All of America was at home on their couches watching the Super Bowl, hoping for a Taylor Swift sighting, but you wouldn’t have known it at Ludovic de Saint Sernin’s sceney New York City debut. Marc Jacobs, Jenna Lyons, and Inez and Vinoodh were in the crowd that turned out to see what the Frenchman would get up to stateside.
Tonight’s show was bigger than anything de Saint Sernin has done at home in Paris, where he’s shown (mostly on the men’s calendar, but sometimes on the women’s) since 2017; he’s a poster boy for a new kind of queer fashion that puts people of all genders in spangly tanks and briefs, hip-slung jeans with eyelet-laced flies, and sexy, body-bearing clubwear.
What brought him to New York was a collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. De Saint Sernin read Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir of her relationship with the groundbreaking photographer, Just Kids, in his twenties, and credits the book with not just his self-discovery but also the genesis of his brand. “I relate to him on both a personal and artistic level, so this is kind of a pinnacle,” he said backstage.
It was important to de Saint Sernin to address the breadth of Mapplethorpe’s range, from the flower photography to his controversy-stirring chronicling of the gay BDSM scene. In the process he could flex his own, opening with sheer organdy tees fused with hand-cut velvet flowers and jeans and moving into crystal versions of the flowers on a chainmail dress and a couple of skimpy one-shoulder and halterneck tops. “We start the show with something very innocent, very pure, and focused on Mapplethorpe’s work,” he said.
From there, it moved on to a reimagining of New York office wear of the 1970s and ’80s, with leather trenches and bombers, and eyelet-fly leather pants worn with a white button-down and bright red tie, not unlike one that the photographer wore in an iconic self-portrait. Less innocent, but tamer than what the designer closed with. “As this is a story of discovering identity, it goes darker and darker into full-on sex and nightlife and club life,” de Saint Sernin said. “Mapplethorpe had the audacity to share his fantasy with the world and I think that’s really powerful, because he helped a lot of people, including myself, to really be daring and embody every part of ourselves.”
A scooped front leather apron dress put a frame around its model’s pectoral muscles, but more provocative were the “butt-cleavage” leather pants and briefs, cut to dip low in the back exposing a few inches of crack, like a push-up bra does for breasts. These last pieces brought back the feeling of the earliest de Saint Sernin shows, when masculine self-expression (at least on the runways) fell within narrower bands. It’s down to him and other rule breakers to expand our vision. For some, there was a Super Bowl to get back to; from the looks of that butt-cleavage, we missed a fun after-party.