The Robert Mapplethorpe-photographed sleeve to Patti Smith’s Horses has inspired more designers than perhaps any other image in rock. It’s one of those omnipresent atelier mood board references, straddling Raf Simons’ early menswear, Top Shop’s window displays and just about every Ann Demeulemeester collection of the last 20 years.
When it appeared in 1975 it was a powerful, monochrome counterpoint to the rest of punk: an androgynous Smith standing by a white wall next to a triangle of light and a soft shadow, dressed in a white shirt with a ribbon around her neck; face scrubbed, hair wild. “I’d flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style,” Smith recalls in her biography, Just Kids. “I was full of references.” Camille Paglia has written of it being the most “electrifying image” she has ever seen of a woman: “Smith defies the rules of femininity… it unites austere European art films with the glamorous, ever-maligned high-fashion magazines.”
When a young Ann Demeulemeester saw the image in an Antwerp record shop in 1976, it would change her life. “I was struck by the cover,” she says. “I had an intuition that I was going to know this woman.”
When a young Ann Demeulemeester saw the image in an Antwerp record shop in 1976, it would change her life. “I was struck by the cover,” she says. “I had an intuition that I was going to know this woman.” Which she did, going on to collaborate with Smith on a number of collections while consistently channeling Horses with her stark, black and white rock aesthetic. Today, they’re close friends and Smith wears the very clothes that she inspired in the 1970s.
Demeulemeester isn’t unique in her fixation with the Mapplethorpe image. “The Horses cover appears time and time again on the studio walls and mood boards of fashion designers,” says Robert G Leach, author of The Fashion Resource Book: Visual Research for Fashion Design. “It fits so well with the modern minimalist aesthetic favoured by designers and labels such as Jil Sander, Helmut Lang, Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein and Phoebe Philo at Celine.”
From Hedi Slimane, Balmain and Limi Yamamoto to The Gap and “the boyfriend shirt”, the stark Horses image has given inspiration to endless sets of bohemian-tinged white shirt, black jacket and pants combinations, while indie bands reappropriate it on a loop. More than an image, it’s a mood: strong, provocative and thoughtful. It has a timeless integrity and purity, which the very best fashion design is constantly striving for. C