Robert Mapplethorpe: fashion over sex

David Croland, Mapplethorpe's first long-term partner, curates a show of candid new works

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Jennifer Jakobson, 1980 Photography by Robert Mapplethorpe © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by Permission

When Robert Mapplethorpe started taking photos, the gay scene was still operating at a tightly sealed level of underground. It was the early 1970’s: sexual liberation was raging and the photographer’s homoerotic Polaroid collages were a revealing new force in New York’s sadomasochistic scene. But underneath the iconic images we know so well runs another powerful current: fashion. 

It was Mapplethorpe’s fascination with glamour and beauty that led to his social and professional wanderings in the world of threads. A new exhibition at Alison Jacques Gallery seeks to explore this side of his life. Robert Mapplethorpe: Fashion Show sidesteps the images that have come to be known as some of the most provocative of the 20th century, instead exploring a range or works that fuse style and sex with a sleeker sensuality.

Mapplethorpe’s interests in fashion and sex ran parallel to one another, his works often blurring their divider.

At the exhibition’s heart are photographs Mapplethorpe shot for the likes of Italian and French Vogue and L.A. Style in the mid to late 1980’s. Their content may be restrained but it’s his masterful lighting and reflection on concepts of beauty and perfection that remind us of his presence.

Mapplethorpe’s interests in fashion and sex ran parallel to one another, his works often blurring their divider. Fashion photography as art was a new concept at the time and something Mapplethorpe helped pioneer via his visual innuendo. A tightly strapped and stilettoed foot, fishnet stretched across a muscular leg and porcelain buttocks, a leather clad crotch and a pair of taloned hands all tread the sex-fashion line.

These images also show Mapplethorpe’s love for aesthetics of design: luxury fabrics, fine quality and simplicity of form. The exhibition was produced in collaboration with Mapplethorpe’s first long-term boyfriend David Croland who was instrumental in having him socialise with and photograph some of the 1970’s most progressive names in fashion and pop culture: Karl Lagerfeld; Yves Saint-Laurent; Ossie Clark; Loulou de la Falaise; Marisa Berenson and Grace Jones. Croland recently reflected: "For his birthday in Paris on November 4th, 1971 Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé took Robert to dinner and then to the Rive Gauche boutique and let him pick out anything in the store. He chose a simple black shirt. He said it was the cheapest thing in the store, but that's what he wanted…”

That choice underlines Mapplethorpe’s obsession with alternative forms of beauty. So does his role as an artist, his hand-made jewellery becoming something of a fixation of the international fashion and art gangs earlier in his career as the likes of Marisa and Berry Berenson and John McKendry commissioned his original works. His pieces were sentimental and stimulating rather than flashy. Necklaces and bracelets were infinitely layered, each adorned with skulls, dice, crosses and horseshoes: tokens of an imprinted heart.

One such token was a nipple piercing, a venture Mapplethorpe had friend and photographer Sandy Daly shoot at his room at New York’s Chelsea Hotel in 1970. Though the director eventually retired the resulting movie (YouTube ‘Robert Having His Nipple Pierced’), Nigel Finch’s 1988 profile catches Mapplethorpe elaborating on the experience. “I just thought it would be interesting to have a ring through your tit […] In the end it was sort of silly because it was before I had any knowledge of what that was about sexually. I learned, but at the time it was just an affectation.”

The Mapplethorpe in that clip is beautiful and childlike. His own image became synonymous with an alternative form of masculinity; one not necessarily framed by brawn but by shifting sexual identities and a gentle yet vicarious attitude towards life and love. It was a fact documented through his images of Patti Smith, a visual story that tells of their complex relationship and his photographic relationship with Lisa Lyon, who he portrayed as the male counterpart to Smith. Lyon was one of the first female body building champions, a blend of masculine and feminine who Mapplethorpe worked with for three years. He had Lyon play roles varying from high fashion model clad in leather and fur to statuesque naked figure and aggressive fetish icon.

Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé took Robert to dinner and then to the Rive Gauche boutique and let him pick out anything in the store. He chose a simple black shirt. He said it was the cheapest thing in the store, but that's what he wanted…

This understanding of character, costume and gender runs through so many of Mapplethorpe’s works, from the sincerely fashion-conscious to his most sexual pieces. But it’s the jab of personality and fierce glamour in each that really cements him as a name to be remembered amongst the creative heroes of the 1980’s fashion scene. Sex may have been his shtick, but man, the man had style.

Robert Mapplethorpe: Fashion Show runs at the Alison Jacques Gallery from 11 September to 5 October 2013

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