• Salsa Mazlan

Iris van Herpen: The Intersection of Dance, Nature, and the Female Body

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Design by Urna Bajracharya

Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen gained prominence for her optical illusionary work. Her mastery in interweaving the tradition of haute couture craftsmanship with modern technological innovations such as 3D-printing, laser cutting, and rapid prototyping exemplifies the interdisciplinary. Known for pioneering new techniques and materials, van Herpen’s creations bound into the future as they cross into the sublime to become living, breathing sculptures. These fused inventions are what have placed her at the forefront of technology’s introduction into fashion, alongside today’s iconic image of the avant-garde.

Photo by Arkansas Democratic Gazette

After graduating from the ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem, the Netherlands, Iris van Herpen interned at Alexander McQueen in London and Claudy Jongstra in Amsterdam before founding her eponymous label in 2007. Now showcasing twice a year at Paris Haute Couture Week, the maison releases small collections of around 20 pieces—often in collaboration with other artists, architects, and scientists—seeking to explore new forms of movement, femininity, and fashion within the contemporary moment. The ingenious cross-pollination of these fields rightly challenge the traditional definitions of fashion, paving the way for a more conscious and diverse industry. 

With a foundation in classical ballet, Iris van Herpen utilizes her study of dance and motion to create dresses that both emphasize and detach from the female body. Playing with the transparency and patterning of her materials, her inventions draw just as much attention to their silhouette as to the negative space around it. Whether caged in framing or loose and voluminous, the garments never fail to elevate the model’s body. When in motion, they condense and dissolve with each glimmer of light, as if to capture the graceful yet dynamic gestures of the woman wearing it. This is further accentuated by her ever-changing concepts with each collection, implying how van Herpen seeks to situate a woman within a specific moment, as opposed to cementing her entire identity into one dress, or one experience. 

Photo from Vogue

Van Herpen’s Fall 2019 Couture Collection, Hypnosis, is a testament to her visionary work. In collaboration with and heavily inspired by the American kinetic sculptor Anthony Howe, this collection showcased various forms of movement, from pieces that exuberantly vibrated to others that passively oscillated. Several garments were designed using the Japanese ink-on-water marbling technique, suminagashi, along with the ancient silk moiré weaving technique, creating scintillating lines of dyed silk that seamlessly glided over skin and across the runway. The assimilation of these garments and motions within one show gave rise to a complex layering of rhythmic textures, both illusory in nature and embedded in the real interchanging rhythms of life. 

Photo from Vogue

Van Herpen’s meticulous attention to detail is as clear as day. The ‘Hypnosis’ technique that served as the backbone for each piece was developed in collaboration with experimental sculptor Phillip Beesly. It involves tens of thousands of plottercut 0.8 mm mini ripples of duchesse-satin. Each movement of the body causes a dissociation of the dress, exposing skin in between whimsical spheroid patterns. The intricate ripples are designed to move faster than the eye can follow, as if testing the limits of our bodily and sensory perception. 

Her pieces are evidently informed by the forces and materiality of nature, with air and earth at the core of this collection. Sticking primarily to solid whites, forest greens, and browns, the collection is intermittently permeated with hues of orange and magenta, reflecting the tapestry and palette of the wilderness. In contrast, the delineation of each model’s silhouette as elucidated by the dissections and echoes of lines add a mechanical, industrialized feel to each look. This is reinforced by the engineering of structural elements like aluminum and stainless steel into various birdcage-like silhouettes. Pieced together, van Herpen employs biomimicry through the use of machinery in her patterning, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between nature, technology, and movement. 

Right at the center of this runway lies Anthony Howe’s spherical Omniverse sculpture, a three-dimensional rotating structure described to be “the wind beneath the wings of this collection.” Powered by the wind, this arching vertebrae-like sculpture incessantly expands and contracts, as if signifying a certain subdued consciousness that ebbs and flows with each dress that arrives at this portal. Spiraling into a cyclical harmony, the structure alone lures the viewer into a state of hypnosis.

Photo from Vogue

Van Herpen’s finale dress, the ‘Infinity’, was made in the image of Omniverse. An exquisitely balanced mechanism consisting of industrial materials embroidered with a fine layering of feathers in circular flight, the dress seemed to dance along with the sculpture. It felt like an extension of the structure, transcending its globose boundary with every step into the open space of the runway. The juxtaposition of materials and techniques once again highlights the interdependence and multi-faceted essence of nature and human innovation. In this sense, Iris van Herpen reminds us that there is no single, fixed way of looking at the world around us, nor the people around us. 

Iris van Herpen’s synthesis of tradition and modernity showcases how beauty flourishes in collaboration, in the marrying of disciplines. Her work is a direct result of her influences from nature, dance and motion, birthing into existence once on the female body. Van Herpen’s collections reinforce the idea that fashion itself is constantly transforming and intersecting with other domains, which she confronts head-on through pure experimentation and consenting to the unexpected.

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