Exclusive interview with the forward-thinking haute couture fashion designer, Iris van Herpen
By Hannah Norman
Widely recognised as one of the most talented and forward-thinking designers working in the haute couture fashion industry today, we speak to Iris van Herpen to find out about pushing the links between clothing and technology, the materials she likes to work with, and how she started her label without using a sewing machine
Tell us about what prompted you to become a fashion designer and the early days of your career?
I used to practice classical ballet, and my mother was a dance teacher, so movement, transformation and the female form have been a fascination for me from a very young age. During those years of dance, I learned a lot about the endless shape-making that we all create with our bodies, and about the infinite micro transformations happening within all movements we continuously make. And how strongly our body mobility and our identity-making are interwoven. I see every living person as a continuous evolution of shape, a dance that is being performed all life long. These same concepts still provide inspiration for my collections now, and inspire me to think of a ‘‘bio-technological’’ future for fashion, a fashion that is so much more advanced and alive then the static-ness of how we ‘‘make’’ or create today. My background in dance continuously feeds me inspiration to think of new forms of femininity. During my first years of starting my label, I had a very holistic approach to fashion – every piece I designed was made by myself and a needle and thread only. Not even a sewing machine was used! I embraced the opposite of fast fashion, mass production and high consumerism. I embraced fashion as art. The same philosophy is still the heart of Iris van Herpen Haute Couture today.
How would you describe your signature style, both in terms of your work and your individual day-to-day dress?
Iris van Herpen stands for an organic, innovative femininity that expresses state-of-the-art couture that embraces individuality powerfully and fearlessly. The Iris van Herpen woman is sensual and strong and intellectually driven to look beyond our scripted horizons. Meanwhile, my personal day-to-day dressing embodies a wide range from traditional Japanese embroidered kimonos to all black tight jeans and knitwear for when I walk my dog. And of course, my own designs are in my closet that I wear for special moments and celebrations.
What inspires you day-to-day and where does the inspiration for your designs come from?
Inspiration comes from so many fields, from science to dance, from sculpture to mathematics, from poetry to astronomy, from anatomy to innovation, from nature to philosophy. Fashion is art to me; it is a laboratory of identity. That is why I collaborate with other artists, scientists and architects, to ultimately weave threads from our past identities towards our unknown identities to come. Fashion needs to inspire us to create ourselves, to find ourselves, and to then re-shape ourselves.
How would you say your style has evolved over the years?
When I first started, I was focussed on handwork and craftsmanship only – I didn’t even used a sewing machine. Now my process has become much more collaborative, interacting with architects, scientists, and engineers to create garments that combine experimental technology with traditional craftsmanship. This interdisciplinary research creates a constant dialogue, and new knowledge and challenges for the atelier. Next to that, femininity is playing a bigger role in my work. I have grown into being a women myself and this leads me in my designs today. I have found that femininity and seduction are such powerful tools, and so stigmatised at the same time. I am not afraid to break those old patterns.
What was your “I’ve made it!” moment?
My first runway show in Paris on the invitation of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode was a very special and magic moment. For the first time, I felt part of a very long history of couture craftsmanship. My work was embraced by the couture houses of Chanel and Dior, and they were supporting my innovative approach – that moved me so much. I am still grateful to be able to show my collections in Paris twice a year and to be acknowledged by the Fédération de la Haute Couture. That first show in Paris gave my work a global presence and was the beginning of incredible collaborations and projects with brilliant women like Cate Blanchett, Lady Gaga, Tilda Swinton, Cara Delevingne, Scarlett Johansson, Bjork and more.
Your design aesthetic is a unique one that embraces the future both literally and metaphorically, but to what extent is there still a place for traditional techniques and craftsmanship?
The craftsmanship we can master in my atelier today is thanks to an incredible evolution of innovation throughout the centuries, to all the people before us innovating and refining the skills they had before them. To continue this journey forward, this evolution of craftsmanship, my atelier shares knowledge with other fields, and we collaborate with scientists, material engineers and architects, interweaving the existing couture crafts and techniques with even more refined possibilities. I often look at my designs from a bird’s perspective arial view. When people look back to this century, I hope we (that is, myself, my atelier and everybody we collaborate with) give beauty, elegance and delight to the women we dress, but I also hope we help with shaping fashion more intelligently, empowering women and empowering fashion generally by shaping it with the fields of science, art, architecture, engineering, biology and empowering the art to dress.
We heard you speaking at the Conde Nast Luxury Conference in Florence about 3D printing. What was it that first attracted you to 3D printing as a technique and an art form?
I am often attracted and driven by things that feel impossible – that is how I started to become fascinated by 3D printing. At the time in 2009, 3D printing wasn’t used in fashion but I got to see the technique at the studio of two architects, Benthem & Crouwel, who I was doing a creative project with. They had designed an art museum that looked like a huge bathtub and asked me to design a dress inspired by the museum. I wanted to make a dress out of water, which was obviously impossible to do with fabric. It needed to have the same flow and transparency but I had no idea how to create a kind of ‘‘immateriality’’ to that extent. 3D printing seemed the only way to get close to what I had in mind. But the process was complicated; the file-making needed to be scripted in high detail and it also had to be made to measure. So I started to collaborate with another architect, Daniel Widrig, to create the file. I discovered the incredible amount of high detail that was possible with 3D printing – I could be as precise as the fine-ness of a finger print. A whole new world of design possibilities opened up for me, and still today we embed 3D printing into the process of the traditional couture techniques – in a sense, they have married.
At the Conference, you also discussed the idea of counterfeit goods, in so far as someone being able to re-create couture designs through 3D printing, and the technologies that could be employed to prevent this. To what extent are you concerned by counterfeits being available on the market, and how are you countering this?
At the time of the Conference, intellectual property in terms of the 3D files was not commonly protected in the process. Now this is very normal. Today, a 3D printed dress – in terms of its re-creation – is comparable to any other garment. Any normal garment design that is being sent off to a factory (that is done with a pattern and a technical sheet) can be re-made by any other person or factory that can make garments. So all that matters is whether you protect your designs legally. Often, this is not done in the fashion industry as the speed of production and the volumes of ‘‘new’’ designs is so incredibly high, so design copies are very normal. My 3D printed dresses are impossible to copy as the files are protected and most pieces are printed from very specific materials on specific machines. As well as that, after the printing there is a lot of handwork being done and that is an expertise we have grown in our atelier. That technologically-driven handwork is very rare and is not being taught elsewhere. This knowledge and craft are unique to the Iris van Herpen atelier and the creative team we have educated here.
What is the one material that you’d really like to work with, or explore the possibilities of using?
I’d like to shape a garment from energy only. Immateriality in fashion design is an ongoing impossibility that moves me. It’s perhaps metaphorical, as fashion gives me – and perhaps all of us – so much energy, and so much energy is trapped inside the process of designing and making a material and a garment. How alchemical would it be if that energy itself is felt and visualised, like a ghost of our dreams, without the practicality of a fabric?
What are your thoughts about fast fashion and the disposability of clothes?
We live in a world that is changing so rapidly – it’s never been seen before. These changes are transforming our landscapes, transforming the way we live, work, communicate, and also transforming our values and our needs. Fashion has grown into an industry that nobody wants (we all know it is the second largest most polluting industry of our world, built upon mass-production, oversupply, disposability, consumerism, toxic materials and dyes, and labour exploitation. Radical new morals, goals and dreams are needed to shape a more beautiful future for fashion, and I am optimistic we will get there all together. The current pandemic we all suffer worldwide is an important moment for the industry, and all brands need to stand still and re-evaluate their future goals and integrity, and implement change of direction. Iris van Herpen, as a label, is only creating Haute Couture, and the beauty within this purity of creation is that the atelier only makes what is being ordered, so there is not a single garment we make that is waste. The materials and techniques that we develop are driven by sustainability and we only do two small collections a year. The women who acquire these dresses, they do that for life, and perhaps even to pass them on to their children. It’s kindred to art, it’s created to inspire and to be lived in for centuries. It’s the most sustainable and pure form of creation; that is what I love about it. It’s not about the amount I design and make in a year; it’s about a very few, very exceptional pieces that will last ‘‘forever.’’ So for reshaping fashion as a whole, embracing change and investment in innovation are crucial. Collaboration, and the sharing of expertise among specialists in diverse disciplines, is the future of fashion. This will advance fashion in ways previously unimaginable.
Italy and France are both well-known for their high-end fashion, whereas Holland hasn’t – yet – got quite the same pedigree. But what exciting things are happening in the world of fashion back home?
It’s very true, Holland isn’t know for high fashion, although the dress for both women and men in the 17th and 18th century was incredible, with voluminous cutting-edge ruff collars, stunning innovative lacework, embroidery and silhouette-making. Today, the street-life dressing is not very exciting. But on the fronts of innovation and sustainability, there are amazing studios here. Designers you should know about are Diana Scherer, Xandra van der Eijk, Jolan van der Wiel, Emma van der Leest and AnneMarie Maes.
You designed Katy Perry’s dress in the video for Never Really Over – how did the collaboration come about and what was she like to work with?
I loved dressing her for that beautiful video! There is such joy and communal creativity radiating from that artistic direction. We made the dress from long, floaty, half-wheel plisse panels that were printed in warm colours to create an airy, gravity-defying feminine movement, to make her feel alive and sensual. I was not there when they filmed it, unfortunately, but this collaboration is very dear to me and a strong women like Katy Perry is a source of energy for all I make.
Which other high-profile individuals have you collaborated with, and what were the projects that you worked on?
Another special project was the dress we made for Scarlett Johansson for the movie Lucy, the Luc Besson science fiction movie. Scarlett develops super powers and she acts so magnificently. The layered complexity of her character and the immense power she radiates is what I aimed to translate into the dress, without being too dominant. I also loved making the custom Ludi Naturae dress for Cate Blanchett at the Cannes Film Festival that expressed the ‘‘games in nature’’ very playfully and softly. I also love working with Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Solange, Tilda Swinton, Cara Delevingne, Bjork, Joey King. Each of them are enigmatic and graceful women that created mesmeric memories to design for.
Your incredible Sensory Seas collection was a response to the way in which messages are transmitted by the brain and in nature, but was it also a comment on the way in which information-overload exists in the digital age?
Very true, yes. The Sensory Seas collection holds a microscope over the invisible relationships between the anthropology of a marine organism, and the dendrites and synapses that deliver infinite signals throughout our bodies. An infinite amount of messaging exist in uninterrupted waves, all around us, deep beneath us and inside us. With Sensory Seas, I tried creating a metaphorical maze of sensory waves to express that. Matching the ebb and flow of the immensity of the ocean and the eternal chattering of our senses, I wanted to design with the notion of this overload of our systems.
Is ocean ecology and the protection of our oceans something that is close to your heart?
Very, very much so. It’s amazing to realise that we have only explored 5% of our oceans, and most of it we have no idea what is living there. It’s unseen and unexplored.
There seems to be a level of real science incorporated into your work. Have you always been fascinated by science and technology, and what are your thoughts on the rise of “wearable tech?”
Science is indeed a big source of inspiration since I started my label. Both art and science look into how to rediscover the world around us constantly. It’s a search for consciousness and deepening of our understanding of who and why we are. These questions are fundamental to me to grasp upon, as to me they create the ‘‘science of shape’’ in my work. Technology is a great tool in our fight for a more holistic and sustainable way of living on, caring for, and collaborating with our planet. Technology is much less complex and advanced then nature itself, so it is more a tool to me then a source of inspiration. I think wearable tech will become serious in about a decade or so. At this moment, it mostly gets stuck in gadget compressed designs. But it’s a matter of time before the balance of functionality, aesthetics and reasoning of design will be found more profoundly.
What does the future look like for Iris van Herpen – both the label, and you personally?
In the future of Iris van Herpen, I hope we help to shape fashion more intelligently, to empower women and to deepen the reasoning of creating fashion, to shape fashion into the fields of science, art, architecture, engineering, biology and to focus on sustainable collaboration with nature at the core of each design. To ultimately celebrate new beauty through ‘‘the art to dress.’’
Finally, the one question we ask everyone! What is your favourite luxury?
My ultimate luxury is my creative freedom. Not many designers can freely design what they want, without a commercially driven board above them steering their instincts and dreams. The Iris van Herpen label is independent, and focussed on innovation and quality instead of quantity. This makes my design process very pure and free. Being able to intuitively shape my dreams with my team, to inspire the world around us, that is the rarest and most meaningful form of luxury to me.
For more information about Iris van Herpen, please visit www.irisvanherpen.com.