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At Iris van Herpen’s Spring 2020 couture show in Paris this January, stunning, otherworldly gowns featured on the runway. Spirals of fabric and intricate pleating mimicked the movement of creatures from a faraway land, and the detailed prints were reminiscent of marine ecology—one of her biggest inspirations this season.
The designer mixes art, fashion, and technology like no one else right now. But beyond that, van Herpen’s creations have quietly become red-carpet favorites. Gwendoline Christie, Cara Delevingne, and Eva Green have worn her gowns in the past few months alone. At the Golden Globes, actress Joey King wore one of her black and white gowns that looked like wearable op-art. Van Herpen describes the current moment as one of her favorite red carpet looks of all time. “It was so special to see a young actress like Joey King come out and wear couture,” she explained.
Van Herpen’s pieces take so long to produce, that she exclusively shows during the couture season, often working with 3D printing, sculpted cellulose, and wood paneling to create whimsical forms. Take, for example, the final dress from her spring 2020 collection, which took four months to create from start to finish. The pink, purple, and blue print was a standout on its own, but the impressive construction resembled the anatomy of a beautiful sea creature more so than a traditional dress. Not surprising, considering van Herpen was looking at the Hydrozoa, a class of delicate sea life organisms as inspiration.
According to the designer, it’s one of the most complex pieces she has ever made. She began by drawing it on the computer.
“It was very difficult to predict the way the material will behave, especially in order to get this motion,” she told Departures. “We had to basically sort of design everything upside down, but it also had to be designed to go up from the body. Because the layers were so thin and so weak, they started falling down, which was done on purpose. There are hundreds of layers and we wanted to control the distance between all these layers.”
Van Herpen is also unique in that she’s one of the only couture designers who is collaborating with different industries. In fact, for the spring 2020 collection, artist Shelee Carruthers painted the oceanic prints. The spinning neon light sculptures that flanked the runway were designed by Paul Friedlander. And the designer also collaborated with Philip Beesley for a unique screen-printing technique.
“I think these kinds of collaborations really bring new knowledge into fashion,” said van Herpen. “When we work with other disciplines, we can share ideas and material techniques with them. But then, we get a lot of feedback from their own discipline too. It’s about how we can bring these worlds together.”
Van Herpen herself also dabbles in cross-disciplinary projects, and recently worked on her first-ever architectural project. Neutelings Riedijk Architects and the designer crafted the extension to the natural history museum in Leiden, in the Netherlands, wrapping the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in concrete friezes that takes aesthetic inspiration from the van Herpen’s couture. It was the first time she had worked on an architectural project. “I have a quite traditional background,” she explained. “I learned all the other traditional ways of how to make a design, but I would just not feel satisfied if I cannot set it up in my own language. Collaboration is really the tool for that.”
As for what’s next for the daring designer after her recent couture show, she’s currently finishing up her book, working on putting together her work for an exhibition she can’t share details on just yet and also preparing for an exciting collaboration in a field she’s never worked in before.
Her biggest inspiration, however, is more approachable than one might think. “I read a lot,” she said with a laugh. “I have my favorite bookstores in Amsterdam that I go to a lot and they always bring me into a new world that I haven't discovered before.”