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Ludovic de Saint Sernin, Spring 2023. Photographed by Daniele Oberrauch

Does Fashion Owe a Debt to Robert Mapplethorpe?

The life, work, and singular persona of Robert Mapplethorpe have been immortalized thoroughly over the years. There have been a handful of documentaries including Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (2016), Black White + Gray (2007), and Dirty Pictures (2007); a biopic, Mapplethorpe (2018) starring Matt Smith in the titular role; and, of course, Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids. There is also Mapplethorpe’s own oeuvre and his many self-portraits documenting his life and, eventually, his untimely illness—the photographer passed away at the age of 42 from AIDS-related complications. 

There has also been the fashion. Mapplethorpe was an unsung style icon, building his distinctive style by embracing the culture he was often at the center of. He was close to a handful of fashion designers, including, perhaps surprisingly for the incognizant, Carolina Herrera, who famously designed a collection of velvet gold studded jackets for her fall 1989 show after his passing that same year. But beyond his close friendships, a variety of designers have found inspiration in his work, ranging from his erotic, fetish leatherwear imagery and his romantic and often melancholic floral still life photos to his jewelry, which he designed, made and oftentimes sold. 

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 Mapplethorpe once before for his spring 2023 collection. The opening look nodded to the photographer’s personal uniform in the ’70s. 

Carolina Herrera

Herrera was a close friend of Mapplethrope, and she honored him in her first collection after his passing, as she once reminisced to Vogue’s Laird Borrelli-Persson: 

“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.”

Raf Simons

For his turn as guest designer at Pitti Uomo in 2016, Simons partnered with the Mapplethorpe Foundation, with each of the outfits of his spring 2017 collection featuring work by the photographer. 

As reported by Alexander Fury for Vogue Runway: “There’s no outfit in Simons’s Spring 2017 show that doesn’t feature a photographic print of a Mapplethorpe. His curly-haired male models, with seductively slanted leather biker caps, often bore a striking resemblance to the photographer himself—though Simons stated that, rather than the artist’s doppelgängers, ‘every boy is a representation of a piece of work.’ Each could be a Mapplethorpe sitter. The billowing shirts had shades of Mapplethorpe’s famous muse Patti Smith on her Horses album cover. Robert Sherman, a model whose alopecia made his skin approximate marble in his many portraits shot by Mapplethorpe, also attended the show. Simons had to clear third-party rights with all the sitters before reproducing their images. It began a dialogue that resulted in an immersion on Simons’s part in Mapplethorpe’s work.”

Sebastien Meunier for Ann Demeulemeester

Meunier’s Ann Demeulemeester captured the often elusive and alluringly romantic sensibility of Mapplethorpe’s work. For his spring 2018 menswear collection, the designer looked at Mapplethorpe and his former girlfriend and close friend Patti Smith, as he told Vogue Runway’s Luke Leitch at the time:

“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].”

Nicolas Di Felice for Courrèges

Di Felice’s take on Courrèges captures the playful perversity of André Courrèges himself, but with an added layer of eroticism. This sensibility is palpable in Di Felice’s cut, but also in his accessorizing. About his spring 2024 men’s lineup, he said that the bicep straps and leather belting throughout the collection were a nod to Mapplethrope’s work and personal style. 

Proenza Schouler 

Reflecting on his personal inspirations, one of the Proenza Schouler designers, Lazaro Hernandez, told Vogue that he often revisits the work of Robert Mapplethorpe:

“Robert Mapplethorpe’s biography by Patricia Morrisroe [1995] is one of those rare books I keep coming back to. I read it in high school, and that’s when I knew New York was the place for me. The story is a cautionary tale, of course, but also incredibly romantic in that Mapplethorpe was ready to follow his obsessions and his creative pursuit to the outer limits of what was deemed culturally acceptable at the time, forging an iconic personal history in the process. At home, because of the coronavirus quarantine, I’ve picked up this book for the third time. During these difficult moments, when one is questioning everything, it's been nice to be reminded of the power of creativity, of drive, of pushing creative thought to its full extent. It takes me back to the roots of my creative journey and the drive to make things that will hopefully outlive us all. This book reminds me of life before Proenza Schouler, and of the power of thinking big and making huge leaps of faith.”

Alessandro Michele at Gucci

It’s impossible to look at the kinkier side of Michele’s work at Gucci and not think of Mapplethorpe. His leather jockstraps and codpieces, harnesses, and sex toys work as jewelry nods to Mapplethorpe’s own style. 

Preen by Thornton Bregazzi

The Preen fall 2007 ready-to-wear collection was inspired by the softer side of Mapplethorpe’s body of work. His delicate still life images of flowers set the tone for this lineup. 

Joseph Altuzarra

Altuzarra is an avid collector of gay and queer art, and counts Mapplethorpe among his favorite artists. His fall 2019 lineup was inspired by Mapplethorpe and the way his work fetishized leather and biker gear. Altuzarra’s popular Play is a direct homage to Mapplethorpe, and the look of his gender fluid line Altu, with its leather pants and androgynous style, certainly is too. 

Jonathan Anderson 

Anderson is another avid collector, having works by Mapplethorpe in his collection. One can sense the photographer’s influence in Anderson’s often fetish-y leatherwear. 

Michael Kors

For the 2021 Met Gala, Michael Kors decided to reference the photographer by outfitting singer Shawn Mendes in a look that paid homage to Mapplethrope’s signature style.