History of Pitti
Raf Simons

To celebrate the legacy of Pitti Uomo, we are launching a four-part video series highlighting four select designers who have contributed to the heart of Pitti’s history. The first in the series features Raf Simons, one of the greatest innovators in contemporary fashion. “We like to believe that Raf Simons considers Florence the ideal context and opportunity for taking stock of his professional and personal projects, and for finding the energy and inspiration for future endeavors,” says Lapo Cianchi, Pitti Immagine Director of Communications and Events. “I believe that Raf Simons, like no other person in fashion, is able to grasp the restless spirit of youth, its lights and sounds, as well as the nostalgia for youth, which is a vital and positive acceptance of maturity. And this is why he succeeds so well in presenting the myth of youth in new forms and ways.”

Raf Simons’ work, which began halfway through the nineties, presented an aesthetic that was immersed in the streetwear, music, and visuality of teenage subculture, expressed in a harsh, graphic sensibility combined with romantic tailoring. Over his career, he has exhibited three times at Pitti Uomo—The Fourth Sex (2003), Icarus Surgit (2005), Florence Calling (2016)—each building on a larger, continuing narrative from the close relationship between Raf Simons and Pitti Uomo. 

The inaugural exhibition comprised a group show and catalogue, titled The Fourth Sex, which introduced viewers to the vision and world of Raf Simons. “Adolescence, youth culture, subcultures,” states Simons, “are as important to me now as before while developing my collections. It has always been a main theme or point of reference to me.” Curated by Francesco Bonami and Raf Simons, the show at Stazione Leopolda brought together works by artists as diverse as Larry Clark, Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami, Tracy Emin, and Ari Versluis, who explore the complexities of nostalgia, shame, and violence embedded in postwar youth culture (particularly from the US and the UK). For Simons, youth is less of an age or specific generation than a state of mind, typified by a total commitment to the extremes of love, defiance, revolution. “Perhaps only fashion is capable of infiltrating the mystery of adolescence effectively,” writes Bonami in the exhibition catalogue, “because the use of transgression to generate style, production and consumption is a part of its nature.” This “youth mode” is equally romantic as it is disturbing, as the exhibition’s references include Columbine High and UK skinheads, alongside the awkward optimism of teenage lovers. Rather than endorse or condemn any of the historic youth movements on display, the exhibition sought to capture the essence of youth: that fluttery feeling when everything at every moment seems to be on the precipice of collapse or salvation. 

Simons returned to Florence again in 2005, to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of his eponymous label. In lieu of a retrospective examining the twenty menswear collections of Simons’ career, the exhibition saw the publication of the first monograph on Raf Simons, featuring iconic imagery from his shows, as well as contributions from artists, writers, and friends that represent and inspire the world of Raf Simons. Alongside the publication was the two-part exhibition in Florence’s historic Boboli Gardens. The first was a video installation Raf Simons Repeat, by Peter De Potter and Raf Simons, which brought viewers into the designer’s visual and music vocabularies. Accompanying the installation was a fashion show, which saw oversized tops in lattice, and tailored linen suits, awash in gunmetal, dove gray, and ivory. “Diving back into my archive for our exhibition at Pitti in 2016, has triggered my own renewed interest in the history of the brand,” Simons says. “In a way this has culminated into a new project, which we just launched: we will be reissuing 100 of our archive pieces to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Raf Simons brand.”

In 2016, Raf Simons returned to exhibit a third time with Florence Calling, a fashion show which saw the designer’s collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe archive. The connection was fitting—Mapplethorpe’s life and work embodied the postwar subculture that Simons’ work frequently draws from, while grounding his photography in a classical formalism drawn from studio fashion photography. For the collection, Simons chose portraits and still lifes from Mapplethorpe’s archive to print onto long, oversize shirts and tops styled with knits, overalls, and dickies. The photographs both captured an era, while exhibiting a vision that is in equal turns shocking and earnest. 

On his relationship with Pitti Uomo, Simons has stated, “Florence holds a special place in my heart, as, over the years, I have regularly come back to show my work or to collaborate on projects that closely mirror my vision.” And in highlighting this history, we hope not only to focus on an enduring legacy, but to show the development of a total vision that looks forward to many years to come. “Our history always informs our present and hence our future,” says Simons. “Our past experiences direct the way we react to present challenges. Or, everything I’ve done or created in the past has a direct or indirect impact on what I’m doing now.”