The Dutch designer has an insatiable appetite for knowledge, leading her to pave the way for never-before-seen haute couture.
If haute couture is a factory of dreams, Iris van Herpen is one of its master weavers. This soft-spoken, slender, and unassuming woman with long strawberry blonde hair has, for more than a decade, consistently transformed jaded fashion front row regulars into wide-eyed children staring with wonder at her otherworldly creations. “It is like wearing a piece of art. What she creates is so special. Each piece is an exceptional surprise,” says veteran Hollywood stylist Leslie Fremar, who recently dressed actor Eva Green for a red-carpet premiere in Los Angeles in one of Van Herpen’s designs. “Eva fell in love with Iris’s dress as soon as she saw it. She appreciated the art and craftsmanship that went into it. I’ve never received such positive feedback for a dress that I’ve styled.” It takes a certain kind of woman to wear one of Van Herpen’s designs. Women like Björk, Solange Knowles, Tilda Swinton, Gwendoline Christie, Cara Delevingne, Cate Blanchett, and Lady Gaga. They have the character it takes to not lose themselves in the artistry and the technical prowess to pull off such imaginative and unusual garments.
Since Van Herpen started her company in 2007, the Dutch designer has found that exploring the juxtaposition between the beauty of Mother Nature and the beauty born from man-made innovations to be her happy place. 3D printing has become one of her signature avenues of sartorial expression, as has the incorporation of unconventional materials. She also bends state-of-the-art techniques and technological advancements to her creative will to bring into being sculptural garments that always seem to have a sense of movement at their heart.
“In my world, I don’t see a distinction between nature and technology. They influence each other and they are obviously intertwined in our lives, even in our bodies nowadays. I think they are pure expressions of the dichotomy of our lives,” says Van Herpen from her Amsterdam studio that overlooks one of the city’s many canals. “The pieces I make live in-between the worlds of art and fashion; I am very flexible about how people perceive them, as both are the truth.”
Van Herpen was raised by her ballet teacher mother and a father who worked as an advisor to a governmental water agency in a quiet village outside of Amsterdam. With no television or computer screens to stifle her imagination, her formative years were filled with painting, playing the violin, and a serious love of ballet, which she studied until she was 16. She would go on to study fashion design at the renowned art academy ArtEZ and intern for Alexander McQueen and Claudy Jongstra, before deciding to head out on her own.
Ask the designer, who likes to sky-dive to give her mind a creative clean slate, what superpower she wishes she had and the answer reveals much about her. “Time travel,” she states matter-of-factly. “There are so many people from the past I would love to meet. If I could go back and visit with only one, it would be Leonardo da Vinci. What I love about him is his unlimited curiosity about every layer of life and how he wasn’t scared to move from one discipline into another. He never limited himself by defining himself.”
The same can be said about Van Herpen. She is passionate about exploring different artistic and scientific disciplines. She often works with masters in other fields, such as Bart Hess, Daniel Widrig, Tara Dougans, and Joost Vandebrug to create her designs. Sometimes this collaboration is more directly, like when she worked with the American kinetic sculptor Anthony Howe on her most recent haute couture collection, Hypnosis – the ideal title for a show filled with undulating geometrically designed ensembles.
The pieces felt structured while portraying a sense of fluidity, with sharp black piping denoting the fabric edges and rivulets of dégradé colors cascading down dresses. For the 10-year anniversary of her brand, Van Herpen collaborated with the performance musicians Between Music for her Aeriform couture show, with the artists performing live underwater during her presentation.
These creative partnerships can also be felt more subtly in her work. Trips to the scientific research center CERN in Geneva will spark an interest in using magnets and their effect on fabrics. Currently, she is fascinated by the work being done at TU Delft University, where researchers have found a way to transform wastewater into a pearlescent shell material. “I almost can’t believe what they are able to do,” Van Herpen says with audible excitement in her voice. “It’s like 21st-century alchemy.” She also recently worked with Neutelings Riedijk Architects to create the new Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, which opened in August. For this collaboration, she was inspired by fossils in the center’s archives to create more than a kilometer of three-dimensional designs, hand-sanded into concrete, to mimic the idea of beauty through erosion over time. Her contribution was woven, like sedimentary layers of rock, into the overall structure of the building. According to architect Michiel Riedijk, they reached out to Van Herpen because they were drawn by the research she has undertaken into natural organic references. “We are fascinated by the ways she turns this inspiration into research and innovation as a novel expression in contemporary collections. This matches the ambitions we had in mind for the design of the new Naturalis.”
This collaboration has only sparked in Van Herpen an even more fervent desire to explore the world around her. And one place that is at the top of her bucket list is to revisit the UAE. Her curiosity about the Middle East was first piqued via the work of her fellow countryman MC Escher. The mathematical beauty found in his tessellation patterns lead Van Herpen to discover the geometric beauty in Islamic artwork and architecture. “It is mind-blowing, the mathematical perfection of it. The architecture is stunning and so fundamentally different from anything else on this planet. I really want to go there and do a deep dive into that,” she says. The mind begins to spin at the thought of what a talent like Van Herpen could conjure up in her atelier if she ever turned her full attention to the mathematical precision of Middle Eastern artwork. It could end up being some of her most engrossing and original designs yet. Fusing fashion’s future with the world’s past in a way that would be, without a doubt, both breathtaking and bold.
Originally published in the October 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia