“Iris Van Herpen: Sculpting the Senses” is open at the Musée Des Arts Décoratifs from now through April 28th 2024. The show is a triumphant homage to the Dutch designer’s promethean talent for transdisciplinary fusion and to her extraordinarily beautiful and singular visual language. The exhibition explores her inspirations and creations from micro to macro- otherworldly and earthly become one. Visionary and innovative need no better definition than the fruits of her practice.
Full disclosure- I didn’t know what Iris looks like before meeting but while wandering the exhibition’s rooms I find myself fixated on a spiraling pattern emmimating from the back of a tall slender woman’s opalescent organza pant-suit caught under the track-lighting in a dark room. I am not surprised that this is Iris- ethereal down to the last detail. In the second story “atelier” part of the exhibition, the walls are lined and filled with her endless textile and material experiments in a rainbow gradient adjacent to a table with microscopes for the public to look into that display the intricacies of technicolor moths. It feels like we are in her play-room, classroom, or teenage bedroom- like a peek inside her head! This is where we meet.
Rianna Murray: Hi! How are you?
Iris Van Herpen: I’m good!
RM: Good! I’m actually very happy to be meeting you in this room, I mean the whole exhibition is so beautiful, but here, I feel like we are behind the curtain in Oz. There’s something very.. well, obviously, it’s all so modern and chic, but these rooms feel sort of child-like. It makes me remember picking flowers, collecting shells and leaves, lining up rocks, building fairy houses.. things like that. I’m guessing you did this a lot too when you were a kid?
IVH: Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in nature. I think I’m lucky to have been able to explore the beauty of nature, running from a young age to observe the natural processes, the growth, decay, and the seasons. All of these elements are still very influential in my work. If you look around here, you can see all of these little experiments… They are really the origins of a collection. We start with little models to explore new material and new techniques. I think it’s indeed very connected to the early years where the sky’s the limit and you don’t have a clear purpose or goal- when you’re able to play.
RM: It’s playful, but it’s also really precise. You maintain a harmony of precision and abstraction in your work which mimics the natural world so well. I wonder, do you ever feel restrained, or like limited to create within this framework- in the aesthetic that you’ve been recognized for?
IVH: Not necessarily the aesthetic, because it’s my own language, it’s my own DNA. But of course, the body has its limitations- I think that’s the challenge within my work. I have a dance background, so movement and transformation are really important to me. I think that’s how I started to connect to fashion early on. Fashion can be very transformative. I think when you look at the other forms of art, like dance or sculpture; every medium has its limitations and so does fashion. But by working together with other disciplines, I try to not box myself. Of course, I’m a fashion designer, but I think I’m also an artist. I try to keep that freedom. That feels really important to me.
RM: Yeah we can see that effort, it’s very effective. There’s so much fear surrounding the use of new technology -which you utilize so often- to enhance the creative process. It seems like collaboration, humanity, naturalism, and environmentalism sit at the top of your values, but then I feel like technology often isolates those elements. Maybe I’m wrong in assuming that? How does that work?
IVH: No, it’s really interesting, I mean, technology is almost a religion in our time. It’s very influential in the way we think. I think people don’t realize the extent of its influences… I mean, even the algorithms influence the way we think and what our values are, what we’re seeing. It goes into very personal realms. But I think in the end, technology is only a tool. It’s really up to us how we use it. I think there’s also a very big creative potential within technology. That’s the side that I’m trying to show people. We can really bring traditional craftsmanship into the future through technology. If we are smart about it, it’s a very powerful tool. But it’s also disrupting, definitely.
RM: In these spaces, these rooms, with all of your work; They feel so hopeful- and I don’t often have that impression. Do you feel optimistic about the future?
IVH: I want to be.
RM: But you’re not?
IVH: Yeah, no. Of course, I’m also worrying. I think we should all worry! But at the same time, I also do feel hopeful. I believe that through my work and my own decisions of doing couture, this is my way of doing something for the world. I think it’s really important to show that fashion is much more than just the product that we buy. I hope that I can convey the message that we need to focus on quality rather than on quantity. We have to change this mindset. I also grew up with a large focus on sustainability. My parents were really focused on that.
RM: What did your parents do?
IVH: My father was working for the company in the Netherlands that is handling all the water- You know, the Netherlands is beneath sea level so, we have a very smart and interesting system of keeping the water out. He was working for the main company that is responsible for that.
RM: Oh, that’s so interesting. I wanted to ask you what your first memories of water are. That’s pretty profound. And your mother, she was?
IVH: Aha, yes! I grew up surrounded by water. My mother was a dancer.
RM: Ahhh. You mentioned that background before- and that you feel like the constraints of the human body are limiting?
IVH: Yeah, even our own perspective. I realized that there’s really a limitation to my own consciousness, my own thinking. I mean, I love talking to scientists. I’ve been talking to a lot of scientists at CERN who are working on proving the existence of parallel universes.
RM: Do you believe in that?
RM: In parallel universes?
IVH: Yeah! I think our perception is one dimension and there certainly are more dimensions than our own. As a designer, I feel it’s really important to realize this because it’s so hard to step outside of your own box of perception. I think the whole exhibition is trying to say this, it’s about sculpting the senses and it’s about becoming more sensitive to the layers of life around you.
RM: How do you do that personally? How do you make efforts to step outside of your own limited consciousness?
IVH: It’s through conversations like this, it’s through other artists, seeing an exhibition, reading a book, and all of that you can see in the exhibition as well- like, the wall beneath us or the one next to it, were inspired by a book called Entangled Life. And each room has these different influences, it can really start with a simple conversation, or an exhibition, or a book.
RM: On that note, on the constraints of the human experience- does your work ever extend into the idea of enhancing the body through technology- like into the transhumanist realm?
IVH: Well, I do find it interesting that we all have a digital identity now, and of course, it will become more and more prominent with time. But I am so fond of texture and materials that I’ve been thinking a little bit like, “Oh, do I also want to design digitally?” Because, of course, a lot of my process is already digital. Actually, a lot of the looks that you see are first modeled digitally fully before being constructed. It would be very logical for me to say, “Oh, I will also make digital collections or digital looks.” But something is stopping me and I don’t know what it is.
RM: There would be a lot less exchange. I think that goes back to the thing that perhaps technology isolates creative values, like collaboration.
IVH: Yeah, that’s a good way of describing it. I would miss a part of the creative process if I could not materialize it.
RM: On the other hand, it would be environmentally, probably quite conscious to do that?
IVH: For a ready-to-wear, yes, but for couture, all our pieces are one-offs. They live for the rest of their lives, either with a client or in a museum. There is no over-production, there is no waste. I think in that sense, it’s so different from ready-to-wear. It’s like creating art pieces.
RM: Right. Lastly, I feel like you’ve collaborated with so many extraordinary people already, and not only that, but so many people who fit into your vision so well. I’m wondering if there are still people left on the list?
IVH: Oh, yeah. Good question…
RM: We can call them out here! Like, “Call Iris!”
IVH: Haha! I’m thinking of which discipline because it can go so many different ways… In terms of architects, I’ve been talking with Thomas Heatherwick. I really love his work. I think that could be a really interesting collaboration. I did an architecture project a few years ago for the first time where I was really part of the design process. That was really exciting because it’s such a different realm than the human body- I got really inspired by that.
RM: I imagine it can be intimidating to work within so many disciplines because it could feel like you need to have a mastery of every domain. I imagine you have to let go of a lot of power and really embrace trust?
IVH: Yeah, it’s true. I often have the feeling I need to clone myself! Because I really want to focus on getting to know more of the research that I’m doing. There are so many worlds to dive into, and I only have moments of time to do that with the business of creating the collections and everything. I’m trying to balance it.
RM: Seems like you are doing a pretty good job so far. Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on such a beautiful opening.