The excitement in the run-up to this particular edition of Pitti Uomo was palpable. The line-up of designer projects at Pitti have always been impressive but perhaps it was the combination of a) one of the most significant menswear designers to have emerged in the last twenty years and b) potentially one that will follow in the former’s path to become significant in the next twenty years, both announcing that they would reveal their S/S17 collections in Florence, which caused a somewhat feverish enthusiasm. The crowd was certainly beefed up and the mood more giddy. Gosha Rubchinskiy on one day? Raf Simons the next? Fashion ‘fuccbois’ the world over were most definitely salivating.
Ok, I jest. Gosha Rubchinskiy and Raf Simons are of course on higher planes than the normal fucc’boi streetwear staples like Supreme or Palace, but the sort of geeky anticipation for their product often feels like it’s borne out of the same place, especially when you look at how men specifically buy clothes. I’ve seen young lads – maybe 15, or 16 years old – emerge out of Soho multi-brand store Machine-A, excitedly asking each other “Did you get the Raf?” “Nah, I got the Gosha instead… might save up and get the Raf next month.” (this is a verbatim convo I might add). They talk about Raf and Gosha t-shirts like they’re collecting Premiere League football stickers or new editions of trainers. Their design and referencing spheres are of course worlds apart but it’s testament to the way progressive and forward-thinking menswear has been embraced, that people buy both these labels in similar ways.
Gosha and Raf’s shows also formed a contrasting foil to what Pitti Uomo is generally about on first appearances – dandy suits, traditional tailoring and a contentious attitude towards what is “proper” menswear attire. That’s precisely what makes these special projects at Pitti feel… well, special. They’re given ample space and time for both the designer and the on-looking audience to create and see something memorable.
Rubchinskiy rebuffed the platter of palazzos on offer in Florence and instead took us to a Fascist-era tobacco factory. So very Russian, you might say but what actually ensued was perhaps Rubchinskiy’s most outward looking collection yet. I have sometimes found it troubling that the fascination with his work often stems from the exoticising of his Russian roots and that his clothes are constantly seen through this lens of “post Soviet youth”, precisely because the West have never experienced communism. That can feel like a narrow sphere to frame Rubchinskiy’s work. Therefore, it was pleasing to see him take a leap from Russia to Italy, beginning with the ‘Gosha’ take on tailoring (slouchy, relaxed and incredibly appealing) and ending with a heartfelt resurrection of much-loved, slightly-forgotten Italian sportswear brands like Fila, Kappa and Sergio Tacchini. Rubchinskiy has of course dabbled with logo plays before but here, these garments were official collaborations pitted with his logo in Russian. This was Gosha in Italy, marking a more internationally minded stylistic shift for the brand that steps outside of the underground skate parks and nightclubs of Moscow. And yet, his nods to Italian culture didn’t feel parochial. Fila and Kappa in particular resonated everywhere and will regale
It’s odd that as the tragically killed Labour MP Jo Cox’s words from her maiden speech have been ringing around my head (“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”), that Rubchinskiy, a Russian, should come to Europe and echo those thoughts. “This is the time when people need to collaborate and connect with each other, because we have the internet – everyone knows what’s happening around the world so it’s stupid to be isolated. Let’s try to find words and ways to speak and live with each other.”
That spirit of collaboration extended to the film and accompanying book and exhibition entitled “The Day of My Death” directed by cult Russian director Renata Litvinova. This odd surreal neo-nbir, filmed in the same tobacco factory where the show took place is dedicated to the famed Italian author, poet and director Pier Paolo Pasolini and the strange circumstances around his death. Rubchinskiy has always shown more strings to his bow than just designing clothes. In fact, arguably, his clothes are anchored to a spirit expressed through exhibitions, films and imagery that means taking it all in makes the end product more meaningful.
I never saw Simons’ collaborative exhibition with Francesco Bonami or his 10 year anniversary show in 2005, both staged as part of past editions of Pitti Uomo. I did get to see his Jil Sander show up in the Tuscan Hills in 2010, where rain dramatically fell as the last model took his exit. That was a shiver-inducing moment in my years of show-going. I highly doubt anyone who did experience of all four of Simons’ shows in Florence, would have felt deja vu on Thursday, as we stood outside the Stazione Leopolda, excited to see what lay inside. Mannequins perched on the roof of the building loomed over us. Like Greek statues communicating power, they set the tone for what would be an all-encompassing celebration of Simons’ work – past, current and future. At 8.30pm, the doors were flung open and we were plunged into red-tinged darkness. A throbbing maze of mannequins, scaffolding bars, sound equipment, where Soft Cell and New Order would soundtrack our feasting of Simons’ vast body of work. Curiously, his seminal menswear were displayed on mostly female mannequins (reportedly from his own personal collection), painted and customised in some way or another. That seemed to reflect the fluidity of Simons’ work appreciated and worn by both men and women. The mark of a strong designer is when you can do away with museum-standard labels and captions. You could easily point out the Sterling Ruby’s. The Peter Saville’s. The Manic Street Preacher patches. Or the period in time when his non-conventional tailoring and repurposing of bomber jackets and wide legged combat trousers came to fruition.
Once again, the audience were asked to stand or sit where they like, choosing their own view of Simons S/S 17 collection. The choice of view would be crucial in this instance as Simons unveiled a fully fleshed out collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, choosing, placing and recontextualising a vast array of the photographer’s images. Both familiar and unfamiliar squares of Mapplethorpe’s work hit you as they emerged printed on the chest, hems and backs of oversized shirts. They were like billowing vehicles to Mapplethorpe’s portraits, still lives and graphic work. Faces both famous and otherwise, bored their eyes into you. Flower still lives made their impression. Photographs of erect phallus peeked from beneath layers of slouchy sweaters and outerwear.
It was a fully fleshed out collaboration instigated by the foundation and so it was that Simons ensured the collection wasn’t going to just slap-dash place a few images here and there on some lazy tees. Simons turned his garments into a gallery, positioning each one with precision and also printing the images with care. The nods Mapplethorpe’s own personal style gave the collection more credence as skinny leather belts around the neck, skinny trousers and leather bar hats gave a newfound sensuality to this collection. Still, what struck me about the collection was Simons’ ability to interact with the art. There’s no shortage of examples where artwork has been placed cynically into a fashion context. Simons’ collection felt like it was borne out of a genuine fascination and respect. And beyond the fashion show, Simons has created a clever conduit to further disseminate these images that might well be unknown to a younger generation.
What ties the two collections together is the panache of recognisability – Rubchinskiy with his revival of old-school Italian sportswear and Simons with his reframing of Mapplethorpe’s most famous imagery. Once again, I’m thinking of those lads going into stores like Machine-A six months down the line, eager to snap things up. Good for them. They deserve snapping up. Despite, the generation gap between the two, both have managed to tap into that intangible quality of collectible permanence in their work that resonates with an audience of all ages. Pitti Uomo bagged themselves a triumphant edition that is unlikely to diminish quickly in people’s minds.