What do we think of when we think of luxury goods today? High prices, yes, but also extraordinary levels of craftsmanship and, in the case of many brands, a sense of heritage: that we are buying something that has been made the same way for hundreds of years.
But while heritage may be an essential part of the brand story for the likes of Hermès or Louis Vuitton, before there was such a thing as a luxury ‘industry’ innovation had been a key element of any luxury item. In its current What is Luxury? show, the V&A has included items such as an 18th-century crown and a 17th-century priest’s chasuble to remind us that working with new technologies and materials was essential to these highly-prized objects.
Fast-forward to today and the successors to those Venetian craftsmen who worked their magic with linen and silk for the glory of the church are immersing themselves in the potential of 3D printing, digital imaging and laser-cutting. Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, perhaps better than anyone, combines this mix of curiosity and craft.
For a SHOWstudio film, van Herpen memorably manipulated heated clear plastic to create a dress that mimicked the splash of water hitting a model’s body. A recent collection included shoes and dresses formed by applying magnetic forces to a material made from iron filings mixed into resin, while an earlier show featured clothes made from metal gauze burnished to create ‘nebula-like’ colours across its surface. The notes for her collections talk of the influence of ideas such as terraforming – her last show was inspired by a visit to CERN in Switzerland to look at the Large Hadron Collider.
Van Herpen’s Amsterdam atelier reflects the combination of innovation and craft that marks her work. Housed in an old warehouse on the IJ waterfront, much of the space is given over to traditional cutting and handwork. But alongside are samples of extraordinary materials – translucent 3D-printed mesh and laser-cut leather.
As well as her small team of permanent staff and interns, van Herpen works with a wide array of collaborators to produce her creations. Architect Philip Beesley and artist Jolan van der Wiel for example both worked with her on those magnet-formed dresses for Spring/Summer 2015. Photographers including Warren du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones, and Jean-Baptiste Mondino have brought the ideas behind her collections to life for publications.
When we meet it is with another key collaborator, her creative consultant Jerry Stafford. Something of a legend in the fashion world, stylist, writer and creative director at Premiere-Heure in Paris, Stafford has a reputation for matching like-minded creative types to great effect. For the last two years, he has been working with van Herpen as consultant, advisor and all-round sounding board for her ideas.
Theirs is a relationship built on conversation and mutual respect – those essential elements that we hear about time and again from those we interview for Creative Review. The pair first got together when van Herpen was guest editing an issue of A magazine and wanted to work with Tilda Swinton, a regular collaborator of Stafford’s.
The pair hit it off and developed a relationship that now sees Stafford involved in concepts for the clothes themselves, as well as for shows, exhibitions and imagery. “We inspire each other,” van Herpen says. “I don’t think that I have worked with anyone else that deeply in that conceptual sense. It is very special for me to have found someone that can understand my brain.”
“There is a lot of conversation, which I think really is a fantastic and wonderful tool that we still really use,” Stafford adds. “Yes we look at visual references and we are in front of our computers all the time, but really the dialogue is what is important, and as that progresses, ideas spring up, some of which are put to the side for another time, some of which then become solidified.”
Van Herpen’s creative process is centred around research. Much of it involves looking at new materials and fabrication techniques. Her reputation is now such that she is often contacted by industry intrigued to see what she might come up with using whatever new process they have devised.
While that research is ongoing, the twice-yearly fashion calendar demands shows for Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. There will be specific concepts for these shows but they do not mark an end-point in terms of her interest in a material or technique. “We are always working on materials; the show is used to be able to show the moment that we are in,” van Herpen says. “It freezes the time at that moment, but [the research] continues. Some things don’t work out for that show, but do for another.”
“The work is a continuum,” Stafford adds. “The show is a visual representation of what is an intellectual thought process.”
“It presents what we are capable of in that moment and what is going on in my interests and collaborations. But then for me it is always the moment to see what I am missing out on and all of the things that did not work at that moment,” van Herpen says.
Van Herpen’s shows have been spectacular – her models were suspended in shrink-wrapped clear plastic for one – but with her interest in new technology, will she move away from the live runway show and embrace the opportunities of online media and AR? “At this moment, if I could choose to see a real fashion show or online, I would want to see it live,” she says. “Because you feel the emotion of the people and the clothes. I am sure that there are many ways to play around with that in moments to come but now I think that it is still a magical moment that cannot be created online.”
“What Iris has been trying to do is create an immersive feeling to give the audience an experience rather than just purely spectatorship,” Stafford says. “Until the technology becomes such that the emotion upon seeing the show live can be created on a screen, I think that seeing it live is what a fashion show is all about.”
Now 31, van Herpen studied fashion design at ArtEZ Institute of the Arts Arnhem. After spells interning with Alexander McQueen in London and Claudy Jongstra in Amsterdam, she started her own business in 2007.
Her current space, surrounded by the studios of other artists and designers, with a theatre downstairs, feels idyllic: I wonder how influential Amsterdam and the Dutch culture has been on her career so far. “Of course that is a difficult question, because you never know how things have influenced you,” she says. “But I do feel that my environment has influenced me a lot. My parents are very open-minded and they really taught me to learn independently. I had a lot of creative education – I started to draw from a very young age, and played the violin for more than 10 years. I also did classical ballet for I don’t know how long – too long! There are a lot of creative people in my family and my friends around me and it has always been a very natural process to express myself in a visual way, which shaped me. I have no idea if I would be doing this if I had different parents or different friends, I don’t know.”
When van Herpen arrived at Arnhem she wasn’t committed to studying fashion design, only making that choice after experiencing the Dutch equivalent of a foundation year in which to try out other disciplines. With foundation courses in the UK increasingly under threat, I wonder how that process helped van Herpen?
“I grew up in a really small village, and my parents were a bit hippy-like, so we didn’t have a TV or internet, and fashion wasn’t around me at all,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t have thought about studying fashion, but I noticed that it was my perfect platform, because of my interest about the body. But I had to find that out at the academy, because I also enjoyed drawing and making sculpture.”
The Dutch government has been famously supportive of creative people, particularly those just starting out. Does that still happen today? “It’s actually sad at the moment, because Holland always used to have a supportive governmental system where start-up companies got a lot of financial aid, but now the funding has dropped and it is not as good as it was,” she says. “But there are a lot of creative companies in Amsterdam. There is a whole community. There are a lot of companies that combine technology and craftsmanship so I do feel that it is alive here. Even though the government is not supporting it that much, it is happening.”
Van Herpen was one of the first fashion designers to identify the potential of 3D printing. Currently, she says, “I am working with a company, which I can’t give details about yet, but they have explored a new way of 3D printing for fashion and it is making all the difference. It is completely flexible and delicate. It is the thing that I have been waiting for. Flexible [3D-printed] materials were so poor, but now there is a change coming so it has lifted my spirits! It makes it viable even for bigger brands.”
With the personalising potential of 3D printing, are we going full-circle from the tailor-made clothes of the pre-industrial age, to mass-produced ready-to-wear, back to one-off items? “I really do think that that kind of thing will become bigger and bigger again,” she says. “I don’t think people are going to design their own clothes, it is more about personalising what they think is beautiful already. In a way it is still about being part of a bigger whole, but in a personal way.” Does she feel connected to the wider fashion industry? With those big brands? “Well I am not in the same space but I am on the same planet! My main inspiration doesn’t come from fashion itself, it comes from artists, architects, even scientists. It is often on a much more abstract level.”
“Iris’s work isn’t about reinventing eras, which is what fashion has been doing – reinventing the 60s and 70s and so on,” Stafford says. “I think that has made for some fun clothes, but in the long run, it is a self-devouring monster. It doesn’t create anything on a design level that is particularly interesting, so I think that we need to get away from that self-perpetuating spiral.”
“I hope that the industry becomes a bit more research-driven again,” van Herpen says. “If you don’t have the research resources, how can you go out of your comfort zone? You keep on repeating yourself, and you need that experience and exploration, that ability to make mistakes.”
What are the big cultural ideas or themes that she is currently excited about? “Well what gets me frightened is artificial intelligence. I am interested by it, but I also see the complexity of it. At the moment I am working a little bit with robotics, and creatively it is very exciting, as you can go outside of the 3D printing box, and you can use time as your design element, so I am pretty excited about that.”
Does that mean clothes that could evolve and change over time? “In a controlled way, yes. It is really that dialogue between control and the uncontrollable that I really want to explore more.” I ask Stafford, who has worked with some of the biggest names in fashion, what he finds so appealing about van Herpen’s work.
“One of the things that has been extremely inspiring for me, and magical in a sense, is that [in her work] there is this wonderful dialogue between the intellectual and conceptual and what are very meticulous, handmade pieces of clothing,” he says. “So what I love is this wonderful conversation between technology, the advancement of different materials or materiality, and what is an extraordinary appreciation and reflection of the natural world itself.”