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Fashion Victim

3 October 2013

When London Fashion Week swings around every six months, you can find any number of poseurs, voyeurs and flâneurs in the city. At Somerset House, you will find the highest concentration. William Chambers would be tickled to find his building turned into mecca for some of fashion’s greatest mistakes.

Further north, and minutes from the relentless surge of Oxford Street, an exhibition of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work has opened at Alison Jacques Gallery. When I arrive, there are two women looking around. One is wearing a top with ‘Fuck’ emblazoned on it, the other a pair of platform brothel creepers and a velveteen jumpsuit. They are discussing how ‘sick it is to see some of Mapplethorpe’s best work’.

Back in 1970, the fashion crowd was less crowded than it is today. But it existed, and Mapplethorpe captured it. Today, he may have owned a blog, and used Instagram. What will constitute fashion photography exhibitions in 30 years remains to be seen.

Mapplethorpe’s ex-boyfriend David Croland curated the show (immensely handsome then, and now, still prepossessing I am told; his current boyfriend is many years his junior). It lends the exhibition a personal tone, and the respect that Croland feels for his lover of three years is evident. This is a private exhibition, a shrine to Mapplethorpe, but it does not do him many favours.

There are the shoots for Vogue, but they look tired, their geometric obsessions humdrum. One image features Karl Lagerfeld, and gently rips off Norman Parkinson. It is sad that the most intriguing thing about it is how little Karl Lagerfeld looks like the Karl Lagerfeld of today.

A series of small silver gelatin works in the adjoining room showcase the fashion clique. Ossie Clark, Loulou de la Falaise, Yves Saint Laurent, Marianne Faithfull are all there. What is not there is a sense of just how good Mapplethorpe was as a photographer. It is a shame. The shots are anaemic, and risk presenting him as a fawning diarist.

Two images are striking. They are both of Milton Moore, one of Mapplethorpe’s muses. One is of his bottom, the other of his cock. The joy is their sculptural presence and their visceral qualities; their presence in the show makes the rest of it feel vapid in comparison.

Croland wanted this show to ‘piece together Mapplethorpe’s career’. He wanted to demonstrate his love not just for naked men, but also for high-end fashion. The exhibition succeeds in doing that. Here are the flâneurs, the voyeurs and the poseurs from the fashion world of the 1970s. But Mapplethorpe’s best work? You will not find it here.

‘Robert Mapplethorpe: Fashion Show’ is on at Alison Jacques Gallery until 5 October 2013.

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