Unless you move in quite extraordinarily avant-garde circles, you are unlikely to have come upon anybody wearing anything made by the Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen. Though she has been showing twice a year in Paris since 2011 as a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, her ethereally arresting couture creations are more often to be found in discerning museums around the world or being worn by one of an elite group of independent-minded fans (Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, Lady Gaga, Björk) than at the starriest of society gatherings.
For Iris van Herpen is what you might call a cerebral designer. She is endlessly interested in new ideas, in the interface between fashion and architecture, fashion and music, fashion and the cosmos, fashion and technology. “If fashion were only about consumerism and functionality, it would be dead,” she tells me. “Fashion is not only about wearability, it’s also about hopes and dreams, about history, the future, who we are, where we want to go. It is about finding new ways of being feminine.”
And yet her clothes have a powerful beauty. “Over the years beauty and femininity have become more important to me – much wider than mere seduction,” she adds. Many of her pieces look almost like sculptures that could just as easily adorn a wall as a body.
She often collaborates with creative people from entirely other worlds, with biologists and physicists, with architects and engineers. Most famously, her spring 2015 collection Magnetic Motion was inspired by a visit to the Large Hadron Collider at Cern. “I find beauty in the continual shaping of chaos, which clearly embodies the primordial power of nature’s performance,” she commented at the time. While to me she says, “It was like the biggest piece of art that I’d ever seen”. And, of course, putting the collider together involved endless human hand skills, as well as cutting-edge technology – the combining of which is the defining feature of her work.
She used techniques such as injection moulding and laser cutting, as well as 3D printing and intricate handwork, to give her clothing dynamic shapes, but also to echo the patterns she’d seen at Cern. She loves the old, traditional skills, too, and was originally drawn to couture by her fascination with the workmanship involved, so she often blends, as she puts it on her website, “the past and the future into a distinct version of the present”. One has only to spend a few minutes in her company to realise that here is an extraordinarily inventive mind. Fashion is the means she happens to have chosen to explore the world, but one feels she could almost as easily have turned to dance or music or architecture.
She grew up in a small farming village “with no TV and no fashion magazines, but I had nature and I had ballet. I learnt the violin and I painted. I became fascinated by dancing and the magic of the movement, and I used the medium of dance to express myself. But when I went to high school, I started to become aware of my own identity and how I could transform myself in other ways. I could see that there was a power in fashion, as it is such a direct expression of who we are. It is comparable to music and art in that it expresses things that cannot be expressed in words.”
And so she learnt the old-fashioned way to make clothes by hand, to cut patterns, to sew and to embroider. She went to the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem and later worked for Alexander McQueen. “He created his own world,” she says today, “and he stuck to it; it’s like sharing your own fragility with the world, but there is no other way if you want to express yourself. To see somebody like that close up was a huge privilege. Every year that he is not with us is a lost year.”
And for her first-ever collection in 2007, she drew on a very private memory. She called Chemical Crows, as its earliest roots lie in the young jackdaws she kept when she was a child. (Coincidentally, Alexander McQueen too was famously intrigued by birds.) “Also, outside my first studio there was a huge crowd of crows that continually seemed to be making a noise and having conversations. At the same time I was reading about alchemy and the metamorphoses of materials, and all this inspired me.”
To make that first collection, she unpicked 700 children’s umbrellas by hand, using the gold-coloured brass ribs to create the frames that imitate the wings and black silk cord to suggest the sheen of the feathers. Out of them she fashioned weird and wonderful clothing, some 14 pieces in all, which she worked night and day to make herself – huge, curving collars, all fashioned from the golden rods, and sculptural skirts and dresses. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. The Groninger Museum in the Netherlands was so intrigued it bought much of the collection. (“It believed in me,” says van Herpen, “and it has the biggest collection of my work.”)
Since then there has been an array of challenging and fascinating collections. For 2016’s Lucid, for instance, she collaborated with the artist and architect Philip Beesley to explore the concept of lucid dreaming. “Within a lucid dream, the dreamer is conscious of the dream state and therefore is able to exert a degree of control on what is happening.” She used transparent hexagonal laser-cut Plexiglas connected with translucent flexible tubes to create a glistering bubble‑like cage around the wearer’s body. Then she used very light tulle to which iridescent stripes were fused to create a shimmering silhouette. The result was some beautiful and amazingly flattering dresses.
For a very short time – just three seasons – van Herpen produced a ready-to-wear collection (“It meant I had to use factories, which made it feel like going back in time”), but these days she only does couture, producing two collections a year, each taking a full six months to get ready. Seeing van Herpen and her assistants at work in her airy studio in Amsterdam, overlooking an old harbour, is to understand something of the intensity – and the man-hours – that go into their creation.
During my visit in early June, they were putting the finishing touches to her latest collection, shown in Paris in July. Inspired by kinetic art, all the clothing had flowing lines that moved and waved as the body shifted in a singularly beautiful way. For one dress, for instance, she took 18m of transparent silk organza and on each side of the garment placed numerous wing-like pieces of fabric, sewn by hand and put together so that while each one was flexible and moved on its own, they also moved collectively.
For her shows she likes “the people who come to experience what inspired me”. In July in Paris she installed in the ceiling of the room long glass tubes, each connected to kinetic motors on the tips, that moved, just like the pieces on her clothing. “They resemble fragments of nature and hint at the unknown future we are heading towards.” Within every collection there are always some items that are more wearable than others – and there in her studio I see some truly beautiful coats made from grey wool but rendered special with thin strips of supple, laser-cut cream leather woven into a curving pattern down the front.
Meanwhile, her work is often shown at one museum or another. “There is usually an exhibition on somewhere,” she says. In 2016 the sellout Manus x Machina exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art featured some of her experimental dresses, while this year the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto was the last stop in a two‑year North American tour of her work, with Josh Basseches, the museum’s director, saying, “Over the past decade, Iris van Herpen has pushed the boundaries of fashion and craftsmanship with futuristic designs that combine tradition with radical innovation.” The museum’s description declares, “From metal umbrella ribs and magnets to 3D printing, van Herpen works with an astonishing array of materials that fuse style with science and inventive technologies to create striking and mystifying haute couture.”
A monograph on her work, published by the Groninger Museum, called Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion, is now out of print, but fans can find it on Amazon, where it’s offered for three-figure prices. Those with the courage and vision to wear her clothes usually make the trip to the studio in Amsterdam or showroom in Paris, and customers are invited to her shows, but serious admirers can contact her via her website.
These clothes, it goes without saying, are not for the usual follower of fashion. “The people who wear my clothes are very strong women,” she tells me. “They are very interested in art and fashion, they are usually collectors and they support fashion in a way that is intimately connected to art.” (Daphne Guinness is another of her fans.) Whether we are brave enough to wear van Herpen’s designs or not, few of us could fail to be fascinated by the care, the thought, the innovation that goes into them. She is a designer like no other.