Iris van Herpen on vacuum-packed models, collaborating with biologists and flying the flag for conceptual fashion.
Photography Stefan Zschernitz
Styling Anders Sølvsten Thomsen
In July, Iris van Herpen was announced as winner of this year’s ANDAM prize, receiving €250,000, as well as a year’s business mentoring from François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering. Four months before that, however, the Dutch designer baffled tabloid readers with her A/W 2014 collection, thanks to several vacuum-packed models. On one level, it was classic fashion provocation, the high-minded kind red-top papers love to be shocked by. “It reminds me of Aliens,” remarked one Mail Online commenter. “The experiment room where the half human half aliens were kept. Looks soooo creepy.”
But behind the unnerving sealed packages, which van Herpen herself did test out (“It looks scarier than it is,” she assures me), was a collection that echoed
the late 1990s heyday of experimental fashion, when designers such as Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan were at their boldest. Blurring design and science under a theme of biopiracy, aka the hacking of genetics for some higher purpose, van Herpen’s collection brought conceptual fashion back into the spotlight, making it relevant for a new generation.
“In my work, concepts are always visualised quite abstractly,” she explains carefully. “It’s never that I’m inspired by a flower and so I print that flower. It’s much more based on a feeling that I get from a concept, which I try to translate into a collection. So if my work sounds abstract, it is. I would never visualise a concept directly.”
Your collection was titled Biopiracy. How
did you come across this idea?
There’s a place nearby in Amsterdam where people are biohacking. Some people are doing research literally on their own bodies, others just experiment biologically on their own or in small groups. I thought it was an interesting thing: scary, because you let go of the safety of big institutions but, on the other hand, a lot more democratic and open-source, so things can develop faster. It has a positive side and a scary side, and I was drawn in. Then I came across the whole idea of biopiracy: I found out that our genes are patented, not even owned by ourselves. When you get the whole story, you start wondering, do I own myself? If laws are made to control this kind of biohacking, other people will be able to say what you can and can’t do with your own body.
How did that apply to the A/W 2014 collection and the vacuum-sealed models?
There were different elements in the collection. One part was the beading that was layered under layers of fabric. That represented the genetics part of the story. Then we had those liquid-mix fabrics, which represented the future, the inside and outside, a future perspective of bodies, almost covered in a transparent layer. Those shiny looks were connected to the vacuumed models, too, where the shiny watery or plastic-like fabrics are sealed around the body without seams. The vacuumed girls were sealed within the sheet of plastic, in the same way, with all the seams taken out.
I’ve heard that you’re not so interested in divisions between haute couture and ready-to-wear.
I’m trying to look for a combination that covers both of them. In this ready-to-wear collection, I’ve been trying to let go of those words. With my work in 3D printing, I hope to create possibilities between the worlds of ready-to-wear and couture. I think in the future there will be a whole different area between them, where you have clothes that you can make to measure, but are still at ready-to-wear prices.
Is “designer” the best term to describe what you do?
Yes, I see myself as a designer. It’s always the body that I have in my mind and that I work with. It’s the clothes that really drive me.
And yet you use your work in fashion to access other fields, such as technology and genetics. Are there any areas that feel off-limits to you?
I feel that research into materials is something I would like to explore a lot more, but it takes a hell of a lot of time before you develop one small thing. I would also like to collaborate more with biologists – I have some biologists that I can ask for advice, but I haven’t actually collaborated with any yet. It’s an interesting field for fashion, in relation to materials and the potential for bioprinting – printing with biological materials – which seems to be the future of 3D printing.
And you’re now collaborating with CERN [European Organization for Nuclear Research] in Geneva?
Yes. It’s a very inspiring place with very inspiring people, so I intend to let something grow out of it, but it has to be a project that fits my work. It could be developing materials or other things, but right now it’s all open. And that’s how I start a collection, as well, going in different directions, doing a lot of research… in the end I pin myself down.
Your work is often described as ground-breaking. Is that a term you’d agree with?
[Laughs] I think that’s a big word. I like to work with new technologies and materials, but I also work with older crafts. So it’s a combination. And I like to collaborate with people from other fields – I try to renew myself and my know-how for creating things. So it’s a personal journey. It’s a mix of using things
I know and getting to know things that I don’t know.
This text was first published in the international edition of Bon A/W 2014.
Luna Black leather platform shoes Iris van Herpen.