portraits and flower pictures, such as “Orchid” from 1982. They offered glimpses of the expansive scope of Mapplethorpe’s talent.

Simons didn’t shy away from Mapplethorpe’s more graphic images. One vest depicted an erect penis sticking out of the wearer’s pants. A similar image also appeared on the front of a shirt. Several models wore leather belts around their necks in reference to bondage, or leather-daddy biker caps.

A model presents a creation by designer Raf Simons during the 90th edition of Pitti Immagine Uomo in Florence, Italy, 16 June 2016. The fashion exhibition for men's clothing and accessory collections, which is held twice a year, runs until 17 June. EPA/MAURIZIO DEGL'INNOCENTI
There is a print of an erect penis on the back of this vest.
Image: EPA/Maurizio Degl'Innocenti

The show was a reminder of Mapplethorpe’s role in bringing gay sex out of the dark and into the eye of a public that wasn’t entirely prepared for it. ”His images were revolutionary, both for the radically inclusive nature of their subjects, and for their meticulous execution,” the New York Times wrote (paywall), appraising a joint exhibition of his work by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that’s going on now.

In her memoir, Just Kids, Patti Smith wrote, “He worked without apology, investing the homosexual with grandeur, masculinity and enviable nobility.” The singer-songwriter and poet was a long-time friend of Mapplethorpe, who photographed her several times, including for the famous cover of her album, Horses. Several pieces in Simons’s collection featured her image.

The show, which took place in Florence, was far from the recent mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando, and it doesn’t appear to be Simons’s intent to have offered any reflection on that tragedy. The collaboration with the foundation was in the works beforehand.

Even so, it was a poignant moment that underscored how Mapplethorpe’s work helped force the public to acknowledge and accept the existence of gay men and women—and a reminder of how much work remains to be done.

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