I. At the end of Iris van Herpen’s Haute Couture Fall 2018 show titled ‘Syntopia’, an otherworldly, bird-like creature ambled down the runway with intricately layered wings that undulated like a stingray’s fins underwater. Inspired by the possible futures that emerge when biology intersects with engineering, the collection seemed to occupy a space between commonly accepted dichotomies – land versus sea; nature versus technology; organic versus inorganic. Since starting her eponymous label in 2007 at the age of 23, Iris van Herpen has become renowned for her sculptural designs that transcend the boundaries of fashion. Perhaps that’s why inimitable figures like Bjork, Tilda Swinton, Solange, and Cate Blanchett gravitate towards her pieces. And why cultural institutions, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, have exhibited her works.
II. ‘Haute couture’s chief scientist’, ‘sorceress of style’, ‘avant-garde technologist’ are only some of the terms used to describe Iris van Herpen. Born in 1984 in a small town in the Netherlands, she studied fashion design in Arnhem and went on to work for Alexander McQueen in London and Claudy Jongstra in Amsterdam. In 2011, Iris van Herpen debuted a 3D printed dress, the first of its kind to be seen on a couture catwalk. It was named by Time Magazine as one of the 50 top inventions. Later that year, she was invited by France’s prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to be a guest-member and show her collections twice a year at Paris Fashion Week.
III. Architecture, science, and technology are among the disciplines that Iris van Herpen has turned to when designing with textiles fell short of her vision for fashion. She regularly collaborates with researchers and artists in different fields to integrate techniques such as 3D printing, laser cutting, and injection moulding in her work. Interlacing traditional craftsmanship with cutting-edge technologies, she continuously challenges the kind of materiality that can be brought into a garment.
Nothing in the world
is as soft, as weak, as water;
nothing else can wear away
the hard, the strong,
and remain unaltered.
Outside the window at Iris van Herpen’s atelier in Amsterdam, water flows gently. Its iridescent surface in constant flux, adapting and responding to the environment. Water is a recurring reference for the Dutch designer, as is air, energy, and the order and chaos in nature. While technology is infused into her materials, it is nature that informs the structures and silhouettes in her work.
V. The first time I saw Iris van Herpen’s garments in motion was during a performance of Kreatur, a work by German choreographer Sasha Waltz, with half-naked dancers wrapped in voluminous quivering clouds of fine silver filaments. Iris van Herpen has also designed costumes for a ballet in collaboration with French choreographer Benjamin Millepied, as well as for an opera alongside Marina Abramović. For the fashion designer, who trained in classical ballet in her childhood, movement is what animates the garments and elevates them into artworks – both on stage and on the runway.
VI. Iris van Herpen has consistently created pieces that defy easy classification, combining exquisite artistry with sheer inventiveness. Her designs can be read as an idiosyncratic language, one that does not rely on clearly defined words and certainties, but filters the many currents that inform our everyday. If fashion is a reflection of ourselves and the world around us, then Iris van Herpen’s designs integrate not only the past and the present, but also envisage potential futures. She proposes fashion not just as a statement, but as a possibility, a question, a challenge.