Iris van Herpen "Refinery Smoke" dress, July 2008, untreated woven metal gauze, cow leather, cotton
Iris van Herpen (Portrait by Jean Baptiste Mondino)
Iris van Herpen in collaboration with Julia Koerner and Materialise, "Biopiracy" dress, March 2008, 3-D printed TPU 92A-1, silicon coating
Iris van Herpen "Magnetic Motion" dress, September 2014, 3-D printed transparent photopolymer, SLA resin
Her womenswear is wearable art; her couture, a complex metamorphosis of conceptual clothing, masterfully manufactured into architectural, three-dimensional garments.
After cutting her sartorial chops at the Artez Institute of the Arts in the Netherlands and working as an intern under the late Lee Alexander McQueen at his London atelier, Dutch designer Iris van Herpen launched her revolutionary label in 2007, boldly fusing technology and fashion, manipulating fabric in an otherworldly manner to create dynamic, ultramodern pieces sought by the world’s most avant-garde.
In her “Mine” music video, Beyoncé wore an Iris van Herpen metallic cape dress; at a personal appearance promoting her Fame fragrance, Lady Gaga stepped out in a sculptural, serpentine creation.
Van Herpen’s masterpiece designs are the subject of “Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion,” opening this month at the Dallas Museum of Art, organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, with 45 couture pieces from the last decade of van Herpen’s career (through August).
Here, I discuss art, fashion, science, and groundbreaking design with the mystifying van Herpen, on the eve of her appearance in Dallas.
Iris van Herpen: There are many people I have met while traveling… friends, musicians, lovers I’ve been inspired by, as well as my older brother, Tim, who has been one of my earliest influencers. From a young age, he looked at life quite differently than most people.
His critical and creative mind has influenced me thoroughly. He is also a great musician and was my example when I started playing the violin.
The ballet effect.
IVH: One of the most influential things in my life has been my classical ballet practice. Those years of dance taught me so much about my body, the transformation of movement, the evolution of shape, and how to manipulate both shape and movement. Now, I am able to mix these inspirations from the transformative body, movement, and shapes into materiality.
On conceptualizing a collection.
IVH: Each garment and every collection is a search for new understanding and discovery — on a conceptual level, on the level of materiality, on the level of techniques (in and outside of fashion), and on the level of beauty. Most collections start with new material developments, and techniques — both handwork and machine work — and are refined after that. When materials and techniques are decided, all draping on the mannequins starts. There is no drawing involved.
While draping, the concept is being received and defined. Then pattern making starts. But sometimes it’s the other way around — I’ll have a concept in my mind and then look for materials and techniques that translate it. But a concept is something very transformative that evolves and changes so often, that when I start with a concept, the process of the collection becomes very chaotic.
Art of collaboration.
IVH: The most personal and inspirational collaboration of all was with architect and artist Philip Beesley. I saw his work many years back and felt wired; it was like seeing undiscovered land. Without knowing him or even meeting him, I decided to make my Hybrid Holism collection inspired by his work. He saw the collection and visited me in my studio in 2012. We shared all kinds of samples, experiments, and dreams, and started collaborating on my Voltage collection.
From that moment, we have continued our collaboration, like the glitch dresses from the latest collection. They are made from little expandable, laser-cut Mylar waves that move so fast around the body that the eyes can’t focus, creating glitches. Generally, we think in different scales with different techniques, but that is where the unforeseen is created — by sharing these differences and challenging each other to see new solutions.
When science meets fashion.
IVH: I do not design or work with nanotechnology directly, but nanotechnology is quite often used in material science and fabric development, so some fabrics I’ve worked with are developed with the help of nanotech to improve their features.
At home in Amsterdam.
IVH: My studio is located at the river Het IJ in Amsterdam, where we have a beautiful view of houseboats and sailboats. It’s like being on holiday — the whole atelier takes a swim during our lunch break in the summer.
The building is a characteristic, yellow-stoned warehouse with lots of wood and metal pillars. The studio is very light, with nine big windows to the water. It’s my favorite place to be. I feel at home here, even more than at my [own] home.
I am here most of my time, working with the atelier on designs and experiments. It’s full of mannequins, sewing machines, pattern tables, computers, material experiments, art from artists who inspire me, and the studio cat, Spin, who keeps us calm in busy times.
IVH: I have three ways of dressing. The first is utterly basic, when I don’t want to think about myself: black skinny trousers and a black sweater. The second is for semi-special moments, or when I am just bored of my black. This is when I wear a long, silk, traditional Japanese kimono with a colored pattern and a belt. My third way of dressing is for special moments — a couture dress from my archive.
What’s next. IVH: At the moment, I’m working on my next couture show for Paris in July. It will be a special one, where we will celebrate 10 years of [my brand]. I am also working with contemporary dance choreographer Sasha Waltz on her new creation that will premiere in Berlin in June, and also on a collaborative design project in architecture.
On transforming fashion.
IVH: It was through collaboration and my interest in architecture that I discovered more and more possibilities outside the usual processes in fashion. Some techniques used in architecture triggered me to think differently about my own process.
The magnetically grown dresses of my Wilderness Embodied collection caused a big transformation in the process, as we used the natural power of magnetism to shape — or to grow — the textures. I was searching for the fine balance between order and chaos in the process of these garments; same for the water pieces of my Crystallization and Capriole collections.
Making chaos the uncontrollable part of the design process is frustrating. But when it works, you can see in the outcome that more than a human hand has shaped it. There is a natural beauty to find. Next to the process, the experience of wearing a garment like this is also transforming. A garment made especially for you is such a different emotion than buying a mass-produced garment.
It is this understanding of what we are, where we live, what we eat, what we consume, what we wear, what we think, what we know, and what we pass on.
“Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion,” on view at the Dallas Museum of Art, May 21 through August 20.