Iris van Herpen is Just What High Fashion Needs Right Now.
Updated: Aug 21
How this experimental fashion house is raising the bar of haute couture - one ‘out-of-this-world’ garment at a time.
Haute Couture Fashion Today. High-End and Inaccessible?
Modern day assumptions about haute couture fashion are not unfounded. Yes, the clothing is frivolous, it’s only affordable for a select few, and most of the time it can look ridiculous - conjuring up images of shaggy, monster gowns or avant-garde headpieces that are unwearable for most occasions. And, inevitably, for those with not the slightest interest in fashion, they might see it as a big waste of time.
But what, even if just for a moment, we focus on the artistic function of fashion instead? Of an industry where the finest garments are comparable to works of art. The french term itself, haute couture, translates to high dress-making or high sewing. And, as the name suggests, haute couture collections are designed to showcase breathtaking garments - with all the hours of careful planning and skilled craftsmanship behind them - in all their glory. This quintessentially French tradition goes far back, all the way to the reign of King Louis XIV; when the French aristocracy set the standards of fashion in Europe, and to a certain Charles Frederick Worth; an English man who relocated to Paris in the mid 1800s and turned high fashion into big business.
A great haute couture collection must inspire wonder. As a model glides down the runway, their outfit should make us mere mortals stare open-mouthed in awe, comparable to the feeling stirred within us when we gaze at Michelangelo’s masterworks on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or watch a beloved scene from classic cinema unravel on the big screen. The tiniest details should move us. They have the power to temporarily alleviate us from our worries. Maybe, a delicate fold of fabric or a tiny, shining embellishment are enough to calm our whirlwind thoughts, distracting us from frightening news stories about a life-threatening super-virus, a burning planet, and a fragile political climate. It is fantasy, but a welcomed one.
2020 and its Haute Couture Designers.
At the Spring 2020 haute couture season in Paris, a mixture of beautiful and strange garments glided down the runways. There were highlights aplenty. Jean Paul Gautier held his bittersweet, final show after a 50 year career, Givenchy’s finale piece had supermodel Kaia Gerber walk in a white wedding dress with the biggest, most sculptural wedding veil I’ve ever seen in my life, and Moncler; in a collaboration with Pierpaolo Piccoli, released a collection of oversized, cocoon-puffer dresses.
Although these collections were interesting to a certain degree, they did not stir me greatly enough to leave a long-lasting impact. Even the Schiaparelli collection - whose eponymous creator was the cutting edge of avant-garde fashion throughout the early twentieth century - was lacking in intrigue and innovation. I was uninspired to say the least. Really, after over 150 years of modern fashion design, this is all we have to offer?
This is where Iris van Herpen comes in.
Although her work looks like a collection of alien organisms from distant planets, her designs are very much rooted in reality - nature being her biggest inspiration. At her Arnhem studio, she and her team fuses advanced technology; like 3D printing and laser cutting, with traditional handiwork to recreate features of the natural world. This could be anything from exoskeletons, plant fibres, brainwaves, and even the fluid motions found in a stream of water. She also has an obsession with capturing movement which, no doubt, is inspired by her childhood ballet training. Because of this influence, many of her collections involve pieces that demonstrate a range of movement, be it oscillating sleeves or bouncing details.
It's true that van Herpen is no scientist, but that doesn't stop her from being fascinated by the latest in advanced engineering. She has recurring interest in the activities at CERN; including their ongoing study of particle physics via a huge hadron collider, and had visited their headquarters in 2015. It’s not uncommon for her to visit the Massachusetts Institute of Technology either.
For the Spring 2020 haute couture runway at the Cirque d'hiver Bouglione, Paris, the designer presented the hypnotic collection, Sensory Seas. On her website, she describes the collection as being influenced by the “intricate composition of the human body, mirrored with the fibrous marine ecology of our seas.”
Two main sources of inspiration are key to understanding this collection. The first source comes from the the godfather of Neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, and his scientific illustrations of the brain’s inner workings. These artworks, that are mesmerising to say the least, depict the way singular neurons travel around the nervous system. The second source of inspiration comes from van Herpen's interest in the mysterious Hydrozoa: a varied group of tiny, marine organisms. So, with Sensory Seas, van Herpen brings these complex influences together in a magical collection.
Iris van Herpen, Spring 2020, Sensory Seas, Haute Couture Runway.
Apart from some blue projections that spin in the background, reminiscent of three strands of DNA, the models for Sensory Seas walk out onto the catwalk from darkness. One-by-one, they look like a parade of exotic sea creatures, emerging from the depths of the ocean.
The first model to walk has an appearance of weightlessness. Her black gown features a complex bodice made of leather with delicate cut-out details. To contrast with the skin-hugging bodice, the sleeves of the gown extend far to the ground. The model makes sure to accentuate this feature by lifting up her arms so that the pleated fabric sways from left to right. One thing to notice is how effortlessly the fabric hangs upon the model, like it is a natural extension of her human form.
A few of the garments have a nude under-layer with pleated fabric artistically layered on top. From the waist to the neck, these layered fabrics wind up the body like how seaweed appears when it sways in the water. Below the waist, the skirts of these dresses are wide and flow towards the ground. Their gentle movements have a hypnotic quality if looked at for long enough.
Other pieces involved a complex, multi-layering of fabric. One cocktail gown has circular layers in a marbled colour scheme of white, blue, and a few hints of deep purple.
Van Herpen also opted for moodier colours. An off-the-shoulder gown was covered in her signature shades - a passionate red and an electrical blue; the lively colours drawn out from the emptiness of black.
For me, the stand-out piece had to be the fourth-till-last dress. Although this 21 piece collection is influenced by the deep-sea hydrozoa, I could not help but think of a pristine, airborne dove after seeing this piece. The 3D printed design has a feather-like quality that is both soft and skeletal in its arrangement. I’m also in awe with how the fabric winds around her body. In a heart-shaped sequence, it winds downwards from the back of the neck and ends between the legs. A majestic dress that I would rather have seen as the finale piece!
Celebrities and the Avant Garde.
Van Herpen’s avant-garde garments are surprisingly popular with celebrities. An Iris van Herpen dress would be a definite gamble to wear on a red carpet, yet a few celebrities have taken the leap - and with stunning results. Who could forget Joey King wearing a futuristic dress from the 2019 Hypnosis collection at the 2020 Golden Globes, or Gwendoline Christie, who wore van Herpen at the Game of Thrones season 8 premiere, throwing up her magnificent train for the cameras.
Certain pop stars are also willing to wear van Herpen’s designs. Back in 2011, Lady Gaga wore a structurally bizarre, custom-made piece for her Fame perfume launch, whilst the experimental artist Bjork has been a long-term wearer of the brand. She graced the covers of albums like Biophilia and Vulnicura wearing nature-inspired pieces from the fashion house. I can only hope that more public figures will wear the brand for press events. It’s a perfect way for the public to be exposed to her out-of-the-ordinary vision and, at least, have the chance to view one piece picked out from a labyrinth of work.
Iris Van Herpen - The future is here!
In the midst of cultural misanthropy - where many of us are sceptical towards our impact on the world and the other living organisms that surround us - van Herpen’s designs are a reminder of what we are capable of. Through sheer creativity, she has managed to fuse the worlds of nature and technology together in a beautiful way. And, by making it fashion, has envisioned a space where the organic and the digital can co-exist in artistic harmony, so to speak. She is a designer of the future, for the future. Who knew that haute couture had that much power?