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Does Fashion Owe a Debt to Robert Mapplethorpe?

The most iconic Mapplethorpe look consists of a motorcycle jacket, a pair of leather trousers, a worn-in pair of Western boots, a leather sailor cap, and—sometimes—a turtleneck. This was, and still is, the ultimate “leather daddy” uniform. Lest we forget much of Mapplethorpe’s work examined BDSM culture in New York, and he himself was a mainstay (and eventual official photographer) of the now defunct Mineshaft, a members-only BDSM gay leather bar and sex club in a pre-gentrified Meatpacking District. Mapplethorpe’s work was complicated, controversial, and at times problematic. His fetishization of the Black male body found fair and exact criticism by the likes of Essex Hemphill. 

It must be said that Mapplethrope himself was not a creator of the age-old fetish and look, but an observer and presumed practitioner. What the artist did with his work was create a somewhat voyeuristic photographic peep show for the public to look into the inner workings of gay sex life, sometimes to their disdain but almost always for their entertainment. Fashion, in a way, has treated Mapplethrope’s work in the same way. Finding inspiration in his life or the culture that he portrayed and represented, designers have removed the “fetish” in fetishwear and kept the “wear,” transforming a valued and treasured practice into an aesthetic for consumption, sometimes inviting the public to discover and pay homage to Mapplethorpe and the queer community, or opening it up for eroding public discourse. What fashion has done, too, is abstract the intrinsic queer context of Mapplethorpe’s imagery to turn it into an often sanitized aesthetic, with few but notable exceptions. 

What remains is Mapplethorpe’s impact: His work, a revolutionary and radical exercise in self-love and embracing of community, will live forever as one of fashion’s most-beloved references—whether that results in a handbag or simply an excellent leather jacket. 

Scroll through to discover how designers have referenced Mapplethorpe over the years.

Ludovic de Saint Sernin

De Saint Sernin’s New York Fashion Week debut featured a collaboration with the Mapplethorpe Foundation. “Mapplethorpe has always been my hero,” the designer told Vogue’s Mark Holgate in an interview. “I read [Smith’s memoir of her time with Mapplethorpe] Just Kids in my early 20s, and it changed my life. It touched me not only because of who he was as a person, but as an artist—discovering his identity, and what he wanted to stand for and represent as a gay man, as a queer man, in the world.” Prior to today’s fall 2024 show, De Saint Sernin referenced Mapplethrope once before for his spring 2023 collection. The opening look nodded to the photographer’s personal uniform in the ’70s. 

“Robert Mapplethorpe and I became very good friends and in April 1989, a month after he died, I did motorcycle jackets in his honor in velvet with studded gold because he always wore one, and in that show I had one of his photographs, a flower. We met when we were going to the Golden Ball of Colin Tennant, Lord Glenconner, on Mustique [in 1976]. We arrived together from Barbados and Robert started saying, ‘Can I photograph you?’ And I said, ‘No, no photographs. We are here on vacation—let’s have fun.’ And he came again, and he said, ‘If you say no, you’re going to regret it when I become very famous and you’re not going to have a photograph taken by me.’ I said, ‘All right. Let’s do it.’ And we did that one in the hammock. When we arrived back in New York, Robert asked if he could take a formal portrait. I said yes and he came in the afternoon to Mayfair House, where we were staying, and my husband, Reinaldo, was the one who helped him with the lighting. He used that photograph, the one with the veil and the hat, in all his books. It was so much fun to do.”

“It was about Robert Mapplethorpe in his life at the Chelsea Hotel… We wanted to give homage to this bohème period that was very creative in the ’70s and ’80s in New York… It is the story of Mapplethorpe and Patti [Smith].”

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