The Battle for Florence

Text Adam Lehrer

Pitti Uomo, the bi-annual menswear trade show held in Florence, is generally a dandy traditionalist’s wet dream. It is the land of the suited, with buyers and editors running around wearing immaculately tailored three-piece suits and the occasionally awkward top hat. But more recently, the tradeshow has held special fashion shows for more left-leaning designers with its Pitti Imagine campaign: Hood by Air and Jeremy Scott’s Moschino have both recently held shows during Pitti Uomo. Pitti Uomo’s SS 2017 showcases were particularly special. The tradeshow held presentations for the world’s arguably two most important menswear designers of the moment: Raf Simons and Gosha Rubchinskiy. Raf Simons was arguably the first high fashion menswear designer that celebrated truly alternative methods of dressing, drawing inspiration from the codes of Post-Punk, Krautrock, and various youth cultures. Gosha is arguably the first menswear designer to come around that has actually come close to matching Raf’s menswear idea domination. But unlike Raf, Gosha isn’t much of an appropriator. Whereas Raf Simons mainly borrows aesthetics from various sub-cultures; from horror cinema visions of high school uniforms (FW 2016) to the commanding presences of guerilla warriors (FW 2001); Gosha takes inspiration from his network of young male Russian skaters and artists and tries to come up with new ways to dress them. Both approaches work, and Gosha and Raf are the confident weirdo and outsider’s designers of choice.

Pitti Uomo was an excellent gauge of where menswear is at in 2016. There is a massive spectrum of options in luxury, and it mainly comes down to what type of man you are and what you want to express about yourself. Pitti Imagine, indeed.

Gosha Rubchinskiy SS 2017: Italian Sportswear in a Counter-Cultural Russian Context

Gosha Rubchinskiy, clearly energized by the opportunity to present a show outside of Paris and even more so by the historical energy of beautiful Florence, tried to pin-point the best method to filter Italian sensibilities through the aesthetics of his own brand. The show’s location, a 1930s tobacco factory, was the most Soviet looking building that the lush landscape of Florence had to offer and a fitting metaphor for Gosha’s distinctly Russian view of Italy. The collection still emanated the wide-eyes enthusiasm of a Soviet-born kid learning to express himself as a flood of Western imagery suddenly enters his sphere. But in this case, Gosha focused on Italian sportswear brands as opposed to Americana heritage (there was some of that too, but more on that later); Gosha collaborated with a whopping five Italian sportswear labels and applied a Russian skate aesthetic to all of them. There were Sergio Tacchini red tracksuits, Kappa skin-exposing sportswear, FILA paneled sweaters and Tennis sneakers, Retrosuperfuture ‘70s recalling shades, AND Superga sneakers. Under any other circumstances, so many collaborations could feel trite. But Gosha’s post-Soviet wonder towards all things Western immediately makes his ideas feel both fresh and subversive. He has a fascinating perspective on brands and logos and how those icons fit into Russian sub-culture. That is why people want to buy into him: the man has a voice. It wasn’t just the logos that felt Italian however, and Gosha also referenced Pitti Uomo sprezzatura culture sharp tailoring with immaculately cut blazers in red and various pinstripes. But keeping true to his casual aesthetic, a sixth collaboration with Levi’s saw the tailoring styled with jeans and corduroy’s (sure to sell out in a heartbeat). This was an incredibly accessible collection and I would wager that its influence is already making its way throughout the industry (not going to lie, as soon as I saw this I started looking at Fila’s website, thinking I might alter my look to something more akin to Russian Christopher Moltisanti). But despite its accessibility, it still felt punk and subversive. Surely aided by the nothing less than artful styling of Gosha and Vetements mainstay Lotta Volkova (note: there was still only one black model, surely a damper on an otherwise perfect collection), Gosha’s post-Soviet Russian punker dream vision of Italian sportswear felt like a celebration of two wildly different cultures.

Raf Simons SS 2017: Raf Simons and Robert Mapplethorpe (Do I need to Say More?)

Just when I thought that Gosha couldn’t be beat for Pitti dominance, I log online and find that Raf worked with the Robert Mapplethorpe campaign. Holy shit. And it wasn't just like Raf went through the Mapplethorpe archive and put some of it on some t-shirts. No way, not Raf. There is no designer on Earth who collaborates with the fine art and music and cinema worlds in a way that feels as right as Raf Simons. When he collaborates with an artist, like he did with Sterling Ruby, he actually collaborated with him, as in Sterling co-designed the collection. Mapplethorpe has long passed, so this isn’t a collaboration but a curation of Mapplethrope imagery. Raf used the medium of fashion, the medium he knows best, to offer a new perspective on Robert Mapplethorpe while also doing what he does best: making incredibly striking and luxurious garments.

Unlike Raf’s other artist collaborations, the Mapplethorpe foundation actually contacted him (in conjunction with new HBO documentary Look at the Pictures). That is his influence in creativity today. Not one look throughout the show didn’t feature at least one print of a Mapplethorpe photograph, which were presented in a thoughtful and smart manner. The oversized dress shirts that opened the show (desirable products to begin with) featured gorgeous screen prints of Mapplethorpe work. From there, the presentation of Mapplethorpe imagery grew more fiercely experimental: some images looked like they were actually hanging framed on top of the garments, some poking through some monumental oversized, asymmetrical sweaters. Raf said that every look in the collection represented a piece in the Mapplethorpe archive. Therefore, much of the looks were based on the ever-stylish and fascinating Mapplethorpe himself. Mapplethorpe learned photography through self-portraiture, and he often depicted his interest in the leather and BDSM scene. Models wore leather caps and vests styled with various mega-desirable coats and one baggy pin-striped collared sweater (which I will certainly be saving up for). The show was equal parts exhibition and fantasy: bringing a dream to life. If there was one missed opportunity in the show, it was again that nagging casting diversity issue. There was only one black model in the show. Mapplethorpe was well-known for being fascinated and sexually enthralled with black men (his longest term boyfriend being of course Jack Walls). Therefore it would have made a powerful statement for Raf to diversify the show a bit.

Nevertheless, this show proved that Raf, now almost a year past his tenure at Dior, is having a serious third act resurgence. Whereas his last show drew influences from a well-spring of Raf’s heros (David Lynch, Martin Margiela, Cindy Sherman), SS 2017 is devoted to one and only Robert Mapplethorpe. Is the most important artist of our time really a menswear designer? As hard a pill as that sentiment might be to swallow for some fine art snobs, I think this collection could argue that notion to the grave. Raf is consistently redefining the possibilities of narrative in the medium of fashion, and he does so by making clothes that people still want to wear. Do you realize what a delicate balancing act that is?

Winner of the Battle for Florence?

Raf. Man, I really wanted to be picking Gosha for this one, considering he’s the freshest menswear talent since, well, Raf. And Gosha’s collection was perfect, seeing him dive into the Italian location of the show but filtering it through his Soviet punk aesthetic. It felt so right. But Raf just pulled off the first successful art exhibition as a fashion show, and did so presenting clothes that I still want to buy all of. 10 years from now, Raf Simons SS 2017 will be remembered as a pioneering fashion collection, and perhaps even the most exciting of Raf’s career. Raf wins. He wins every time.