Certain album covers make such an impact that they transcend their original context, becoming pop cultural phenomena in their own right. Guests stepping into last night’s Raf Simons Spring/Summer 2018 show, deep in New York City’s Chinatown, were greeted by one of these designs—the layered lines of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures cover, printed on paper lanterns hung from the underside of the Manhattan Bridge. This, along with a selection of other graphics from the Factory Records catalogue by designer and label co-founder Peter Saville, was a central motif of Simons’ new collection, and a thread connecting his present to his past.
The Unknown Pleasures cover is a rare image in that can accurately be described as iconic. It is so widely reused and parodied for cheap ephemera like t-shirts, tote bags, and phone cases that it has become familiar even to those who couldn’t identify a Joy Division song. But Simons’ use of the artwork is not so much a comment on the commodification of visual culture and art objects as it is the latest expression of his longstanding relationship with Saville’s work. In 2003, Simons used a selection of Saville’s Factory work in a collection entitled “Closer,” after the Joy Division album of the same name. Simons added Saville’s imagery to his own oversized silhouettes, and items from this collection are now among the most coveted in his catalogue.
The impact of this collection would not be immediately felt, but over a decade on, it is no exaggeration to say it altered the trajectory of contemporary fashion. A generation of young designers, citing Raf as a formative influence, have made this technique of repurposing well-known imagery a central pillar of their respective practices. Take Virgil Abloh’s Off-White, for instance: Abloh openly reveres Simons, whose influence is apparent on key Off-White pieces such a hoodie emblazoned with a lightly altered Caravaggio painting. This type of graphic détournement, whether it’s logo-flipping, bootlegging, or simply recontextualizing, is perhaps the most definitive characteristic of streetwear today. It is the downstream impact of an artistic tradition dating back to Warhol’s silkscreens, Duchamp’s readymades, and even the early collages of Picasso and Georges Braque.
Saville and Simons, too, built their respective styles on this sort of playful appropriation. The Saville-designed cover of New Order’s debut album, Power, Corruption & Lies, is a slight reworking of Henri Fantin-Latour’s “A Basket of Roses.” When Simons re-used Saville’s cover in his “Closer” collection, placing it on the back of a military parka, he created a system of compounding referentiality that reflected the ever-accelerating velocity of image exchange. Saville and Simons’ ongoing collaboration, beyond producing covetable clothing, stands as a clarifying representation of early 21st century visual culture.