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Leather masks and rear cleavage: Ludovic de Saint Sernin makes New York Fashion Week debut

By Jacqui Palumbo and Alex Rees, CNN

(CNN) — In 1990, photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe led to obscenity charges for a Cincinnati museum. His depictions of men in laced-up leather, collars and belted jockstraps caused a national firestorm by daring to show the bare eroticism of queer men against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis.

Nearly 35 years later, at New York Fashion Week’s most anticipated debut, the Paris-based fashion designer Ludovic de Saint Sernin — whose ascension has been buoyed by bold and sensual gender-agnostic looks — translated Mapplethorpe’s alluring and once-taboo black-and-white photographs into an enchanting collection of crystal mesh gowns and black leather, including BDSM-inspired masks and rear-cleavage pants. Diaphanous fabrics forming long-sleeve shirts and barely-there side-tied tops featured appliqued silhouettes of Mapplethorpe’s calla lilies and muscled bodies, seemingly playing on the idea of photo transparencies. (The collection is a sanctioned collaboration with the late artist’s foundation, much like one with Belgian designer Raf Simons in 2016.)

“Robert has always been a huge inspiration to me — in discovering his work, I discovered myself,” de Saint Sernin told CNN backstage.

The show, titled “X,” after the famed photographer’s most controversial portfolio of work, arrives at a time when skin has been very in — or rather, out — with wispy “naked” dresses and pantless silhouettes dominating runways for more than a year, though often to sterile effect. That’s far from the case with de Saint Sernin, who has dressed the likes of Kim Kardashian, Kim Petras and Arca since launching his namesake label in 2017, and whose brand naturally evokes the kind of sex appeal that sets pulses racing.

“Sometimes I get shy about how the work I do can be perceived as sensual and expressing sexuality,” de Saint Sernin explained to CNN in a video call ahead of the show. “And now I’m like, No, I need to really own it.”

His label’s flavor of sexuality is one not bound by gender, with the freedom for anyone to show off their shoulders in an embellished halter top or delight in the risqué pleasures of peekaboo cotton organdy.

“I like to show how a person can explore their feminine or their masculine side… and I think that evolution and competence you can gain with your gender and your identity is an exploration that you do your whole life,” de Saint Sernin said.

A message of self-love

To date, some of the designer’s most high-profile collaborations have included making Olivia Rodrigo sparkle in 150,000 glittering Swarovski crystals for the MTV Video Music Awards, outfitting Kim Kardashian in a plunging lace-up leather ‘cleavage dress’ to officiate a wedding (as seen in the fourth season of “The Kardashians”), and creating the flowy glittering top Troye Sivan dances in in his music video “Got Me Started.”

But his most viral moment came at last year’s Oscar parties, when Hunter Schafer wore a single white feather bandeau top and long silk skirt hot off the Ann Demeulemeester runway, which de Saint Sernin led for a single season. De Saint Sernin’s message of self-love and self-expression found a fitting home with Schafer, whose career-launching role as the trans teenager Jules in “Euphoria” embodied the same spirit.

Now, the New York runway is new territory for de Saint Sernin, who got his start at the storied French luxury house Balmain under creative director Olivier Rousteing, and has shown his own line in Paris each season. Instead of showing his clothes in daylight — chosen, he said, to emphasize “elegance and fantasy and queerness and fluidity,” (last season’s show was set in the sunlit promenade of the city’s Musée des Archives Nationales) — for his first official outing in American design, de Saint Sernin wanted to transport his guests to the hedonism of a New York City dance floor and convey the act of “losing yourself in the night in the city and not really knowing what’s in store for you,” he said. “(It’s) sexy, hot, steamy, sweaty.”

Paying tribute to New York

Through “X,” de Saint Sernin tells the loose story of Mapplethorpe’s New York over the course of nearly 40 looks, during the period in which the photographer was “trying to figure out his identity as an artist and also his sexual identity,” the designer explained.

But “X” is a coming-of-age tale for de Saint Sernin’s brand too, now polished, matured and carrying the cachet of Paris, as he shows to a new market overseas that has been eagerly snapping up his clothes.

“It turns out the US is my biggest market… we dress a lot of celebrities in New York and LA and I just wanted to pay tribute to New York as a city that has the most incredible creatives,” he said.  “It’s a place where queer culture is so strong and celebrated, and I always feel very free to be myself and dare more and have fun.”

Next, the designer has set his sights even higher, as he hopes to bring his take on unbridled freedom and expression to luxury worldwide.

“The ultimate goal is to become like first queer global (fashion) brand and have it be the story of someone who found their community and thrives in it and celebrates it and shares it with the world” he said. “That’s really what we want to do.”

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