PARIS — The designer Iris van Herpen does not like computers, and for half of her adult life, she happily did not have one. This is unusual because van Herpen is only 31, and many people would argue that she is the most technologically astute and adventurous designer working today.
For the label that bears her name, she creates clothes to wear six months from now, but she also delves into sciences that may not be mainstream for six years — or even six decades.
While many designers work with artists and musicians to produce lyrical and even majestic collections, van Herpen is more inclined to work with computer programmers, nanorobotics scientists and biologists.
Other designers experiment with lacquered textiles and laser-cut details to create variations on a familiar silhouette, or they use holograms and lasers to enhance their runway presentations. But van Herpen embraces technology as a means to an unknown end.
She has “grown” garments from magnetic fabric, pulled and twisted into something geological, organic and strangely beautiful. On the runway, it looked as though van Herpen’s model was wearing a meteor, one observer noted. She has formed faux ice crystals from rubber. She has created dresses that appear electrified and others that resemble water captured mid-splash.
She is best known for her work with 3-D printers — not simply to create bits of decoration or to mold a striking heel but to realize concepts that don’t look like clothes at all. Or, at least, not the way in which “clothes” are defined. One of her most striking experiments with a 3-D printer resulted in garments that hang on the body like an exoskeleton — an idea that makes one reconsider what it means to be clothed, to be naked, to be human.
Her clothes have been worn by provocateurs such as Lady Gaga, Björk and Beyoncé, as well as lesser-known eccentrics. But they have not been adopted by the well-to-do ladies of the philanthropic set. Shoppers will not find van Herpen’s clothes at Bloomingdale’s or Bergdorf Goodman. (They are found most easily on Farfetch.com.) These frocks tend to ignite the intellect and confound the eye. And the questions they pose are more likely to be favored by museums than department stores.
Last week, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art opened “Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion,” a full-scale solo exhibition running through May 15. Next year, her work will be featured in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s spring Costume Institute installation, “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.”
“It’s our first show about fashion,” says Sarah Schleuning, curator of decorative arts and design at the High. Iris van Herpen “is not a big house. She’s someone relatively early, I hope, in her career. We want to be the institute that took a risk and brought her to the U.S.”
“She’s this great thinker,” Schleuning adds. “And she makes this incredible work.”
Van Herpen began her career in haute couture, the rarefied division of French fashion defined by handcraftsmanship and personalized fit. In recent years, she has moved into ready-to-wear, a step intended to help expand her reach in the marketplace. It is a business decision, but make no mistake: She has always been serious about her company.
“It’s funny that people see ready-to-wear as a business and couture as not. In my company, they’re very equal,” van Herpen says. “A lot of material in ready-to-wear comes from couture. Sometimes it takes 11/2 years to make a dress [in couture]. I’m happy to translate them to ready-to-wear, to give things a longer life.”
Van Herpen’s first fall ready-to-wear collection, presented last year in a Paris loft, included a backdrop consisting of several models who were vacuum-sealed inside large plastic bags suspended from cables. The women were kept alive with narrow, flexible tubes that supplied them with a steady but discreet supply of oxygen. They resembled some exotic game in the meat department of the local Dean and Deluca.
The point of that installation, by Belgian-born artist Lawrence Malstaf, was to make a connection between clothes and biology, fashion and creation. The presentation was named “Biopiracy” and grew out of van Herpen’s fascination with the idea that parts of our body, our genes, are patented.
The setting left many people perplexed and discomforted. It was difficult to watch the other models parading about the loft without one’s eyes drifting to the sous-vide ones, to make sure they hadn’t suffocated. But that was part of the experience and the process, which, to van Herpen, is just as important and informative as the final product.
Her most recent ready-to-wear presentation, for spring 2016, was inspired by the living bridges in India — tree roots that have grown across crevices and streams, providing a route of passage.
“For me, it was a really good example of something already there that shows the potential of living architecture,” van Herpen says. “I believe, in fashion, natural processes can be involved in making something.”
The centerpiece of this show was an installation in which actress Gwendoline Christie (who portrays Brienne of Tarth in HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) lay peacefully on a circular slab surrounded by robotic arms that had woven a strange, spongy mesh garment atop her.
“It was a combination of hand- and robot-weaving,” van Herpen explains. The designer guides the robots in the same the way that a surgeon combines an understanding of anatomy and a deft eye with the precision of lasers. Van Herpen merges the traditions of handmade embroidery, feathers and beading with the possibilities of technology. In doing so, she situates herself at the heart of the essential tension within Paris’s luxury industry — the mythology of Old World artistry and the demands of a mass, fast, modern economy.
“In the first years I had my label, I did everything by hand. I didn’t even work with a sewing machine,” Van Herpen says. “At some point, I realized I had reached a level of control I couldn’t go beyond. I saw 3-D printing in architecture, where it’s used for modeling. I was struck by the complexity and detailing it was able to do.”
With 3-D printing, she could build prototypes of designs in a single season, when doing it by hand could easily have taken three or more years to complete. “Sometimes, a 3-D-printed dress has a structure we were never able to do by hand. But because of the process of [computer] file-making, we understand the structure, and we are able to do it by hand afterward.”
In that way, she argues, “I’m not replacing craftsmanship — 3-D printing teaches hand technique.” In van Herpen’s view, technology doesn’t threaten the survival of the human touch; it has the potential of making the human touch even more expressive and inventive.
Andrew Bolton, curator in the Met’s Costume Institute, says van Herpen’s groundbreaking work is comparable to the technical breakthroughs achieved in haute couture, beginning in the 19th century, by Lesage embroiderers and the feather-making craftsmen of Lemarié.
“I really think this is the future with the collaborations she’s initiating with computer programmers, scientists and biologists,” Bolton says.
Van Herpen is Dutch, with a wide forehead, pale eyes and the delicate bone structure of a sparrow. She once wanted to be a classical ballet dancer, but she decided that fashion gave her more ways to express herself than movement. She could create things, objects, that transform and expose the female body.
She founded her company in 2007 after studying at the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem, in the Netherlands, and interning at Alexander McQueen. Although she presents her collections in Paris, she lives in Amsterdam, and her idiosyncratic work is influenced by that environment.
“Fashion and architecture share a logical link. I wouldn’t know how to not be influenced by my surroundings,” she says. “What I like about Amsterdam is everything is crooked. It doesn’t look like it makes any sense. I love that water is central to everything.
“Everything is pretty small; the homes are tiny,” she says, “but there’s a lot of detail.”
Van Herpen’s manner is contained and precise. She speaks quietly. She is not one for bold gestures. She is excited by concepts and hypotheses, and she steers clear of a fashion vocabulary overpopulated with exclamations of “Amazing!” The brand is on social media, but van Herpen says that she is not the one updating the Instagram and Facebook feeds.
She works in a manner that is more familiar in the realm of science, finding co-conspirators at MIT and Austria’s University of Innsbruck — ateliers of science, she calls them.
“The things I do, I could not do without that support. I think a lot of [fashion] houses are really built to be locked, to be privately driven. If you look at the universe of architecture, it’s much more open-source,” van Herpen says. “I can’t imagine being in my own head, in my own atelier, producing clothes. I think I’d go mental.”
Van Herpen is able to wander so far afield because of her work in couture. It allows her to experiment freely, moving from failure to failure until she eventually finds success. Or doesn’t. But it’s impossible to move forward without mistakes. “I really don’t feel like I add something to the industry if I don’t do couture,” she says.
Designers offer people many views of the future. In his spring 2016 collection for Louis Vuitton, designer Nicolas Ghesquière envisioned it as a glossy, glamorous place where women look like superheroes. Others see the future as a vast flea market where fashion has become democratized and the banality of faded jeans sells at a luxury premium. Van Herpen, the rare designer who seems perched on the edge of tomorrow, is too wise to even speculate.
“In 10 years, it will be so different than anyone thought of,” van Herpen says. “I don’t think too far. I’m sure it will be different from my imagination.”