Refinery Smoke, Dress, July 2008. Untreated woven metal gauze, cow leather, cotton. Groninger Museum, 2012.0196. (Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios. © Iris van Herpen)
“It’s a really exciting process for me, always, to dive into the unknown,” Iris van Herpen tells Vogue.com. She’s speaking over the phone from the Netherlands, where she works in a sun-filled atelier producing haute couture and ready-to-wear pieces that push the boundaries between technology, style, science, and craft. Her fans know she’s turned the ribs of children’s umbrellas into regal adornments, made 3-D printed dresses look like carved crystal, and used hot glue to form a dress that evokes a splash of water captured mid-motion. These items number among the 45 that will be displayed in “Iris Van Herpen: Transforming Fashion” at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. The exhibition, opening November 7, consists of three pieces from each of her 15 Haute Couture collections, arranged chronologically over several galleries. “I think it’s a great opportunity for me to show people my work in a different way,” says Van Herpen. “In my work I experiment a lot with different disciplines and materials and techniques, and people can really understand in the setting of a museum, because they can go up close and they can see how the pieces are being made. It’s very different than seeing it on a runway or in a photo.”
While her runway shows are among each season’s most enticing—Spring 2016 found Game of Thrones’s Gwendoline Christie laying on a plinth with a dress seemingly being constructed around her in real time—there’s something even more alluring about seeing Van Herpen’s creations devoid of the human forms they’re inspired by. The focus then becomes the craftsmanship, and in that regard, Van Herpen’s innovations are as cutting-edge as it gets today. Her materials include everything from an iron-filled polyurethane resin that can be manipulated by magnets, to the many plastics used in 3-D printing, to glittering Swarovski crystals. If that sounds coldly high-tech, the other side of Van Herpen’s creativity is focused on perfecting couture techniques done by hand in her atelier. The marriage of the new and the old, the futuristic and the traditional, can be fraught for both the designer and her audience, but it’s in that charged dichotomy where the beauty of Van Herpen’s work lies.