Van Herpen’s meticulously executed designs offer copious delights for fans of both form and content. Often working collaboratively with architects, scientists, designers and visual artists, van Herpen incorporates cutting-edge technology like 3-D printing and unconventional materials into her work — silicone, PET plastic and metal gauze to achieve forms traditional fabrics could not yield.
Though van Herpen embraces technology, the designer is not reducible to it or an innovator for the sake of innovation. Instead, her work is just as likely to evoke natural forms and systems, from the crystallization of water into ice in her “ice” dress from the 2014 “Magnetic Motion” collection, to the operations of magnets in her “Wilderness Embodied” dress. That piece, from her 2013 collection, features a luxuriously fuzzy surface that resembles mohair but is in fact created with the operation of a magnet on liquid iron resin to create a dress with the topography of a distant planet.
The High features 45 garments from the 15 collections the designer has presented in this groundbreaking exhibition, including shoes that redefine the concept, incorporating teethlike spikes, soles of jagged crystals and elongated shafts and precarious heels that can suggest animal hooves.
The garments are for the most part arranged in groups of three presented on abstracted mannequins designed by artist Bart Hess with crackled skin, as if burned by some post-apocalyptic sun.
Van Herpen has described the arrangement of mannequins on raised platforms peering down at viewers as a kind of reverse runway. Low lighting in the gallery serves to highlight the texture and details of the garments. Harsher light, says van Herpen, would tend to flatten such details. But the moody lighting also confers a sense of drama on the clothes, although they barely need it. Van Herpen’s designs are wearable sculpture. They redefine the sense of what clothing can achieve, showing the designer’s incredible range and an ability to at once complement the female form while offering a powerful means of fantasy and expression.
Van Herpen’s designs fluctuate between utterly ethereal, like a vapor momentarily solidified on the wearer’s body, and a kind of intimidating, empowering armor ornamented with eye-gouging, spiky forms. Even at rest, van Herpen’s designs feel intensely kinetic, filled with potential energy.
There is a beguiling, alchemic magic to van Herpen’s fabrics, which from a distance can suggest feathers or soft animal fur but upon closer inspection are formed from jagged shards of plastic and silicone.
In her “Chemical Crows” collection, van Herpen turns children’s umbrella spikes into Elizabethan collars and garments with a striking resemblance to samurai armor. Next to those designs are works from van Herpen’s 2008 “Refinery Smoke” collection. They incorporate metal gauze formed into fabric, which despite its industrial genesis has the dreamy, vaporous feel of an enchanted cloud enshrouding its wearer.
“Iris van Herpen” is a profoundly rewarding, illuminating exhibition that should open many eyes to the power of fashion to convey great theatrical effect, social commentary and meaning. It will also confirm others’ long-held beliefs that fashion is an equal to other expressive forms from sculpture to painting to music, in articulating the unique voice and vision of its creator.