Preview: Is it a bird? A caterpillar? It’s a dress by bio/techno visionary Iris van Herpen, at the High

Iris-Van-Herpen-Couture-Fall-Winter-2011-2012
Iris van Herpen: Refinery Smoke, Dress, July 2008. Untreated woven metal gauze, cow leather, cotton. Groninger Museum, 2012.0196. (Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios. © Iris van Herpen)
Iris van Herpen: Refinery Smoke, Dress, July 2008. Untreated woven metal gauze, cow leather, cotton. Groninger Museum. (Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios. © Iris van Herpen)

Iris van Herpen is a study in contrasts.

Born and raised in the small Dutch village of Wamel, the 31-year-old was not exposed to television or fashion magazines as a child but grew up to be the darling of style icons from Tilda Swinton to Björk. Her facility with handwork make her a natural heir to the lineage of haute couture, yet her reputation for pushing boundaries has assured her place at the vanguard of cutting-edge fashion.

The sylphlike designer, who was a dancer in her youth, says the body is her muse. But the sculptural, biomorphic, exoskeletal silhouettes that are hallmarks of her creative expression attest to her fascination with nature and technology. Conceived with the aid of 3-D printing, her jaw-dropping wearable art evokes everything from sea anemones and water to insects and botanicals.

Her singular point of view will be featured for the first time in North America in the High Museum of Art’s Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion, which opens on November 7 and runs through May 15, 2016. The exhibition consists of 45 pieces, culled from 15 collections between 2008 and 2015, which chronicle the artist’s evolution.

Sarah Schleuning, the High’s curator of decorative arts and design, was charged with leading the museum’s foray into fashion. She approached it as she did the 2014 Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas. “This show had to be about ideas and not just fashion as a hot topic,” she says. “We champion the idea that if you can imagine it, you can make it. Iris is such a thoughtful, reflective, intelligent person, and that’s all evident in her work. The High wants to support and advocate for artists like her… to keep them creating and producing.”

Iris van Herpen: Chemical Crows, Dress,Collar, January 2008. Ribs of children’s umbrellas, cow leather,  Groninger Museum (Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios. © Iris van Herpen)
Iris van Herpen: Chemical Crows, Dress, Collar, January 2008. Ribs of children’s umbrellas, cow leather. Groninger Museum (Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios. © Iris van Herpen)

Van Herpen says textiles determine the starting point and the direction of her collections. She is as inclined to work with silk, wool and Japanese fabrics as she is with wire mesh, malleable resins or — in the case of her 2008 Chemical Crows collection, inspired by crows living near her Amsterdam atelier — the ribs of children’s umbrellas, which she used to create extravagant sculptural protrusions evoking birds’ wings.

“I am often attracted to materials that I don’t know how to handle,” she says.

Iris van Herpen, Magnetic Motion, 2014. (Photo ©Yannis Vlamos)
Iris van Herpen: Magnetic Motion, 2014. (Photo ©Yannis Vlamos)

Her collaborations with experts at the forefront of 3-D printing technology have even introduced engineers to new frontiers. When she approached the company 3D Systems to fabricate a completely transparent dress for her Magnetic Motion collection (September 2014), for example, they told her it could not be done. Yet, two weeks later they delivered a crystalline dress. It was, she recalls, one of the happiest moments in her career.

It also bespeaks the determination beneath the soft-spoken, self-described introvert’s demeanor. “Iris looks very gentle, yet she is a very strong person who spares no effort to realize her vision,” says Japanese designer Noritaka Tatehana.

In a quest to make a dress collar that cascaded around the wearer like a splash of water, she experimented with 40 different prototypes before settling on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), commonly used to make plastic bottles. The work was completed by hand, using heat guns and metal pliers to mold the acrylic into the undulating cascades replicating the movement of water.

“In her process of creation, [she] shows a sense of femininity and her intuitiveness is absolutely attractive. Yet what she creates are, on the contrary, strongly constructive and intriguing,” says Tatehana, who recently collaborated with van Herpen to fabricate a crystallized version of his backless shoe made popular by Lady Gaga.

Iris van Herpen: Voltage, 2013. (Photo © Michel Zoeter)
Iris van Herpen: Voltage, 2013. (Photo © Michel Zoeter)

Her designs are dazzling on the runway, but Schleuning believes that when visitors have a chance to see the pieces up close, the real showstoppers will be the intricacy of design and hyper-attention to detail. A prime example is the translucent fabric van Herpen created for her Hacking Infinity collection (March 2015). Though the textile appears soft to the touch and floats like silk when in motion, it was created by weaving tiny stainless steel threads that maintain the structure of the handcrafted plissé (or fanned pleats). The material was then hand-burnished with a torch to achieve the iridescent nebula of blue, red, orange, purple and yellow covering its surface.

The thought behind the execution is what captivated Scheuling’s imagination when she first saw the pieces at Fashion Week in Paris last spring, and demonstrate why design and creativity are so important. “If it makes you look at something in a totally different way and appreciate it,” she explains, “then I feel we’ve succeeded.

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