Despite the appeal of the dresses sculpted in mysterious materials in Iris van Herpen’s Amsterdam studio, my eyes were instead drawn to the swell of water outside the window.
Looking out over the bay at the art of nature while she works on scientific exploration seems like an interesting contrast. So I asked this Dutch designer of hyper-modern materials and futuristic fabrics, what does this naturalist vision mean to her?
“It is difficult to say, but I do think it has an influence on my work,” she explained. “I have been working on dresses inspired by water. It is this on-going fantasy of being able to use materials that you cannot control — and water is one of them.”
Iris Van Herpen, 30, is probably the fashion designer with the most sci-fi sartorial vision. In her studio, hand workers were coaxing incomprehensible materials into snake-like swirls, or moulding super-fine metallics shot with colour.
The work of the hyper-original designer – who won the coveted French ANDAM Fashion Award last year — shows such a unique approach, that I had to ask her whether she sees herself as a fashion designer, a technician, or a magician — or even a scientist.
“I am definitely not a scientist,” she said. “I get a lot of inspiration from different fields, but I really see myself as a designer who is introducing those diverse areas into fashion. And that is my goal. It is not about the art or science separately; it is about taking bits from different fields and bringing them into my work.
“I do feel really inspired by so many fields,” she continued. “Technology, arts, dance — even philosophy. All of this comes together in my work.”
I looked round the studio where four people were working intensely, hands on, with materials that were difficult to comprehend — although Iris herself was wearing a simple, soft, long black dress that looked more discernibly wearable than the stiffly moulded dresses on display.
It turned out that some of the outfits were being remade for the first solo Iris van Herpen exhibition, which will take place later this year in Atlanta, Georgia.
I asked her how much time was spent on scientific experiments.
“The biggest part of making a collection is the research,” she said. “It is the thing I get most excited about — finding new techniques and materials, and people to work with. It’s really a learning process of trying and experimenting and making mistakes. I think it’s the most important part of the work and the collections.”
The Iris Van Herpen Paris Fashion Week shows have included some extraordinary presentations, such as models hung onstage inside giant plastic bags. The clothes are equally unlikely, and after studying a dress that appeared to be pieces of glass intersected with twigs, I asked the designer about both the vision and the execution.
“I thought of this look as a halo; an entity around you, because you still see the silhouette of the body, but there is this transparency around it,” she said. “It definitely has a different life to it; it looks a bit like it is growing out of you. It is a collaboration with an artist-architect. He inspires me, and we worked a lot with 3D structures.”
“The idea is of technology versus handwork,” she continued. “This piece has been designed but then laser cut by machines, then heated up in the oven and pulled out, and then it is all assembled by hand, so it’s a nice mix between human activity and machines.”
I asked the designer how she would categorise these dresses with so much handwork — even if not of the conventional kind. Could they be described as modern couture? She has, after all, been made a guest member of the Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
“I definitely think it is a new form of couture, there is a lot of time and handwork in it, but then we combine it with new materials and technology, so it is different,” she said.
Iris told me that her favourite dress is one from her last runway collection, shown in Paris. It is circular, representing infinity, or, as she put it, “the idea of the circle going into the circle going into the circle”.
She then described her concept of the galaxy, created by colours brought about by burnt metal, which appear “subtle, but intense at the same time”. She said the “original colour of the material is this grey silver, like shine, and then all of the colours you see are literally created by fire.
“We are using a torch that has a really hot, blue fire, and then we can create colour by deciding the amount of heat,” she continued. “So all the colours you see are different heats. I am really subtle with colour, but because it is done with fire, it works well together. There is a nice overlap.”
What astounded me the most was when she sent out her A/W15-16 Magnetic Motion collection. She collaborated with artist Jólan van der Wiel, working with magnets, and together they created shoes that appeared to grow like blades of grass on the runway.
Iris said she had been inspired by her visits to CERN, the European Organization of Nuclear Research.
“How can I use a force like that in my work, growing and creating something?” she recalled.
“It is like a dual-component material, where there is rubber inside and it is still soft, so you can pour it onto something. If you put the magnet underneath, in a few seconds you literally see it grow.”
I left the studio exhilarated, slightly overwhelmed but excited to see a designer so dedicated to making the future happen.