For the past decade, the fantastical and futuristic outfits made by the Dutch designer Iris van Herpen have been the highlight of every red carpet, the centre of every editorial, and answer to every question about the meeting place between technology and design. Her designs often look, at the exact same time, as if they were dug up amongst the fossils of some prehistoric era and like the uniform of some distant alien civilisation. She has designed iconic outfits for Björk, Grimes, Fredrik Robertsson, Dove Cameron and Tilda Swinton, to name but a few.
Now, Van Herpen is receiving her first-ever retrospective exhibition at Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris. Iris van Herpen: Sculpting the Senses is organised around nine thematic rooms which will display the essence of her work, merging fashion, contemporary art, design, and science. In the run-up to her show, we speak with Van Herpen about the revelation of going back through her archive, how she is utilising AI technology and what she wears when she’s going to the shop.
Barry Pierce: How does it feel to have a whole exhibition dedicated to your work?
Iris van Herpen: It’s super surreal. I’ve been going through the archives and it’s made me realise how everything has gone so quick. You barely get a moment to stand still and look back. So it’s been really amazing to go back over the collections, all the looks. Going through the archives has been pretty emotional.
BP: Does the show have stuff from the very beginning?
IVH: Yeah, it goes back to the very beginning and also includes some of the latest pieces.
“Going through the archives has been pretty emotional.”
BP: And what do those very early Iris van Herpen pieces look like?
IVH: One of the earliest looks in the exhibition is from Chemical Crows [Van Herpen’s first runway collection, presented in 2008, just two years after she graduated]. The focus on transforming the material has been there since the very beginning. And I think this is a good example where you don’t recognise it until you know that it’s made from the ribs of an umbrella. What I really like about the exhibition is that we don’t go chronologically, instead, we have these nine themes that are core to my work. So if you walk into the first room, which is about water, the origin of life, you will see one of my earliest pieces, the Water Dress, which I first made back in 2010.
Chemical Crows AW08
BP: Has anything surprised you or have you discovered something new by going back through your archive?
IVH: I realised how impulsive I was in my design process. I think in the earlier collections, I would think about something and I would make it. And I think there’s a beauty to that, it’s very pure, it’s very intuitive. Along the way, I started working in a very different way, which also has its own beauty. I’m collaborating with other people and I’m embedding technology into my work. Often people think I’ve always been doing that but that’s not the case. When you look at the first years of my work, it was only traditional craftsmanship, and had quite a lot of historical references, actually.
BP: In your own words, how would you describe your brand?
IVH: A very important part of my work is the freedom of expression. I really want to show that fashion can have a meaning and it can be a form of art. That’s the base of everything that I do. I think fashion is a very powerful tool that we forget about sometimes, even think about the suppression of cultures or even gender worldwide. Fashion always plays a very important part in whether you’re able to express your personality, your identity, it’s really connected to our emotional being. It’s the art of being ourselves, basically, it’s a very personal expression of art.
BP: How have you managed to stay in control of both yourself and your brand as the fashion industry has grown?
IVH: That’s a very good question and I guess I’m still finding the answers for that. The way I work, it’s very different from being a commercial designer or a creative director. It’s the artist’s approach. I need to have freedom. I also need to be outside of fashion now and then. That’s why I work with architects, scientists and other people, because when your world becomes fashion alone… for some people it works and for others, it doesn’t. I need to be in connection to those other disciplines or I would go mental.
BP: So, you’re saying there won’t be an Iris van Herpen x H&M collaboration anytime soon?
IVH: That would be like selling my soul to the devil. I often say never say never, but in this case I can say never is never.
Water Dress SS11
© Solve Sundsbo
“I’m currently training my second “me” right now, who is called A-Iris.”
BP: Do you remember the first complete outfit you made?
IVH: Well, interestingly, when I was small my mother would make my clothes sometimes. And I remember helping her sometimes as well. So my first experience of making something really was with her. But that was like flower power, it has nothing to do with my work now. [Laughs] But the first piece that I designed was just before I applied to the Art Academy. My brother is a musician, he was making instruments by hand. He travelled a lot to Africa at that time. So he was making African instruments and that piece, I actually lost it, I don’t have it anymore, it was a combination of knitting that I did by hand and pieces of discarded leather from his instruments. It was a nice combination of hand work and I think the experimentation was already in there.
BP: When did you first start looking at technology as a way of advancing your designs?
IVH: It was a few years after I launched my label. When I started, I was purely focused on traditional craftsmanship. Then, in 2010, I met some architects in Amsterdam who were working on the design of the Contemporary Art Museum. As we became a bit closer, I started looking at their process of modelmaking and they had these 3D printers in their studio. I was mesmerised. And I thought, maybe that’s possible to bring into fashion, but I had no idea how to do that. So I started to bring some architects into my atelier and we started experimenting. And that was really the moment where something clicked in my mind and where I suddenly realised that my curiosity goes way beyond the fashion techniques.
BP: What 3D printing was to the 2010s, AI seems to be to the 2020s. What are your thoughts about AI? Is it something you’d be interested in utilising?
IVH: I’m working with AI a bit. I am not so interested in it creatively, I like my creative process too much. It’s very personal and there is not going to be an AI that can express my emotional world. But in terms of giving people access to all of the knowledge that is within my work, I think it’s a very good tool. So I’m currently training my second “me” right now, who is called A-Iris. I’m feeding it with all of my previous interviews, but also giving it answers to questions. I think, for example, what is really beautiful in the exhibition is that people really are immersed in my work, in my universe, and I know from previous exhibitions, that people have tons of questions. Of course, I will not be able to be there for five months, but I would like to create this second being that is as intellectually close as possible to my way of thinking, to be able to give people answers to all the questions that they have. Like, technically, how is this made, but also, what is really behind this as a concept and inspiration? I believe it’s a very good tool for that.
BP: You’ve always worked within womenswear, have you ever considered making menswear pieces or does that not interest you?
IVH: Well, it depends on the perception of what is female and what is male. I actually have some male clients, which is interesting. Jordan Roth and Fredrik Robertsson are some of the more-known ones. They are definitely men, but in terms of dressing they are very open-minded and don’t stick to the rigid codes of masculinity. When someone has that freedom, I love working with them.
BP: And do you have any intentions of ever making prêt-à-porter?
IVH: It’s a big no. I actually did it for a short moment. Back when I won the ANDAM Award in Paris, part of the award was receiving prêt-à-porter training from Kering. For me, it was like going back to school. Like, the palette of techniques and materials that you can work with in the factories is so limited. It’s everything that I’ve been working against. I’ve been working on new materials, new techniques, a lot of the techniques that we’ve been developing in the atelier, only we can do, there’s no other atelier on the planet that is able to do that. Why would I go back to a palette that anyone can do? It felt like trying to produce a painting with my hands tied behind my back.
BP: My final question, and one that I literally have to ask, your designs are so incredibly complex and earthy and unique. When you need to run to the shop to pick up something, what does Iris van Herpen wear?
IVH: [laughs] I have a big collection of kimonos. They are definitely what I wear if I want to be comfortable.
Photography by Solve Sundsbo
Iris van Herpen — Sculpting the Senses will be open from November 29th 2023 to April 28th 2024 at Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris.