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A few years into her career, designer Iris van Herpen wanted to re-create a splash. An exact physical replica of water crashing around a human body. Her vision was clear: a wearable garment that wrapped around the shoulders and looked as if the wearer, quite suddenly, had fallen backward into a bathtub. A splash frozen in space.
Having grown up in a small riverside village in the Netherlands, she had always been fascinated with water. To her, it represented chaos. How interesting, she thought, to allow something uncontrollable to control my design process.
“I had the sense that I would have to work with a newer technology that could achieve this,” says van Herpen. It was 2010. She thought of 3D printing, but found the technology wasn’t ready. The resolution was too low, and it was impossible to 3D-print something completely clear.
“So I started trying different things out with hot air guns and metal pliers, and I tried out 30 or 40 different materials until I found the right one,” says van Herpen.1 Working in her intimate Amsterdam studio with a small team of interns, she discovered the pliable effect of heated polyethylene terephthalate, a recyclable material often used in plastic bottles. With great patience, she would warm up one area, sculpt it, and wait for it to cool, before heating up a different section and having the entire sheet morph in her hands anew.
“It’s this really organic process where things are constantly changing shape. That chaos factor is actually really exciting for me,” says van Herpen. Her so-called water dress debuted on the runway that summer, layered over another dress made of goat leather and silver chains.
Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion, co-organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, showcases seven years of haute couture from 15 of van Herpen’s collections. It marks the designer’s first North American tour and the first contemporary fashion show exhibited by Carnegie Museum of Art. It’s on view in the Heinz Galleries through May 1.
“The idea of bringing in a fashion show has been on my mind for more than a decade,” says Rachel Delphia, the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design. “You’re always looking for the one that’s just right, and Iris is absolutely and unquestionably that one.”
Van Herpen, now 32, is a visionary, blurring the worlds of fashion, art, and design. She is a guest member of the prestigious Parisian Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and shows exclusively in Paris twice a year. Through ultra-precise handwork and nontraditional technology, she manipulates such exotic and humble materials as bird skulls, leather, pearls, magnets, metal mesh, and glass. The resulting garments, a type of wearable sculpture, explore dark themes related to identity, nature, and science that make viewers question what it means to be alive.
“The idea of bringing in a fashion show has been on my mind for more than a decade. You’re always looking for the one that’s just right, and Iris is absolutely and unquestionably that one.” – Rachel Delphia, the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design
In an interview with Vogue, van Herpen says she was raised by “hippie” parents who didn’t endorse external influences like television and magazines. Instead she spent her early years living in her own curiosity and self-expression. She practiced dance, played violin, and collected materials purely because they fascinated her. At 18, she moved to the city of Arnhem to study at the prestigious ArtEz Institute of the Arts. The urban setting made her aware of her own identity in new ways, and she started to make her own clothes.
“[Fashion] was the perfect blend for me, between my dancing background—focusing on the body—and working with my hands,” says van Herpen. It became the vehicle through which she could explore the body, what it is and what it can be.
Technology as a tool
To see van Herpen’s work up close is to lose the immediate grounding of what materials you’re looking at. In one of her first collections, Chemical Crows (January 2008), released after an internship with renegade designer Alexander McQueen, van Herpen transformed the golden tines of children’s umbrellas—stitched together using a handweaving technique—into garments with metallic wingspans inspired by the small crows called jackdaws she saw outside her studio window and also kept as a child. The structures are shockingly graceful. According to van Herpen, they also reflect the alchemist’s desire to turn mundane objects into gold.
“From the beginning, I have been trying to define my own language in this locked-down system and get fashion out of its comfort zone,” van Herpen told Vogue.
Four years ago, a colleague of Delphia’s returned from a trip to the Netherlands and plopped a heavy exhibition book on her desk. Delphia leaned over the inky black cover and saw a single image. It looked like a skeleton: intricate, eerie, and beautiful. “I had never seen anything like it. I opened this book and thought it was absolutely breathtaking,” she says. It was the collected works of van Herpen, compiled by the Groninger, a museum working to discover and support emerging Dutch talent. Looking through the catalogue, Delphia began to feel like she’d found a show that would grow in nuance when experienced in Pittsburgh, and at Carnegie Museums.
“Often technology is inspired by natural processes, so it’s one big loop. And it’s inspiring to be in that loop.” – Iris van Herpen
“The art-science connections are so rich and ripe,” says Delphia, “for this institution and for this city, which is completely rebuilding itself in a lot of ways around technology.”
For one, van Herpen finds conceptual inspiration in science.
“She has a whole line called Radiation Invasion about electromagnetic pulses that surround us but that we can’t see,” says Delphia.
There is also Synesthesia (February 2010), inspired by a neurological condition where people have the ability to taste color or see sound; and Biopiracy (March 2014), in which van Herpen asks—in an era where genes can be purchased and organs can be grown—are we still the proprietors of our own bodies?
Beyond the conceptual, there is the practical. “That’s when she becomes interested in a technology to create the aesthetic that she has in her mind,” says Delphia. Technology becomes a tool.
By 2014, the advancements in 3D printing created an opportunity for van Herpen. For years she’d held an idea that she just couldn’t make by hand: She imagined an intricate clear dress formed as though crystals had frozen around the torso. She partnered with 3D Systems in Tennessee, and over the course of more than 80 hours the team printed the dress in two pieces, polished, and finished it. It was perfectly translucent.
“It was such a thrilling moment for me because it was in my head all those years and finally came out,” says van Herpen.
Delphia notes, however, that van Herpen is no less proud of the prelude to the 2014 ice dress, the water dress. “She would never say, ‘this is old technology and this is new technology.’ It’s more like, ‘I made the two things I wanted to make with the best materials I could make at that moment.’ She tenaciously pursues her visions, and doesn’t give up even when it takes many attempts,” says Delphia.
For van Herpen, the difference between what’s organic versus manmade—and what’s made by man versus machine—is a false dichotomy that she hopes to draw attention to with her work. “Often technology is inspired by natural processes, so it’s one big loop. And it’s inspiring to be in that loop,” she says.
The fact that this is the first fashion show presented by two American art museums implies that there is something particularly artistic about van Herpen’s work.
“Looking at fashion and particularly looking at couture, it can often be kind of voyeuristic,” says Delphia, “like watching Hollywood go down the red carpet and just thinking, “Oh that’s a beautiful gown. I would never be able to afford anything like that.” Van Herpen’s work has been worn by the likes of Beyoncé, Björk, and Lady Gaga, but those credits don’t create the kind of visual and intellectual excitement curators look for when envisioning an art exhibition. A garment has to do more than inspire us to covet it.
“To me, Iris’ work has the intellectual underpinnings: her deep engagement with these scientific concepts and this deep inquisitive mind. There’s so much that transcends a more typical conversation within the realm of fashion,” says Delphia. In terms of the skill and craftsmanship, “we can get behind it being high art, unquestionably.”
The exhibition features 45 outfits, displayed chronologically, as well as shoes. Videos from van Herpen’s runway shows demonstrate the kind of movement and energy the pieces create when worn. The garments themselves are displayed on mannequins, allowing viewers to more intimately appreciate their artistry.
“You see that kind of layering and dimensionality and craft. You see the handwork and the dedication and detail that goes into the making of the work,” says Sarah Schleuning, the curator of decorative arts and design at the High Museum of Art, who co-organized the exhibition with curators Mark Wilson and Sue-an van der Zijpp at the Groninger.
“There’s this really incredible progression from the early collections, which are very insular, and you see these iterative works around a single idea,” she says.
Van Herpen’s second collection, Refinery Smoke (July 2008), is particularly interesting to view in the Steel City: a series of billowing, gravity-defying dresses made with steel mesh that appears soft like tulle and lighter than air.
“She was interested in the duality of the beauty and toxicity of industrial smoke,” says Delphia. “I think about Pittsburgh, a city that had been derided for a century and a half for its pollution and industry and at the same time has also been incredibly inspirational to artists,” she says. “The photography of our mills, the paintings of the post-industrial landscape. It’s the feeling that something is both tragic and toxic and also visually compelling.” Similar to the Core-Ten steel sculpture by Richard Serra marking the museum’s entrance, van Herpen’s steel garments will rust over time.
Moving from the early collections, which rely more exclusively on handwork, van Herpen “starts to collaborate, and the ideas likewise kind of explode and exponentially become diversified,” says Schleuning.
One of van Herpen’s most enduring collaborators is the experimental architect Philip Beesley, in whom she has found an energizing kindred spirit and, increasingly, a friend. In 2013, they collaborated on Voltage (January 2013), a collection exploring the elusive nature of energy. And, for van Herpen’s Magnetic Motion (September 2014), the pair visited the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland. They reveled in experiencing this place where superconducting magnets forced particles to collide at nearly the speed of light. Upon arrival, the pair descended into one of the facility’s main chambers.
“It was being worked on and the huge central brilliant tube that holds the vacuum and snakes around for 27 kilometers in diameter was open,” says Beesley, who spoke at the Museum of Art as part of the exhibition’s opening. The vastness of the instrumentation was staggering: magnetic coils wrapped around individual banks of censors. “I remember having the feeling it was almost like being underneath Niagara Falls.”
What struck both of them was the simple and undeniable fact that this space, which holds arguably the most powerful technology in the world, was made by human hands. Beesley likens its appearance to embroidery. “There were bundles of blue cables very patiently grouped together and orchestrated and labeled sometimes with magic marker,” he says, “positioned with a grain that spoke very much of intimacy and then gathered together into this kind of vast array.”
They left CERN with a new vocabulary. “We started talking about quantum foam and the possibility of entanglement,” says Beesley. During their visit, he and van Herpen had experienced movement so infinitesimally small it was invisible to the human eye, but for them, it could be felt. “There’s a kind of tangible energy that is inevitably mapped into our bodies.”
“From the beginning, I have been trying to define my own language in this locked-down system and get fashion out of its comfort zone” – Iris van Herpen
A robe-like coat from Magnetic Motion explores this very idea that movement is everywhere, and not just where we can see it. The work is made from hundreds of tiny laser-cut acrylic elements that hover around the body, and when in motion creates a kind of rolling effect.
Collaboration used to be frightening, admits van Herpen, who today has an international cohort of collaborators with niche expertise in the technology, architecture, or scientific practice that she requires to actualize her visions.
“At first it came out of a need, and after a while I got used to opening up my mind and realized I could learn a lot from different ways of thinking,” she says. The fingerprint of other makers has become another form of chaos in her work. “It becomes like dancing together,” she says.
Standing in a gallery viewing van Herpen’s garments—clothing which offers the potential to receive and interpret digital information, populate the universe, or heighten the senses—one might make the intellectual jump and wonder whether it all might happen one day. “In a way, it sets up a challenge,” says Delphia. “It sets up an inspiration for technically inclined people of the world to make it happen. It’s tossing an idea out there, imagining this future reality.”
Through her process and her product van Herpen challenges us to see what may not be possible today, but might be made real by chasing an idea. “That’s an important role that the arts play,” says Delphia, “having the vision to dream it.”
Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion is co-organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands. The exhibition was curated by Sarah Schleuning, High Museum of Art, and Mark Wilson and Sue-an van der Zijpp, Groninger Museum. Support for this exhibition has generously been provided by Creative Industries Fund NL. Carnegie Museum of Art’s presentation of Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion is supported by the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Foundation at the request of Ellen Lehman and Charles Kennel; the Bessie F. Anathan Charitable Trust of The Pittsburgh Foundation at the request of Ellen Lehman; The Coby Foundation, Ltd.; PNC; Vivian and Bill Benter; UPMC; and UPMC Health Plan.
1Unless otherwise noted, quotes from Iris van Herpen are part of an interview between van Herpen and Sarah Schleuning published in the exhibition’s catalogue.
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