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Raf Simons takes on the S&M style of Robert Mapplethorpe

With prints of the artist’s work and nods to fetishwear, Simons presents his SS17 collection surrounded by a one-night only display of his incredible archive

“At 9pm precisely, the show will start. When the doors of the venue open, quickly take your place within the presentation. Feel free to sit or stand wherever you would like. Feel at ease with the mannequins who will be your companions here this evening, they are part of the installation and live event, as are you. The show will be presented in three parts.”

So boomed a computerised voice last night outside Florence’s Stazione Leopolda, the venue for Raf Simons’ SS17 show as part of Pitti Uomo. The colossal doors opened, and the crowd surged forward into the darkness. The expansive hall had been transformed with industrial scaffolding, red and green lights, and filled with mannequins, with Soft Cell and New Order thumping on the speakers. Simons may have declared the archives “no longer relevant” back for AW15, but here they were: from the graphics of the famous SS98 Black Palms show, or the AW03 Peter Saville parkas, to his AW14 Sterling Ruby collaboration and last season’s oversized Americana knitwear. Guests could literally get up close to over 20 years of his history, arguably the most iconic and influential in contemporary menswear, and never previously exhibited in this way. As the designer expressed after the show, “I don't like to put my clothes on a pedestal with a glass between them.”

It was the invitation that bore the first clue to what the SS17 collection would hold – a self portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer best known for his transgressive (and highly controversial) documentation of New York’s gay and fetish communities in the 1970s and 80s. Mapplethorpe’s image and images ran throughout the collection, appearing on every garment both literally and in more referential ways. Besides the photo prints, both of the artist and of his subjects and still life compositions, his influence could be felt in the shine and studs of a leather bar trucker hat, the subtle sexuality of a thin belt worn around the neck. You could trace the style of his longterm friend Patti Smith (whose image also appeared) in the white open-necked shirts, and even catch reference to Helmut Lang – some of the photographs chosen having been used in his campaigns in the 1990s.

“I don't like to put my clothes on a pedestal with a glass between them” – Raf Simons

The collaboration came about, the designer said, thanks to the Mapplethorpe Foundation. “Usually when I work with an artist or (on) a big collaboration with an artist, I go ask the artist – this time I was asked to collaborate,” he shared, explaining that he had spent two days meticulously going through the photographer’s archive, struck by its emotional impact. More than simply repurposing the work, he expressed a desire to present the world of an artist he has followed for years to a new audience. “I want to challenge myself also for the Foundation to hopefully make it believable to a different audience… (to) reach out to different generations, not only people who are following art.”

The show was, as the voice had warned, divided into three parts, signified in shifts in music and breaks between groups of models. Three was a symbolic number for Simons – after all, this show marked the “third in a trilogy” of events undertaken by his label at Pitti, with the first taking place in the very same building back in 2003. “I have beautiful memories here,” he said, gesturing to the space, and recalling how he had built an apartment for two boys to live in for two days, wearing his collection. (Alexander McQueen, meanwhile, was nearby with mannequins whizzing through tubes of water). He returned in 2005 for an exhibition and a show, marking ten years of his label.

Since January, there have been rumours swirling around Simons, winking towards a very big job opportunity in his future. With that in mind, revisiting the archives for one night as the backdrop for whatever may come felt right – after all, this may be the last collection he can focus his full attention on for some time. With leather aprons and harness-like straps, SS17 was arguably his most overtly fetishistic showing yet, but as the archive pieces in the space made clear, his work has always been defined by certain fixations. Whether ideas of Americana, or the enduring muse of the teenage outsider, his references are consuming and continual, not just passing gestures. The designer once said he can't live without art, and this collection, like that he created in collaboration with friend Sterling Ruby, testified to his deep appreciation of the medium and the richness and meaning it can bring to clothes. It may be many years since he first arrived in Pitti, but as last night’s collection showed, the sheer magnetism of his designs is as powerful as ever.