Iris van Herpen needs no introduction. As one of the most innovative and forward-thinking designers of our time, her creations have fascinated stylists, actors, musicians, architects and other fashion designers all over the world. It’s hard to describe these pieces—you have to see them. Luckily, from June until October 2018, residents and visitors of Toronto are able to do just that.
A selection of van Herpen’s work is on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, featuring a variety of dresses and accessories. On display, for the first time since its debut at Paris Couture Week 2017, is also the Dome Dress—a signature piece from van Herpen’s fall 2017 Aeriform collection that was commissioned exclusively for the ROM’s permanent collection of Textiles and Fashion.
The exhibition, titled Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion, features designs from 15 collections, spanning 2008 to 2015. 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.
Gracing the runways of Europe, van Herpen has dressed many style icons over the years, including Beyoncé, Björk and Cara Delevingne. Most recently, her creations were spotted on Lady Gaga during her appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival 2018. Unparalleled in her multidisciplinary approach to fashion, the designer has collaborated with a diverse range of artists, engineers, scientists and architects. Among her long-standing collaborations is her work with Canadian artist and architect Philip Beesley, some of which is on display at the exhibition.
In our latest cover story exclusive, Iris van Herpen takes us through the exhibition and talks about fashion: today and in the future.
HANNAH YAKOBI: Welcome to Toronto! So, why did you decide to do an exhibition here?
IRIS VAN HERPEN: Well, I’ve worked with Philip [Beesley] and his studio is here, so I’ve visited the city quite a few times. It’s such a dynamic city and there is so much going on. I really feel a good vibe here. I love the museum too, so I was more than happy when the conversation started with the ROM [team] in possibly doing something [together].
What do you think about the design of the museum itself? And its outdoor architecture?
I like it a lot. I like the explosion of it, and the old and the new coming together.
You’ve done collaborations with some of the most innovative and artistic people in the world. How do you choose who to collaborate with? Are there certain things you look for?
It’s really a feeling. In musicians, it’s obviously the music that has to be inspiring. But most of these people really create their own worlds, you know. They have their own identity, and they have such a strong voice in who they are and what they want to say to the world.
If there is a connection, then it’s a natural choice. It’s like choosing a friendship.
You create fashion items that are highly artistic. Do you consider yourself more of a fashion designer or an artist?
I think I’m exactly in between. I am trained as a fashion designer, so that is also how I name myself. But I really see fashion as a form of art. So, in that sense, you can also call me an artist.
I will always work with the female body. The body is my canvas.
You have a dance background, and always talk about how you like the clothes to move, and find the movement inspiring. Yet, you also do a lot of exhibitions, during which the clothes are very static. How do you feel when your clothes are just standing on display?
They both have a quality. I have two ways of presenting my work: I do the runway shows and I do the exhibitions. The beauty about exhibitions is that you can really have such an intimate experience with the garment. You can go up as close as you like, you can see the tiniest details. You can actually see the handwork in it. It’s a different kind of movement: you see how the garment is being made, and you are looking at the process of many months. So, in that sense, you can almost see the movement better than on the runway. But it’s more the movement of craftsmanship or the movement of the creation that you are seeing.
And, on the runway, you see the direct dialogue between the body and the garment, which is beautiful on its own. There is nothing like it. I think it’s the most powerful presentation, but you will miss the details.
So, when people want to come close to my work, they should go to the museum and they will really feel how it’s being made. And when people want to get the vibe of my world, they have to see the fashion show. That’s why I embed videos into my exhibitions.
You’ve done shows at Paris Fashion Week, and also in Amsterdam. Are there any other places that you are considering doing shows at?
Well, I love Paris. I think, for me, it’s the perfect place to show.
I would be interested in doing a show somewhere in Asia. I would have to figure out exactly where, but it would be nice.
You’ve also done work for the New York City Ballet, which, of course, is completely different from fashion clothing. What was your experience there like?
Wonderful. I worked with choreographer Benjamin Millepied and, first of all, the whole atelier of the New York City Ballet was so open to new ideas. And that is not always the case at those institutions. Some of them are more used to traditional craftsmanship and they almost get scared when they see my designs. (laughs) But here, it was the opposite—the head of the atelier loved my work. And they did so much to make it happen. They even started working together with an architect, so the whole atelier got this new energy and new vibe. And the way Benjamin works is really nice as well, because [I had] complete freedom in my design process.
Fashion designers use fabric, but you use all these things that people didn’t even know was possible to use in the fashion context. So far, what has been the most challenging material you used?
Good question. (pauses) I think [it’s] the mirror dress. You wouldn’t expect this, it but it’s so precise and it’s all handwork. If we would make a dress like that now, we would probably start off on a computer to make a 3D pattern. But, at that time, I decided to do it all by hand. So, it’s like a big mathematical disaster. (laughs) It took so long to find the pattern and to map that all out on paper, by hand. We almost worked a year on it with several people. That’s definitely the dress that took the longest.
It’s funny because I was going to ask you, on average, how long does it take to make each piece. But I guess it really varies, right?
I guess, the quickest would be a few weeks. And the longest would be a year. And everything in between.
Do you have a favourite material to work with?
It goes through phases. I had a phase when it was more leather. But the mylar that Philip worked with has come back. I like dragon skin a lot, that’s like a second skin. And, strangely enough, different types of metal. From really fine metal fabrics to the metal lace, I think that it’s something that is transformed many times as well.
This sounds funny, but when I interview artists or designers, they often say that they had a dream about something that inspired them, and then they woke up and did it. Does that ever happen to you?
I sometimes wake up and have an idea, which I will email to myself. But mostly they aren’t the best ideas. I think, for me, the most interesting things come out in the process itself. When I didn’t think about it—it just happened.
A lot of fashion and technology is fused these days, and a lot of your work is very futuristic. So where do you think fashion is going? What’s the future? And do you think that maybe, at some point, designers will not be doing things by hand anymore? During couture days, everything was done by hand. And now, it’s a mix.
I think it will be even more mixed than today. In what you see today, there is still quite a lot of handwork. You will be surprised, even in your ready-to-wear. Quite a few things cannot be done by machine yet. I think we will get more and more alternatives. Like one alternative now is laser cutting or 3D printing. There will be just more and more of it. I don’t think one of the older techniques will completely disappear. There will probably, in the future, be another technique, whatever that may be, that will be more used than the sewing machine. But I still think that the sewing machine will [stay].
When you started your fashion career, you interned at Alexander McQueen, and it was at the time when the designer himself was still alive. Of course, he is considered as one of the most talented tailors of our time. Since you do such intricate work yourself, and it takes hours or months to create some of these pieces, what was your experience like at McQueen? Did you take anything from it that is now influencing your work?
Yeah, I think one thing that I learned was to find meditation in the process, in the craftsmanship itself. At that time, I just studied fashion. You are taught to develop ideas, but you are not really taught how long it takes to actually get to a level that you want to be at. I felt that in my academy the concept was very important, but the making of the garment—not so much. That was more of a practical thing. And I think it’s the opposite. The process is really actually very important, and it is part of the concept.
Often, I start working on materials without even knowing the concept yet. I have a certain intuition. I think my experience at McQueen really helped because during that period I was really focused on the craftsmanship only. And I learned that it’s not only about producing ideas: there is actual work and there is meditation and beauty in the work itself. It’s not easy. I think I really needed to go through that in order to find peace in it.
The ROM’s presentation marks the final stop on the exhibition’s two-year North American tour. Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion is co-organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands.
The exhibition was co-curated by Sarah Schleuning formerly of the High Museum of Art, and Mark Wilson and Sue-an van der Zijpp of the Groninger Museum.
Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion is on display until Oct. 8, 2018.