Iris van Herpen: Art You Can Wear

“If you think these designs are wild, wait until you get to the top floor,” the security guard informed me as he watched my impromptu facial reaction. Though I had yet to say a word, his comments confirmed my thoughts. I knew the exhibit was all about haute couture, but my expectations were blown away less than three minutes after walking through the front door. Everything looked and felt as if I’d walked into an art museum. Bold fabric molded into unimaginable shapes coupled with what looked metallic with earth tone colors gave the room an artistic feel. I understood why the exhibit was on display at The High Museum of Art. “Wait until you see the shoes,” the guard continued watching me take it all in while simultaneously shaking my head. “She’s mastered the art of her craft, that’s for sure. ” Nodding in agreement, I walked toward a particular design that caught my eye. Gold and metallic looking, the short dress, created out of what looked like thin gold straws, was topped with a cylinder structure that covered the shoulders, wrapping around the back of the neck. A darker design, chocolate colored with gold shimmering accent fabric, looked like a scorpion. The fitted skirt ended with a claw like shape encasing each leg. I was more than ready to see more of the Dutch designer’s work. Excited about the small glimpse of infinite imagination I had and would see, I entered the world and artistic psyche of Iris van Herpen, the 31 year old fashion designer breaking all the rules.

iris1Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios
“In all my work,” van Herpen explains on her website, “I try to make clear that fashion is an artistic expression, showing and wearing art, and not just a functional and devoid of content or commercial tool.” Perhaps that’s what makes her designs so otherworldly and the exhibit’s title so significant: “transforming fashion.” In the midst of an industry that works so hard to maintain functionality, van Herpen emphasizes form, an interest she probably developed while interning with renowned designer Alexander McQueen. After graduating from The ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in The Netherlands, she showed off her love for form inspired designs in “Fragile Futurity,” her very first collection. Meshing her vision of the future–fragile, vulnerable and evolved–with her love for science and nature, the collection featured a range of creations including wings, horns, snake prints and other animalistic inspired designs. Many of the pieces, true to van Herpen’s artistic designs, looked like sculptures. Even The Washington Post noted that her designs look less like clothes and more like the future. Unlike most designers, the article explained, “van Herpen is more inclined to work with computer programmers, nanorobotics scientists and biologists.” Her 3-D designs displayed at the exhibit attracted quite a bit of viewers, particularly, the skeleton dress.


“It’s fantastic,” a viewer exclaimed. “Just wonderful to see how her brain translates into an actual design.” Another attendee, not quite as sold on the “wild designs,” admitted that the whole exhibit was “quite odd, but interesting,” telling me she felt more intellectually stimulated than emotionally driven. True to it’s name, the skeleton is dress is shaped just like a skeleton, from the “bones” to the dresses color. The actual dress barely covers the body, and moves beyond the all too common two dimensional designs. Given the chance to actually feel some of van Herpen’s fabrics, express amazement and bewilderment at the same time. Fabric used in the “Wilderness Embodied” collection actually feels like terrain while “Crystallization” collection demonstrates van Herpen’s belief of chaos as structure. The most jarring piece from that collection included a tiny tan colored dress with several cutouts and a zipper down the middle. Stretching out from the back of the dress is a translucent 3-D design that’s made to look exactly like an ice crystal. The crystal, reaching from one side of the dress to the other, looks almost like wings, embodying the idea of chaos as a structure that grounds the dress while still embracing the futuristic feel van Herpen is known for. Videos showcasing models walking the catwalk zoom in on the shoes she’s designed as well. As the guard warned, they are smaller works of art: dark, some adorned with chains, others spikes all at least five inches of a steep wedge heel. If van Herpen’s dresses are sculptures, her shoes are like mixed media versions of applied art: architectural and technologically designed.

iris2Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios
As I snap photos of the shoes, one woman sums up the entire exhibit: “The crazy cool thing about her work is that you can wear it. It seems so overwhelming, but it really is art you can wear.” The significance of her statement didn’t resonate with me until later, but as the exhibit states, this young, ambitious designer is really transforming fashion. In lieu of fabric sewn together nicely and made to look like artistic and creative, van Herpen creates art that you can wear. Despite her sometimes jarring and odd choices, her designs have indeed been worn by quite a few celebrities from Lady Gaga to Beyonce. Intellectual, scientific, natural and artistic, van Herpen’s haute couture designers are examples of the infinite power of the imagination. The exhibit is available for viewing until May 15, 2016. Whether a fashion connoisseur, artist, nature lover, scientistic or computer programmer, Iris van Herpen reminds all designers that art is for the mind and body just as much as it is for display and exhibition.

-Sharita Gilmore                                                                                                              Installation Photos by: Mike Jensen