For the late Robert Mapplethorpe—a pioneer in legitimizing photography as a contemporary art form and democratizing sex as something that pretty much everyone partakes in, whether rendered explicitly or not—more was always better, less was never acceptable, and up was always the only direction. Before his death of AIDS complications in 1989, Mapplethorpe had risen through the complex social labyrinth of golden age Gotham, photographing an unholy trinity of genitalia, flowers, and the who’s who of the gossip pages (including the world’s first female bodybuilding champion, Lisa Lyon, in 1982). Today he’s receiving a groundbreaking joint retrospective at L.A.’s LACMA and Getty Museums, along with an HBO documentary airing on April 4. His ruthless drive worked.
Less remarked upon, though, was Mapplethorpe’s appreciation of fashion and style. From the backroom of Max’s Kansas City—replete with Fran Lebowitz in her trademark men’s suits and Debbie Harry in her braless T-shirts—to the basement of the gay nightclub Mineshaft and its leather accoutrements, he chronicled the hedonistic sartorial evolution of New York City. His album cover for muse (and roommate) Patti Smith’s 1975 Horses is as arresting now as it was then—and an androgynous bellwether for someone like Hedi Slimane, who pulls off a similar genderless rock-waif air so well at Saint Laurent. And when Mapplethorpe befriended the permanently elegant Carolina Herrera on a private plane en route to Mustique, they stayed friends until he passed away, with Mapplethorpe often shooting the designer.
On the kinkier side, modern-era collections ranging from Shayne Oliver’s Hood By Air to Alexander Wang’s chains for Spring or David Koma’s Pre-Fall body-modification nods all owe something to Mapplethorpe’s pioneering and uncompromising spirit. “Anything goes” seemed to be his guiding credo. “Once I’ve taken a photograph, I’m not shocked anymore,” he once said. “I’d been through the experience.”