Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion

High Museum of Art

High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Transforming Fashion
Iris van Herpen (Dutch, born 1984) works at the nexus of fashion, design, technology, and science. With a dynamic and path-breaking body of work, she is widely heralded as a pioneering new voice in fashion. She produced her first collection in 2007, shortly after graduating from the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in the Netherlands. Based primarily in Amsterdam, away from the Parisian world of haute couture (she has been a member of the Chambre Syndicale de Haute Couture since 2012), van Herpen divides her time among the contained world of her studio, her global network of collaborators, and the international stage of fashion, where her designs regularly appear in biannual Paris runway shows. Fashion is about quick deadlines, international platforms, and a voracious need for the next new thing. It is a discipline that requires tremendous creative energy to constantly produce and perform. Van Herpen is known for her willingness to experiment—exploring new fabrics created by blending steel with silk or iron filings with resin, incorporating unexpected materials ranging from umbrella tines to magnets, and pushing the boundaries of technologies such as 3-D printing. Van Herpen has created a body of work that continues to defy expectation, evolving and forging new ideas and inspirations based both in nature and in visions of the contemporary world. The resulting works, defined within the fashion world as couture, are typically collected and shown in museums, viewed more often as fine art than as design-forward wearables. This exhibition documents the evolution of Iris van Herpen’s couture through a selection of her collections from 2008 through 2015 and illustrates the many ways she continues to seek inspiration beyond the world of traditional handwork and craftsmanship. "Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion" is co-organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands; photography by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios. The exhibition is currently on a North American tour with stops at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Oct. 23, 2016 – Jan. 15, 2017; the Carnegie Museum of Art, Feb. 4 – May 1, 2017; the Dallas Museum of Art, May 21 – Aug. 20, 2017; the Cincinnati Museum of Art, Oct. 14, 2017 – Jan. 7, 2018; the Phoenix Art Museum, Feb. 4 – May 6, 2018; and the Royal Ontario Museum, June – Aug., 2018.
Chemical Crows: January 2008
Chemical Crows was inspired primarily by Iris van Herpen’s observations of a group of crows living around her studio. Her fascination with birds began at an early age, when she kept young jackdaws. Crows are known for their intelligence and predilection for glittering objects and are traditionally associated with secrecy and symbolism. Van Herpen is also intrigued by black magic and alchemy. She shares with alchemists a passion for controlling and transmuting materials, which is how she developed the urge to turn the crows into gold. As alchemists tried to turn base metals into gold, so van Herpen has transformed gold-colored umbrella ribs into whimsical fan-like shapes to represent the crows. She also used thousands of yards of industrial yarn to construct layered textures that give the impression of a suit of feathers in motion. With a passion and compulsion to gain control of her materials, van Herpen has transformed them into this amazing collection. Chemical Crows is van Herpen’s first major collection and was crafted entirely by hand. The three works illustrated here are in the collection of the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands.
Refinery Smoke: July 2008
Refinery Smoke is based on the astonishing beauty, the ambiguity, and above all, the elusiveness of industrial smoke. Seen from a distance, smoke provides a fascinating and dynamic spectacle: at times it seems to be alive, but it also harbors something sinister and can even be toxic. These properties, along with its soft, flowing texture, made Iris van Herpen wonder whether it might be possible to gain control of smoke to such an extent that it could be worn around the body. Van Herpen has manifested these ideas in a metal gauze that she had specially woven for the Refinery Smoke collection. The material, which is unusual in the fashion world, consists of innumerable fine metal threads. Van Herpen transformed this stiff material into wearable fabric that appears soft and light. The dresses started as silver gray but have oxidized over time to a reddish-brown, serendipitously reflecting the dual nature of industrial smoke. The three works illustrated here are in the collection of the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands.
Mummification: January 2009
Mummification reflects Iris van Herpen’s interest in the macabre beauty of ancient Egyptian mummification and the intense devotion surrounding the process. The idea of swaddling, wrapping, and covering is clearly visible in many of the collection’s pieces, along with the geometric and graphic patterns characteristic of Egyptian mummies. The way the Egyptians used these traditional practices to create form inspired her to design her own world with similar dedication. Van Herpen painstakingly handcrafted this collection from leather treated with different techniques, along with lace, tens of thousands of eyelets, ball chain, motorcycle chain, and thousands of metal balls. Van Herpen explains the deep connections between Egyptian beliefs and her Mummification collection: “The Egyptians tried to create reality by means of their art. They considered the reality that they created for their deaths as the reality, while their daily life was an illusion. In other words, don’t believe everything that looks obvious, but create your own reality.” The three works illustrated here are in the collection of the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands.
Radiation Invasion: January 2009
An intercontinental phone conversation prompted Iris van Herpen to question the innumerable flows of digital information that surround us like rays at every moment and in every place. In spite of the ubiquity of this information, we can access it only by using specific equipment. What would we do with our daily overdose of electromagnetic waves and digital information streams if we could see them? In Radiation Invasion, the wearer seems to be surrounded by a complex of wavy rays, flickering patterns, vibrating particles, and reflecting pleats. The collection is about the simultaneously frightening and fascinating presence of radiant energy (particularly that generated by electronics) that constantly surrounds us. Van Herpen represents in this collection how it might look if we could detect and manipulate radiation—if we, like magnets, could attract and repel. This collection is the start of a theme that continues to pervade van Herpen’s work: the role of technology and its relationship to the body. The three works illustrated here are in the collection of the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands.
Synesthesia: February 2010
Synesthesia is a rare and particular neurological condition that results in a combination of sensory perceptions. For instance, some people can taste colors and see sounds. Iris van Herpen interprets this phenomenon as a hallucinatory sensation. Van Herpen approaches the body as a malleable, sensitive, and fragile object. With Synesthesia, she enlarges body parts through transparency, movement, and extreme repetition to emphasize refined craftsmanship. Starting from a vision of the future in which clothing might supplement or strengthen sensory perception, van Herpen has designed certain elements—such as hypersensitive, vibrating instruments or extra receptors—that enable the wearer to experience the world in an entirely different way. Using specially treated leather coated on one side with shiny metal foil, she created a striking and bewildering visual effect that makes it difficult for the viewer to recognize exactly what he or she is seeing. Synesthesia marks van Herpen’s first collaboration with United Nude for a collection of shoes based on the same theme. The three works illustrated here are in the collection of the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands.
Crystallization: July 2010
The design for the new extension to Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, which earned the nickname the bathtub, inspired Iris van Herpen’s Crystallization collection. She sought to design a dress that would cascade around the wearer like a splash of water. The properties of water in its various states—such as its potential for chaos and unbounded nature when in liquid form and the mathematical beauty of the hard crystalline structures that appear when water freezes—are clearly recognizable in this collection. These associations also serve as a metaphor for the artistic process, wherein an initial idea crystallized to form a tangible collection. To create this collection, van Herpen made use of unconventional materials and techniques foreign to the fashion world. The piece that appears as a lifelike imitation of a splash of water would seem to be the result of some industrial procedure but was, in fact, painstakingly created by hand using a hot air gun, a pair of pliers, and Plexiglas. In contrast, the dress with the striking design which recalls the way that limestone deposits harden and form shells, is the first 3-D-printed garment ever sent down the runway. Van Herpen created it in collaboration with architect Daniel Widrig. The three works illustrated here are in the collection of the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands.
Escapism: January 2011
Escaping from everyday reality through addictive digital entertainment incites in Iris van Herpen not only feelings of emptiness but associations with the grotesque, the extreme, and the fantastic. Another important source of inspiration are the exuberant baroque sculptures of American artist Kris Kuksi, in which the bizarre and the fanciful are fused with serene and spiritual elements. Van Herpen has expressed this theme through all kinds of material experiments. For instance, she has shaped black transparent acrylic sheets into eccentric pieces of clothing with spherical or wing-shaped ornaments, making use of both old, traditional handwork techniques and new technology. Rapid prototyping enabled her, in collaboration with architect Daniel Widrig, to materialize digital designs using a 3-D printer producing a lacelike structure without any need for a needle and thread. For a number of outfits, which seem to be partly taken over by a coral-like structure, van Herpen used various techniques to handcraft the plissé (wrinkled or folded) texture. In contrast to modern mechanically folded plissé, the effect of the handwork is much more organic. The three works illustrated here are in the collection of the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands.
Capriole: July 2011
Iris van Herpen made her debut in Paris as a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture with this collection. A compilation of highlights from previous collections, Capriole also presented five strikingly new outfits that evoke the feeling just before and during a free-fall parachute jump. Capriole is a French word meaning “leap in the air.” Van Herpen explains, “Just before I jump out of the plane, all my energy is in my head and I feel as though my mind is snaking through thousands of bends. The moment of free fall is the complete opposite: all the energy is concentrated in my body; I can feel every fiber, and my mind is not working anymore. Once I’m safely on the ground, I feel born again.” The “snake dress” consists of serpentine forms made of acrylic sheets that writhe around the wearer. Using the same acrylic material, van Herpen created pieces with jagged spikes reminiscent of ice floes. These were inspired by the algorithmic sculptural work of architect Michael Hansmeyer. The 3-D-printed “skeleton dress” evokes the moment of free fall when the body feels as though it is growing in all directions. The three works illustrated here are in the collection of the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands.
Micro: January 2012
To create the Micro collection, Iris van Herpen zoomed in on the world of microorganisms, inspired by the extraordinary work of scientific photographer Steve Gschmeissner, who uses a scanning electron microscope to bring the incredible beauty of this parallel world into focus. Van Herpen’s designs in this collection reflect her desire to make visible a reality that surrounds us every day but is usually hidden from sight (as she had with digital information in Radiation Invasion). Van Herpen was intrigued by Gschmeissner’s micrographs and with the fact that the minuscule beings they depict are so close to our skin but that we know so little about them. This led her to design a collection that combines handwork and technology. The results are astonishing: sculptural pieces whose forms refer to cell structures, plasma, and tentacles. Peculiar bulges, armored shapes, and scales not only leave the viewer guessing about what they are and where they come from but also invite reflection on the evolution of microscopic forms. The three works illustrated here are in the collection of the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands.
Hybrid Holism: July 2012
Canadian architect and artist Philip Beesley’s work Hylozoic Ground provided the inspiration for van Herpen’s collection Hybrid Holism. Hylozoism is the ancient belief that all matter is in some sense alive. Drawing from this idea, Beesley’s seemingly living environment breathes, shifts, and moves in response to the people walking through it, touching it, and sensing it. He incorporated microprocessors to give the environment a primitive or insect-like intelligence like that of a coral reef or a great swarm. Such works suggest that future cities could operate as living beings. Intrigued by the possibility of constructing semi-living systems, van Herpen imagined a new form of fashion where designs can grow, evolve, and even exist independently from us. In a culture where obsolete designs are often discarded, van Herpen proposed that clothes and objects might instead evolve and transform over time. Combining diligent craftsmanship with cutting-edge technology, including 3-D printing, van Herpen translated this futuristic vision into a collection that is highly complex and incredibly diverse in terms of shape, structure, and material. Two of the works illustrated here are owned by the designer, and one is in the collection of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
Voltage: January 2013
Iris van Herpen explores the body’s electricity in her Voltage collection. The work of New Zealand experimentalist Carlos Van Camp, who choreographs with extremely high voltage instruments (tesla coils) that interact through the movements of the performer, played an important part in the evolution of this collection. Van Herpen used cutting-edge technologies to create pieces that evoke both beauty and danger. Her designs seek to portray both the unpredictable movement and transformative power of electricity.  Described as taking an alchemist’s approach to fashion, van Herpen perpetually embraces new collaborations with artists, architects, and researchers, fusing their science with her own vision. Van Herpen shares Canadian architect Philip Beesley’s fascination with new materials and has established an ongoing collaboration with him to imagine designs that react to the energies of their environment. Interested in the ways that chemistry and electricity can cause structures to change form, the pair developed several 3-D fabrics that respond to the movements of the wearer’s body through dynamic vibration. The three works illustrated here are owned by the designer.
Wilderness Embodied: July 2013
The powerful, unbridled forces of nature were the starting point for Wilderness Embodied. This collection explores instances in which the wild forces of the natural world are manifested in, or on, the body. Van Herpen sees the ritual and transformative qualities of piercings, scarification, and surgery as examples that emphasize the wild(er)ness of the human form. Juxtaposing traditional craftsmanship with technological innovation, van Herpen’s designs evoke complex natural forms that appear to emerge from and even overtake the body. Canadian artist David Altmejd, whose hybrid humanoid figures and environments echo van Herpen’s interest in fusing nature and culture, was an important inspiration for her designs. For this collection, van Herpen collaborated with Dutch artist Jólan van der Wiel, who often incorporates unorthodox materials and techniques that bring the forces of nature into his designs. His use of magnetism to gradually “grow” a series of Gravity Stools inspired the two designers to create dresses whose cratered topography is generated by the phenomena of attraction and repulsion. Two of the works illustrated here are owned by the designer, and one is in the collection of the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands.
Biopiracy: March 2014
In an era when it is now possible to purchase patents on our genes, the boundaries between private and public are growing increasingly porous. Iris van Herpen’s Biopiracy collection explores physical integrity, individuality, and autonomy, fundamentally asking: are we still the sole proprietors of our bodies? Working with artist Lawrence Malstaf, who specializes in the interaction between biology and physicality, van Herpen created one of her most shocking runway shows. Models, vacuum packed between layers of transparent PVC, appear embryonic as they float in a meditative, suspended animation. Precious elements, such as blown-glass fire opal beads, embedded in a garment and partially hidden from view, lend individuality and sumptuousness. A translucent black halo dress made of handblown glass balls radiates like a halo around the body. Another dress, which Van Herpen made in collaboration with Julia Koerner, gives the impression of kinetic energy. In this case, the fusion of the artisanal with the technical resulted in a 3-D-printed dress that seems to dance and amplify the wearer’s movement. After it was printed, the dress was coated with silicone to create a soft, supple-looking finish. Two of the works illustrated here are owned by the designer and the third is in the collection of Phoenix Art Museum. 
Magnetic Motion: September 2014
Early in 2014, Iris van Herpen and Philip Beesley visited CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, to see the Large Hadron Collider, whose magnetic field is 100,000 times more powerful than Earth’s. Van Herpen was fascinated by this interplay of magnetic forces, saying: “I find beauty in the continual shaping of chaos, which clearly embodies the primordial power of nature’s performance.” Van Herpen’s layered, three-dimensional structures—which combine innovative techniques like 3-D printing with intricate handwork—explore the dynamic forces of attraction and repulsion. Van Herpen collaborated with Beesley to create luminous, three-dimensional textiles comprising tiny webs of laser-cut acrylic that echo the body’s movements. Throughout the collection, the clothes’ controlled structure, such as that of a crystalline 3-D-printed dress, is offset by accessories with individualized, even chaotic, forms. Van Herpen worked with artist Jólan van der Wiel to create a series of shoes using the same magnetically-grown technique the pair had used in their collaboration for Wilderness Embodied. Two of the works illustrated here are owned by the designer, and one is in the collection of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
Hacking Infinity: March 2015
Hacking Infinity explores the idea of terraforming: modifying the surface of another planet to resemble that of Earth. This collection considers the possibility of new geographies and our place within them. Van Herpen used the circle—the shape of planetary bodies and a symbol for infinity—as the formal starting point for the silhouette and cut of her collection. Throughout the collection, van Herpen extends the boundaries of the human body by producing synthetic terrains and new textures. She developed a light, translucent fabric made by weaving together tiny threads of stainless steel. Each garment was hand burnished to imprint a nebulous sheen of colors into the steel fabric. The hot steel fabric was then hand pleated into a fan shape called a plissé to outline and echo the body. Here, van Herpen continues her exploration of three-dimensionality by creating innovative, voluminous textiles, such as a halo-like meshwork of flexible, laser-cut acrylic combined with leather, silk, and crystals. In another design, translucent, 3-D-printed minerals encase the body within a crystalline topography. The three works illustrated here are owned by the designer.
Credits: Story

All works are designed and made by Iris van Herpen. Individual works note collaborators when applicable, whether individuals or companies.

"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.

Photography by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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