GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Every new season, the fashion industry rings with buzz about innovation, when in reality fashion is a giant ouroboros, infinitely consuming and re-presenting itself. True innovation is difficult to master in a field so fast-moving and codified, and is an accomplishment that makes Dutch designer Iris van Herpen stand out. Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion, a multi-floor exhibition at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), features 45 haute couture outfits from 15 of van Herpen’s collections, and truly makes a case for fashion as a fine art.
The artist has covered an astonishing amount of ground since debuting her label’s first collection in 2007. In 2012, she was inducted as a guest member into the exclusive Chambre Syndicale de Haute Couture — among the youngest of designers to receive this prestigious distinction. The GRAM show was co-organized with and originally presented at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands — the latter was the first institution to recognize and begin collecting van Herpen’s couture as fine artwork.
“I’m trying to forget about time, and research materiality or structure,” said van Herpen, during a media preview at the GRAM. “It’s the ongoing research of my work. I’m in fashion, but I’m always out with one foot.” All well and good, but how to truly define the line between innovation and well-made objects or materials that look cool? For her part, van Herpen is obsessed with materials and process, devoting herself to laborious handwork for her couture, the majority of which she executes herself. This abiding obsession to capture and create new materials has driven this artist to experiment with developing technologies, creating the first 3D-printed piece to walk down a runway in 2011, and executing a 3D-printed “ice dress” for her 2014 fall collection, Magnetic Motion. The slender and serious van Herpen has a voracious appetite for new materials and holds herself to exacting standards, which, when applied to some of the leading experimental technologies, yield extraordinary results.
The work itself is wildly creative, and a visual feast for craft junkies, fiber artists, fashionistas, and aesthetes across the board. From her earliest collection, which attempted to emulate refinery smoke in voluminous shoulder and skirt pieces of raveled metal mesh, to the maddeningly intricate leather detailing of her 2010 Synesthesia collection, to the playful splash of her “water dress” — featuring a frozen halo of water handcrafted out of transparent PETG — van Herpen demonstrates a fascination with natural and unnatural phenomena, and a desire to translate these elements quite literally to fashion. Even more abstract experiences are depicted, such as her first taste of skydiving, translated to a floor-length dress covered in transparent acrylic sheets that seem to trace the aerodynamic flow of atmosphere around the falling body.
“I have different ways of showing my work, and the [runway] has a strong beauty to it, because you get the energy of the collection and the identity with the models, but you do miss out on the craftsmanship and the detailing,” said van Herpen in an interview with Hyperallergic.
That’s what I find so special about a setting like this [the GRAM], that people can discover that part of my work, and to zoom into the textures and the detailing. You much more understand how something is made and where it comes from. The world of fashion is very quick and not always going in depth, and that’s why it’s really beautiful that my work can be in between the two.
On the second floor, visitors can actually touch samples of some of van Herpen’s materials, which don’t feel the way you expect them to.
“I think part of the reason we wanted to do this is there are layers for this exhibition,” said Sarah Schleuning, who curated the show at the High Museum and spoke with Hyperallergic at the GRAM media preview. “To be able to actually touch certain things — I kept always wanted to touch things — I felt like that opportunity to see them in a distilled way was really great. For us, the intention is to deepen the experience. The hope is that you go back and look again.”
Whereas the materials in the “touch pool” are soft and rubbery, on the runway or in the exhibit they seem like they would be rigid. In a way, the experience reinforced the way that the image and reality of fashion can be radically divergent.
It must be said that amidst all this innovative thinking, van Herpen’s adherence to fashion’s incredibly narrow conception of acceptable female bodies stands out as retrograde. Work as sculptural and figure-transforming as her couture begs the question of whether it should continue using the same impossibly thin and tall female figure as a jumping-off point.
“I see the female body as my canvas,” said van Herpen to Hyperallergic. “I see that as a function of my early interest in dancing … For me, this discipline is really the merging of all my interests. When I start working on a garment, I always start on the body.” With her dancer’s background and extremely petite physique, it is reasonable to imagine that van Herpen has never personally struggled to fit into clothing, so perhaps these considerations have never arisen — though it seems a glaring blind spot in a perspective so otherwise attuned to pushing the limits.
But as with most couture, wearability is a nonissue compared with jaw-dropping aesthetics, and in this, van Herpen is beyond reproach. At a talk at the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series, when Schleunig asked van Herpen to identify her dream material — something she’d love to work with but hasn’t yet found a way to do so — van Herpen didn’t waste a beat.
“Fire,” she said. It’ll be interesting to watch Iris van Herpen continue, perhaps literally, to blaze a trail that crosses the line between fashion and art.
Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion continues at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (101 Monroe Center St NW, Grand Rapids, Mich.) through January 15, 2017.