MEET THE MAKERS: IRIS VAN HERPEN
„Material” is the word that comes to mind when thinking of Iris Van Herpen’s work. She is inventing new forms that are somehow both alien and familiar, but still feel like they are tapping into the pulse of our time. The surface demarcation of materials is something that Herpen has explored in great depth. Her work appears malleable and uncanny but still looks like her interest in materials and shapes developed holistically out of the wonder of nature, out of space. Herpen’s work at moments makes you think she is living in a parallel universe, somehow blurring the line between where fashion ends and art begins. We sat down with her to discuss her technological approach to fashion, how time-consuming everything is, and her prevailing ideology.
When you first started doing fashion, what did you do?
I started making clothes for myself, I was around 12 years old or so, experimenting with my own identity by making garments by hand. At the time I did not have the knowledge of patternmaking or sewing machine skills. 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 now the process of making is one with the design process, it’s a dialogue between the hands and the mind.
You are one of the most technologically astute and experimental designers working today. When developing new technics you tend to work with other professionals like computer programmers, nanorobotics scientists or biologists. How much time does it usually take to develop a new technique, and do you know from the very start what do you even want?
Each garment and each project has such a different timeframe to make and design, some pieces I can drape in half an hour and the construction can be done in a week. But for other pieces my design process is very spread out, I leave it for a while if I am not happy with the results and proceed with it after some time, that can take a year or so before it’s perfect. Some dresses are made by hand and take months to make with several people. A misunderstanding about my work is that people tend to think I have like a laboratory, mostly working with scientists and technology. But most part of every garment that is made is actually handwork, that I combine with the innovation and modern approach to couture. But craft and other techniques are completely blended. And the interesting thing; most of the time, no one is able to really see or understand how my garments are constructed, because it is so mixed. I sometimes know exactly what I want and stubbornly go for it, but often I let my draping and my intuition decide.
You have „grown” garments from magnetic fabrics, you are really big on 3-D printing, you play with all kinds of materials. You made a dress from kids umbrellas (wires), formed faux ice crystals from rubber. This all sounds really time-consuming, and with fashion and seasons moving so rapidly, where do you even find the time to develop, to experiment?
I don’t really, I work day and night. That’s the only way to go so deeply in the process. The last thing I want is to design in circles, to make what I already know that can be done. I need to go in this very uncomfortable space of testing and pushing my limits. i work both within the system and outside. Some processes with an artist, architect or scientist take a lot longer then one season. So I am always doing both at the same time, working on my next collection and working on long term ideas on the background. That’s the only way to make a collaboration like the „magnetically grown dresses and shoes” possible.
What was the longest period of time you invested in a garment?
The mirror dress from the Voltage collection took 12 months fulltime to make with two people. The whole dress is made from thousands of pattern pieces, and the whole dress is made by hand. There is no machine used in the process.
When do you know when to stop working on a successful work?
I sit and look for long periods to my work and at a certain point I am just sure it’s finished. It’s purely a feeling. When I am not sure, I leave it alone for some days, and after that often I come to the same conclusion I already had.
For me personally, when I look at your shows, your work, I get a feeling like you are trying to cover a range of different emotions with your work. Am I anywhere near what you are doing, trying to do?
Most of my designs come from draping on mannequins, and for that I tame myself in a very peaceful, lonely, half-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. I also design on paper by drawing, those designs come more from a conscious state, my emotion is less present in them.
What was the most influential/significant thing in your life that made you go and take this path of designer-inventor? How come you choose fashion over all other inventing/building professions?
I practiced classical ballet for many years, and it teached 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.
The image you made for yourself is very abstract, very out of this world but still present. I would really like to know how do you approach your designs. Do you think about technics and if it’s even possible to make something from the very beginning, or you deal with all of this somewhere later on, and you just simply make it work, find an agreement in between your designs and technology?
It totally depends really. 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. But I save all the faults and sometimes they turn into a new idea years later. A lot of my designs come from draping on the mannequin. That’s a very unconscious almost meditative state I have to be in. some dresses are drawn 3-D 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.
Do you try to tell a different story each season, or you are just continuing where you left off with your last collection, so in that manner your work is somehow sequential?
Some deeper inspirations create a continues signature in detailing craft, materials, new technology etc. But then the concept shows very much my mind at the time, what gets me excited in those months. That can be the concern for one collection, and an artist or a collaboration that I’ve started for another collection. I do see it as a book where the collections are chapters, all of them together reveal a bigger story.
How does one series end and another begin?
I don’t work chronologically, my design process is a huge labyrinth of going forward and backwards. I have long term collaborations and research going on, and I work within the seasons of fashion. Which is pretty contradictory. Even when working on a certain collection, I tend to simultaneously work for future projects as well, as certain textures take a certain time. Sometimes I also restart failed experiments from times ago, some ideas need just time to mature.
You found success at a very young age, did you ever felt „judged” by that fact, that it happened so quick for you?
Not really, age and speed are both surreal to me. And indeed it went fast, but I have constantly worked seven very long days a week, always. I push myself and stretch time to the extreme in that.
Our „body of work” represents us. What do you think your body of work gives away about you as a person?
I get triggered by how much unseen and undone is out there, and in that I find an endless inspiration in the body, her proportions, her movements, the control versus the chaos in our lives, and my fascination for art, science and nature are all expressed in my work.
At what level do you consider how people are going to take what you’ve done?
I don’t, I live in the moment, that’s all that matters to me.
We can artificially make ourself look a certain way, we can create an image we want to portray. What kind of image are you creating throughout your designs and who is a person you created throughout your work? Who is your woman, what is she like?
When I design I don’t have an identity in mind, it’s purely the body that is my canvas and her movements.
As previously mentioned, fashion is also for the consumers. The rise of global capitalism and the establishment of the assembly line have made fashion available to the masses. Fashion has never been more accessible to the masses than it is today. How with your vision and designs (that are not oh-so-typical and wearable at all times) can one survive?
Fashion is and isn’t available to the masses, that depends on what your definition of fashion is. Some people say that fashion doesn’t even exist anymore, as trends are so scattered. My work embodies exactly the opposite of what fashion is made of today, it’s going back to forgotten craftsmanship and the love for the process, at the same time I embed new technologies and collaboration with other disciplines. People are very aware of the need for change in fashion consumption, it’s as clear as the need for the change in food consumption. The emptier the clothes and their marketing become, the more I feel the need to show a different way of seeing fashion, to show it’s moveable and a form of art, that has value to the maker and the wearer.
Museums now display fashion with as much consideration as they do art. Fashion trends have at many times followed artistic trends, and the bond between the visual arts and fashion is somehow undeniable. Also, there have been some truly brilliant minds that have graced the world of fashion and made it their own art form, Alexander McQueen is, of course, the most obvious one. Your work has also been exhibited on numerous occasions, and frankly, it looks much more as an art form then as a consuming piece of clothing. So with all that said, Do you think fashion can be appointed as art?
I see some fashion as a form of art. And like with all art; it will remain subjective to the receiver. When I see a beautiful Hussein dress with that amount of detail and skills woven into it, it touches me the way art can touch me, where someone else will perhaps receive it as just a garment. But that’s ok, there is no truth in that and for me it’s a very challenging space to be in, it’s like building a bridge for myself between two worlds.
You regularly collaborate with architects and artists on your collections. Hybrid Holism was even inspired by one architect’s work, Philip Beesley, who later on contacted you and you’ve ended up collaborating with him on the Voltage HC collection. What is it about the architectural form that intrigues you, What is it about him, Mr. Beesley that inspired you with such sentiments?
Philip Beesley is exploring completely undiscovered fields, where unexpected disciplines merge seamlessly, and the characteristics of this time are really seen. He has mastered the perfect balance between art, nature and science like no one else. With both his incredible intellect and his hyper sensibility for beauty in all her hidden forms and places, he creates sculptures that you never want to leave again. I could live in his world. He is one of the most important and most inspiring living artists to me.
You’ve made costumes for Madama Butterfly: a dance opera directed and choreographed by Nanine Linning. Was it challenging to combine movement with form?
The biggest challenge in collaborating with a choreographer is being able to visualize his or her concept and story, jumping in someone elses creative process. Nanine works very conceptually so I find it easy to follow her in her process. By all my experimenting and material and construction testing over the years, I found a lot of ways to combine movement, shape and lightness, so that it is easily translated into dance. The collaboration i did with Benjamin Millepied for the New York City Ballet was another way of manipulating the beauty of the ballerinas, where we made black pointe (the ballet shoes to dance on your toe) that made the leg look rounder. Quite subtle but it had such a strange and strong impact, for the audience but also for the dancers.
What is your thought process like? Did it ever happen you got stuck with a certain idea and you didn’t know where/how to go from there onwards?
On a daily basis. I don’t take the easy route you know. I don’t start on something if I feel comfortable in doing it, knowing how to do it. Perhaps the opposite to most brands. I only start climbing the mountain if I don’t know how to tame her. These moments of getting stuck are crucial to me. I need the conflict. It forces me to be really creative, searching for my way forward, as backwards is no option. So basically, I climb until I get stuck, and as I can’t go back, I maximize my mind to find a new path, a solution. And when that is leading to nothing satisfying, I sometimes let it rest in time to go back to it another collection with a fresh view upon it.
Cindy Sherman once said she doesn’t think in words, that she is more visually oriented, she thinks in image. How do you think?
I think in imagery most, but it’s mixed with conceptual thinking. Music and image are directly linked inside me, images are created fluently in my mind when I hear good music.
Is there a prevailing ideology for you right now?
Absolutely nothing is what it seems to be, when I look at the world around me with that in mind, everything becomes possible and inspiration fluidly.
I also was curious about your thoughts on beauty. Did you figure it out? Did you find it?
Beauty is to discover freely each day unexpectedly. Once there is a formula it will break.
Do you vacation?
Words & Interview Katja Horvat
Photography Victor Kruit