The new fashion exhibit Manus x Machina at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York explores the relationship between fashion made by hand and by machine. One of its sub themes is the marriage of the most traditional handwork couture methods and the most advanced technological methods of clothes-making. Amongst its selection are seven dresses by the Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, who stands peerless in doing just that.
There is a depth to her work that results in garments that are often called “otherworldly” or “futuristic,” though van Herpen will be the first to tell you that she sees them firmly rooted in reality. Another misconception, perpetuated by the fashion media that runs after trendy stories and by the general media that runs after sensationalist ones, is that van Herpen’s work centers on 3D printing. In reality, her work traverses a wide variety of techniques and materials in service only to two things; to give free reign to van Herpen’s imagination, and to transcend fashion itself.
As we strolled through the press preview of the exhibit, I asked van Herpen if she thinks someone would recognize her while she is in New York. “No!” she answered with her typical modesty. A minute later an Israeli designer who was also featured in the exhibit came up and expressed her admiration. So did a few journalists. A few hours later as we drank tea at the café of the McNally Jackson bookshop in SoHo, a wide-eyed architecture student sitting at the next table could not help but introduce herself and shower van Herpen with compliments.
Van Herpen is not used to this kind of attention; she works away quietly in her studio in Amsterdam, where few people seem to care that they have a designer of singular talent and importance in their midst. She is inside fashion, but also outside of it, and it is much more likely that you will find her reading an esoteric book on new materials than looking at pictures of other designers’ fashion shows. Not that she is oblivious – she expressed her admiration for Comme des Garcons and Undercover as we walked around Dover Street Market the morning after the Met Gala and a few hours before she had to get on the plane. But she also knows that within fashion in general she is doing something unique, something that adds to the dialogue about the métier.
We talked for some time about van Herpen’s work and about the popular misconceptions that surround it. The interview below has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.
ER: The Met exhibit is curated with the goal of not only showing the fusion of technology and handwork, but highlighting what they call couture and the avant-garde. You are in a fairly unique position where your work is both.
IvH: Broadly speaking, I define my work as “modern couture.” I definitely think it is very related to couture, if only because of the amount of detail and time that goes into the pieces. Couture can have a very old-fashioned, traditional sort of association. The first picture that will come up in your mind when you think of couture is old French ladies hand-sewing tulle and doing embroidery, but that’s really not how I envision couture. It is much more about the process of making that defines couture for me than the old-fashioned romance that is connected to it. I think couture is something much more clean, much more about the essence of how a garment is being made that defines couture.
ER: The other day somebody asked me if couture is relevant. I said yes – not necessarily for how people dress on daily basis, but for transcending what fashion can be.
IvH: Absolutely. I see couture as the laboratory of fashion. It’s a place to start with craftsmanship to really develop something, to go further than what we already know, what we already can do. It’s really the place where in-depth experiments are possible, for a designer to express a vision and a concept. In general, ready-to-wear and couture are so divided in people’s minds. It shouldn’t have to be like that.
ER: Do you think it’s possible to incorporate elements of your work outside of couture?
IvH: It’s a fine balance. If I didn’t do couture, I wouldn’t be able to do ready-to-wear. I’m not talking about which fashion show or which fashion week I’m showing because that’s irrelevant. But more about the way I make the clothes. I wouldn’t feel like I could go further than the things I already know. For me it’s the base of experimenting and the base for collaboration. If I would focus only on ready-to-wear, I wouldn’t be able to collaborate with a variety of people. That’s just a completely different goal. I also think couture is really the place where fashion is directly connected to art. I think that’s very precious, and I think ready-to-wear really needs that. I think fashion would lose its depth if there wouldn’t be couture anymore. Again, I’m not talking about repeating history; I’m not talking about making the dresses that we were making 200 years ago. I’m really talking about finding new ways of seeing couture and making couture. I also think that couture is really connected to the avant-garde in a way, and it’s interesting that the exhibition really focuses on that.
ER: In your work fashion becomes a cross-cultural discipline, where you collaborate with architects, artists, and choreographers.
IvH: I came to fashion from dance. Growing up, dance really has been the center of my life. I wanted to become a dancer, but I also felt I wanted to go to the art academy. So there was this duality of what I wanted to do, and in the end I chose the art academy for fashion, because I really wanted to work with my hands.
For me, dance is really a combination of everything. I’m still working with the body, and it’s still transformable, but I can work on identity and I can work with my hands. Finding that link was already one of the earlier stages of establishing the logic of collaboration. I’ve been working with a Dutch choreographer from my very beginning in fashion, and that really gave me new energy in thinking how to be transformable with my textures and materials, and design in general. That was the first crossover.
And then I started to be more interested in technology and I wanted to work with 3D printing, but I didn’t know how. So I connected with the architect Daniel Widrig in London, and we started working on the first 3D print. That was a big step for me. It felt very uncomfortable to share the design process, because it’s very personal and I’m very shy and I like to work on my own. But I had to, so I did it, and I realized that I did get new ideas from it. I realized how important it is sometimes to break out of my bubble, to get out of my comfort zone, to share my headspace with someone else. Even if it was uncomfortable, I started liking it, and that was really a turning point for collaborations with different architects and artists. I still like to work on my own. Most of the dresses that you see in the exhibit I made by myself. But then the collaborations really challenge me.
ER: How do the creators feel when you approach them for collaboration? Do you ever get the raised eyebrow reaction?
IvH: It goes both ways. Sometimes I connect with someone and sometimes it’s the other way around. What I find pretty special is that I am fashion designer, and most scientists or architects are not really interested in fashion. Because mostly they know the popular side of it, they don’t know that there is a more artistic side to it, but I’m very surprised how positive the reactions are, because I think they receive my work broader than fashion. And that’s the reason that I can collaborate with them, because otherwise I don’t think there’d be so much connection. But they see the interdisciplinary approach in my work. It’s very much the way of thinking in art and design and architecture. Those disciplines are already a lot more a collaborative than fashion. Like the work from Philip Beesley [the Toronto architect and a frequent van Herpen collaborator], I think it’s eight or ten disciplines merging together. Being able to get my foot in that door is really great. Or even when I visited CERN; these are all scientists, with a completely different mindset. I wouldn’t know why they would be even interested in meeting me, but there is a connection somehow. That’s pretty special, I think.
ER: Most people know fashion as this materialistic, superficial, luxury thing. It falls onto designers like you to prove them wrong. Do you feel like it’s an uphill battle?
IvH: Sure, sometimes. I mean, when you want to communicate to a large audience, in fashion, you can’t go too complex. It’s like trying to simplify your words, which is very tricky. Take the interviews after the shows, for example. I’ve been working on a collection for six months; this is a pretty long time, and there are so many layers and so many steps involved in the process. And then you have to summarize that in a few sentences that are really understandable by a mass audience. That is one of the most difficult things for me.
At the same time, I think it’s interesting that when you look at my work referenced online, it is usually as a combination between science and art and fashion. I mean, there is definitely science involved, but there’s a lot of craftsmanship involved as well. People seem to forget about the craftsmanship sometimes. Some people seem to think I have a laboratory full of 3D printers and I don’t know, like glowing dresses. It’s really not like that. The mythology has grown, and it’s difficult to explain the complex processes that go into my work.
ER: I suppose that it should fall onto the exhibits like the one at the Met to educate people. Harold Koda once told me that one of his roles is to expand the museumgoers’ horizons, as well as those of art critics and other critics as.
IvH: Also what I find really important is that the exhibition highlights the garment-making process, which is exactly the difficulty that I have in my communication. People think a couture house is connected to atelier where everybody is doing embroidery, or they think about this laboratory that I have with 3D printers, and that I somehow live in the future. People don’t seem to be able to merge the two in their minds. And that’s why I think the exhibition is so great. Because you see, in a lot of the couture dresses there is technology involved. Even if the couture houses don’t communicate it, there is always a sewing machine or a laser cutter or other machined techniques. They’ve already been apart of couture for a very long time. And at the same time when you look at some of the newer work or the more technology advanced pieces, there’s always handwork involved. People need to see that these are very logical things to combine. People love going to the park to read a book, but you also have your computer for emails. It’s the same logic.
ER: I feel like it’s partly the fault of my profession, that fashion journalists have pigeonholed you as some made scientist of 3D printing.
IvH: It’s not necessarily the journalists. What I also gather, especially online, where everything is so measurable, is that editors want trendy topics, click-bait to sell advertising. And that’s why things constantly become more simplified. I remember an interview I did a while ago, and the journalist went in depth. It was a good article, but the editors chose some sensationalist headline, just to get people’s attention. It’s not the writer’s choice but that of the editors. Before if you had a print magazine, even though you know how much you sell, it was harder to know which articles exactly drove the sales, so you could have all types of articles. Online every article is quantifiable, so they have to make them more extreme to get people to read them.
ER: Your work is extremely time consuming, and we see the pace of fashion speeding up.
IvH: I’m really swimming against the current. I remember that after his last show, Rick Owens said that it was a sort of a protest against the “show now, sell now” movement. He said that he molded most of the pieces on the dress form. And that for him was a statement about bring attention back to the garment. That’s the center of my work. If you don’t have time to design anymore, then what else is there?