There are few designers so bold in both concept and creation that have the ability to thrill the most astutely discerning audience in the fashion world.
There are far fewer who have the power to transport that audience to another world entirely.
But when Iris van Herpen’s AW16 Haute Couture collection, Seijaku, flowed into the Eglise Réformée de l’Oratoire du Louvre, the coordinates of fashion’s trajectory shifted entirely. This was not a runway as we knew it.
The epilogue to Lucid, the Dutch designer and couturier’s earlier collection, entitled so due to its examination of the stream of unconsciousness experienced whilst dreaming, Seijaku was an exploration of the study of cymatics – the visualisation of soundwaves as evolving geometric patterns.
Pieces presented symbolised the piques, troughs and tessellations of soundwaves, as undulating fabrics took a technological twist; the product of van Herpen’s creative laboratory where fashion and futurism are bonded inexorably together.
Taking interdisciplinarism to the extreme, her collections are, she says, an “intense combination of contradictory worlds”, creating a new narrative and notion of reality for fashion. The artistry of draping is juxtaposed with the detail precision of 3D printing. Musicality and movement are woven into every stitch of material. The schematics of each aesthetic structure take shape in a free and meditative state. All unite to create an entirely new medium that strives to achieve a potentially unattainable balance of tech and technique.
Speaking to van Herpen shortly after the unveiling of her recent collection, we travel deep into the craftsmanship at the heart of every one of van Herpen’s creations and an evolutionary design process that is an intersection of man-made and machine.
fluoro. How have you evolved as a designer since your first collection and what were the factors that influenced your evolution?
Iris van Herpen. I practiced classical ballet for many years, and that taught me so much about my body, her movements, her shapes and how to manipulate it. Those years were flourishing ground for my fascination for fashion, where I am able to mix my inspirations from the body, movement and shape into materiality.
This organic alchemy is still the base in my work today. The difference now is that I am not so dominated by my tools anymore. I am combining all different techniques, from computational to magnetically grown fabrics. Every technique requires a different approach and different skills. It’s like playing music, every instrument needs a lot of practice before you master it. But the skills in one instrument do help to master another.
My experience and knowledge in craftsmanship helps me hugely to master a dress that I want to 3D print. And constructing some of the dresses computationally, helps me figure out new construction perspective for dresses we make with the hand and the needle.
f. What are the design considerations needed to ensure the balance of creating pieces that are visually powerful, yet delicate?
IVH. My design process is very untamed. I don’t have routine in my process or my way of thinking. I can imagine a technique or material that doesn’t exist yet and look for people who can help me realize it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. A lot of my designs come from draping on the mannequin. That’s a very unconscious, almost meditative state, that I have to be in. Some dresses are drawn 3D on the computer and then printed, and often finished by hand. Some looks are a collaboration with an artist and that makes a completely unpredictable process again.
It’s a continuous dance between control and chaos. Within that draping process I tame myself in a very peaceful, lonely, semi-conscious state. The main emotion I feel when I drape is often visible in the outcome. People with a good eye that know my work well are able to see that. Within the draping process I find that balance between the visual persuasion, the movement, the delicacy, the past, the future, the organic, and the intense combination of contradictory worlds. I am looking for that perfect balance that might not even really exist. But to come as close as possible is the point.
f. Is there a consistent approach taken for each article of clothing you create? Or is each piece their own?
IVH. Some deeper inspirations create a continuous signature in detailing, the craft, the materials, the new technologies etc. But then each concept for each of my shows, projects my mind at the time. That can be CERN for one collection, or a collaboration with an artist that I’ve started for another collection. Each collection is a chapter, revealing a bigger story all together. For each collection I develop new techniques and new materials, from traditional craft to collaborations I did with artists and architects, from 3D printing, lasercutting, moulding dragon-skin, to ‘hand-grown’ magnetic structures. When I translate my inspirations into my materials and fabrics, we mix traditional craftsmanship with new technologies, so we’re able to go far beyond the possibilities of just using one medium. The huge amount of detailing that’s present in the dresses and garments that we make in the IVH atelier are only possible because of this.
f. Where did your fascination with technology and 3D printing stem from?
IVH. I’m fascinated with three-dimensionality. And I’m fascinated with movement. I used to dance—that’s really my background—and it infuses every aspect of my design process. In fact, if I were to use one word to describe my work, it would be movement. With 3D printing, or 3D lasercutting, or even molding I have a lot of different possibilities to explore movement and three-dimensionally. Also, the detailing you can achieve with 3D printing is extraordinary.
I work with technology, but the hand and the machine are equal within my design process—they are totally integrated. I’m not any more or any less attached to a machine than I am to my hands. For me, it’s a dialogue. In my process, handwork inspires the pieces that are machined and vice versa. They improve and strengthen one another. I regard machines as tools, just as I regard my hands as tools. I tell my hands what to do, and I tell machines what to do.
f. Despite the strong emphasis on technology, how important is the human element in your work and why?
IVH. I started making clothes for myself, I was around 12 or so, experimenting with my own identity by making garments by hand – I never liked the sewing machine. So I needed a lot of patience, stitching every seam by hand. But I found sort of a meditative space in doing that and found out, that while I was doing that, I could think much more creatively then normally, where the fastness of impulses, and distraction are mighty in my mind. The process, the ‘making of’ the garment, became leading, and that never changed, still today, the process of making all the Couture in the IVH atelier is one with my design process, it’s a dialogue between the hands and the mind. Between 70 and 90 percent of my work is made by hand — hand cutting, hand stitching, etc. Even when I collaborate with scientists or architects, or even a 3D printing company, the hand is never absent. Some designers like to give more autonomy to a machine, especially the computer, but I would never let a computer design any part of my work. I want to control every aspect of my design process. For me, handwork is a form of meditation. It makes me go into another mindset, which is a very fertile one for new ideas to me.
f. What movements motivate your work?
IVH. The explorations of ‘living architecture’ are super inspiring to me. That our future cities can be grown instead of being built, that our constructions can become organic; that blows my mind. Philip Beesley is exploring these undiscovered fields, where unexpected disciplines merge seamlessly. He has mastered the perfect balance between art, nature and science. The artists Tomas Saraceno and Ned Kahn I also admire and inspire me within my concepts.
f. Does music impact your creative process and the delivery of your collections?
IVH. Music is a big driving force in my whole process, a source of energy and inspiration. When I hear good music, I see images or structures automatically, like I translate the soundwaves into visual waves. This helps me find the right balances while draping.
My boyfriend is a musician and he has his studio in the same building as my atelier, so while I work on a collection he sees the whole process and he is capturing that to translate it into music again, for the runway show. Music is our language forwards and backwards in that sense.
f. Is there anything you’d like to experiment in/with, in the future?
IVH. I am very interested in the chemical reactions between materials, it’s this energy that can be transformative. I have high hopes for metabolic materials and their unexpected behaviors that triggers me to rethink my designs and I am interested in the potential of 4D printing in our future.
Not one to simply hang on the coat tails of whatever this future may hold, van Herpen is in its constant pursuit; chasing it and shaping it through boundary-less design. Part-artist, part-scientist, the interconnectedness of her craft renders her collections entirely unpredictable and, therefore, all the more fascinating, with their conceptual nature offering a view through the looking glass to van Herpen’s interpretation of the futuristic possibilities for fashion.
Her enigmatic warning to expect the unexpected when asked about her new collection is almost perfunctory. After all, anyone who has paid witness to any of van Herpen’s work will have come to expect nothing less.