Most of the millions of people flowing through Oxford Street will never discover this gem of a gallery hiding just a few short minutes away. It's their loss. Alison Jacques Gallery is an understatedly elegant space and the perfect home for this latest exhibition of work by controversial American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Probably best known for his images of explicit male nudity, this exhibition showcases a selection of less contentious but equally compelling work from both Mapplethorpe's personal and professional lives. The intimate collaboration with a past love that spawned this show is instantly obvious from the introductory text that greets the visitor at the door. The anecdotes ooze affection and cast a sentimental light over everything that follows, making this exhibition as much about the man behind the lens as it is about his creations.

Fashion Show features many photographs that have never before been exhibited publicly, as well as examples of his other lesser-known creative experiments with sculpture and collage. The exhibition spans both rooms of the gallery, with the work cleverly divided into two distinct areas that each have a very different atmosphere.

The first room houses Mapplethorpe's glamourous forays into the fashion world, including photographic commissions for publications such as Italian and French Vogue. Living in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, Mapplethorpe was surrounded by bohemian creativity and it is this social circle of artists, models and socialites that star in his sophisticated glossy images. Anyone expecting to see Mapplethorpe's trademark homoeroticism will be disappointed. The work on these walls is elegant and refined, easily living up to comparisons that have been made with the other great fashion photography names of the era, such as Avedon and Penn.

Blatant erotica may not be on offer here, but there are plenty of examples of his fetishistic tendencies. The photographs displayed in the main room are arranged into smaller collections, with the first telling a story of fishnets and stilettos. In Leg (1983) a muscular male limb bulges beneath the graphic pattern of the stockings, creating both a visually arresting image and a risqué challenge to gender stereotypes and sexual taboos. Mapplethorpe skillfully uses lighting to highlight the patent leather of the high heels being devoured by a frequent muse in Ken Moody (1985).

Texture is a key theme in this exhibition. The sumptuous black-and-white photographs are rich with wools and furs and skin that gleam like silver. Pattern is an important reccurring device, too. The fishnets are not just used for their sexual connotations but for their strong geometric form. Shapes and pattern appear both on sets and on clothing, and potentially clashing circular and square designs sit together harmoniously: a tribute to Mapplethorpe's ambitious stylistic eye. A modern audience will find little here to be shocked by; however it is important to appreciate the courage behind some of Mapplethorpe's contentious choices. Taboos are challenged by the mixed raced couple in Paris Fashion/Dovanna (1984) – a common occurrence in our times, but much more unusual in the fashion photography industry back then.

Presented in the second, more confined room of the gallery are a series of polaroids. The context of the room immediately gives a more personal feel and perfectly suits the more ad hoc origins of these scenes. This is Mapplethorpe at creative play. Here is also where we meet lover, fellow artist and muse David Croland. In a series of images he appears bound and gagged – a real fashion victim – but the scenes are playful and emphasise the artist's ever-watchful creative eye, while the multiple shots also shed light on the two men's relationship. This other room also reveals that Mapplethorpe's creativity was not limited to photographic work. Amongst the photographs lurks a surprising collage and a sculptural piece consisting of a mirror layered with a metal grid, which continues the geometric theme from the adjoining room. Alongside the polaroids there is also a large display case containing unique, handmade jewellery. These earthy pieces of leather, wooden beads and even the limb of a deceased creature (tail or foot, I couldn't quite tell) contrast greatly with the shiny perfection of his fashion photography – yet another unexpected aspect of this photographer's personality successfully brought to light.   

The final parting photograph is the perfect culmination of all the themes of this show. Within the graphic set of Miguel Cruz (1986) a beauty removes a luxurious woolen jumper. The subtle erotica alludes to the career that lay ahead of this young photographic talent. Unfortunately Mapplethorpe's life was cut tragically short, but as long as exhibitions such as this still arise his creative successes will never be forgotten. 

Robert Mapplethorpe: Fashion Show, at Alison Jacques GalleryStacey Harbour's review of Robert Mapplethorpe's Fashion Show at Alison Jacques Gallery.3