Iris van Herpen is one of fashion’s most intriguing designers. Her work is inspired by complex topics including biohacking, neurological conditions, radiation and digital addiction. She explores them in collaboration with scientists and architects, and by using 3D printing. Since graduating from ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem in 2006 and founding her label a year later, the Dutch designer has been developing her ideas on the couture runway and more recently in ready-to-wear. Her designs have been exhibited around the world from the Groninger Museum in Groningen, to the Museum of Arts and Design, New York.
Naomi Bikis Tell me about your home life and exploring fashion when you were younger.
Iris Van Herpen I wasn’t into fashion from a very young age. I grew up in a really small place, like a few hundred people. It was farmland so there really wasn’t any fashion around me. It wasn’t until high school when I went to a city that I started realising what fashion could be. I started to search for my identity within that world and I started making clothes for myself.
NB I am curious to know how you began to develop your aesthetic and experiment?
IVH I remember the biggest struggle for me at the Institute was the way they want you to design. For me, if I design something, it has to come out of my hands; I don’t always like it to come out of my head. Normally they want you to draw and then you make it. I want to make it and then define my design. But I really didn’t like working with the sewing machine, so I did everything by hand. I learned so much from that and I think it’s still defines a lot of my aesthetics today. It wasn’t really beading or knitting or all the handwork that you think of normally; it was exploring materials that I found and finding out how to manipulate them – that was just so exciting to me.
NB It’s interesting that your work that has such a futuristic slant is so rooted in traditional craftsmanship. How did it develop?
IVH I was always looking for interaction with the body, transformations of the body, and its movement. This was always an important aspect in my work. And the intricacy really comes from the experiments with materials. From a young age, I collected materials of any kind, but I didn’t do anything with them. It grew into a fascination and I’m still always collecting them. I’m on a never-ending search, sometimes even developing my own and from out of those I get new ideas for designs. A lot of designers’ ideas come from something they see, but for me it often comes from the pure material. I think that’s why I’m always trying to create my own, as new technology is another way of creating three-dimensionality and complexity. There are various ways to go, but experimentation is a big source in everything I do.
NB Along with that experimentation are the themes of collections. What draws you to such topics?
IVH I’m extremely curious about the world around me – science, biology, philosophy, architecture, dance – but often the non-visual inspires me. I look at things that are unsure in life, that raise questions. In my work I’m not always trying to look for answers or give people the answer, but in a collection I’m at least exploring my own answers, accepting that it is vague enough for me to trigger my imagination. Often it’s a concept that raises a certain feeling that I try to visualise and sometimes it can be pretty abstract in the collection.
NB I am thinking specifically of the AW14 “Biopiracy” collection.
IVH “Biopiracy” was inspired by biohacking and the fact that parts of our bodies are being patented, like our genes. And it sort of means that we are not the owners of our own bodies, which is quite a strange feeling. I’ve been reading a lot about it and it’s not even legal, but it’s done anyway. It’s a strange mix of, Where is the edge of me being me, and me being from someone else?
NB And you visualised that by vacuum-packing three models during the show?
IVH It looked like they were vacuum packed, but they weren’t really. It wasn’t that they couldn’t get any air. They vacuum packed themselves live during the show. To me it was like they were half sleeping. I did it myself as well. The installation was originally done by an artist called Lawrence Malstaf and the collection was partly inspired by his installation and work. It’s like meditation in there and you go really deep into yourself and even if you can see the people in the world around you, you are not really there. That was exactly the feeling I tried to realise.
NB How did you realise that theme in your clothes?
IVH There are oval beads trapped under layers of cheesecloth that are then lacerated by hand to reveal some details. These bead looks refer to the trapped genes of the body, revealing themselves partly. Then there are the seamless looks – I call them liquid because of the movement of shine – that are “sealed” over like plastic sheets over the body, like they are vacuum formed. Then there are the air looks that are the opposite of the vacuum looks, these looks “live” with air in Japanese fabric that is high-tech and extremely light weight; you can almost not feel it when you wear it, it behaves very beautifully with air.
NB A lot of what you do is in collaboration, how does that influence your work?
IVH They are really essential to me. [Architect] Philip Beesley is a really good example of a long-term collaboration. We constantly inspire each other by sharing ideas and that really creates big steps forward for me. And other examples like [architect and researcher] Neri Oxman and [designer] Jólan van der Wiel – he’s a person I did the magnetic dresses with – so it’s all great people from different fields that really feed me with different ways of looking at things and finding new materials or finding new production methods.
NB When the whole subject of future fashion is raised, you’re often cited as the example of somebody who is seriously questioning what fashion could be.
IVH I read a lot about new materials and nano-technology and they can completely change the way we will see things in the future. Actually that’s maybe the thing that keeps me going, like the things that are impossible for me to create today, but which I know I will be able to do in maybe a few years.
NB You were one of the first designers, if not the first, to explore 3D printing. How did you come across that technology and how are you using it?
IVH I remember seeing some architects using it for modelling. They were drawing the sketches in their computer three-dimensionally and then it was printed and I thought, Wow, that’s a really different way of making something, and so I imagined a dress. That’s where we started. I collaborated at the time with Daniel Widrig, who is an architect in London, because at that point, I really wasn’t so good with computers. It started with my “Crystallization” collection we made a first 3D print and it was such a different way of working that I found it really exciting. When I work on a handmade dress it’s like a whole evolution in front of your eyes. Each day you see it evolving but once it’s ready then I’m mostly already done with it – I’ve seen it too much. With the printing, though, it’s like a big surprise when you see it for the first time.
NB How will winning this year’s ANDAM award affect your work?
IVH The money is really, really useful to develop my ready-to-wear and I would also love to do more accessories. I’ve already been doing some shoes, but I’d love to do a little bit more, and also bags. And maybe jewellery in the future. And of course it’s going to help with research and experiments that I’m planning and collaborations. There’s a lot to do. §