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Iris van Herpen SS15Photography Jai Odell, styling Nell Kalonji

Iris Van Herpen: fashion’s hi-tech priestess

The visionary designer talks growing up without fashion, getting ‘inspired by the impossible’ and why she’s always been attracted to chaos

Iris Van Herpen is a fashion pioneer. One part couturier, one part scientist, her high-voltage, high-concept collections bridge the gap between the lab and the catwalk, fearlessly fusing cutting-edge technology with age-old artisan crafts. After training with Alexander McQueen, she launched her own label in 2007, joined forces with the Swarowski Collective, and quickly developed a unique blend of fashion alchemy, renowned for her extraordinary futuristic collections and catwalk performances. Memorable shows include when she mummified her collection in 2009 or her Crystallization show in 2010, which explored the process of turning water into crystal and later inspired a film with Nick Knight starring Daphne Guinness.

Van Herpen opened her 2013 Haute Couture show titled Voltage with an electric performance featuring rippling lightening bolts beating off a statuesque figure, while last year she vacuum-packed her models, as figures hung suspended between plastic sheets on the catwalk. She finely balances armour-like strength with fragility, repeatedly pushing the boundaries of fabric innovation – see the metal, cloud-like costume she created for her film for AnOther Magazine’s MOVEment project, both delicate and deadly.

For AW15, she presented Hacking Infinity – Van Herpen’s very own space odyssey crafted from translucent woven steel. This is Van Herpen’s third season working with crystals, by way of the Swarovski Collective, a support initiative celebrating its 15th year. To mark the anniversary, we sat down with Van Herpen to discuss her expansive interests and inspirations.

What drew you towards fashion design?

Iris Van Herpen: My youth is a strange contradiction to what I do today, as I grew up in a very small village without television, fashion or a computer. Art (sculpture and painting) and dance were my main interests at that time. I danced a lot, and dance is still a big inspiration for the work I do today. The body language and extreme transformations of dance fascinate me, more than the movement in the space – you have to see it live to really experience it.

Why did you pursue fashion over dance?

Iris Van Herpen: Dance is inside the body, while fashion is outside the body. Fashion is a form of art that can live without me practicing it, as when a garment or dress is done, it goes on to live its own life, apart from me, and I like that. I like working with my hands and my head and working on complex puzzles and new techniques, to push my limits in what I am able to achieve.  

When did you start experimenting with science and technology?

Iris Van Herpen: While I was studying at the Art Academy, science started to interest me and by reading about science, I became interested in technology. Today, technology is influencing the arts and architecture massively, and that’s where it becomes attractive to me, as a creative tool. I began combining scientific techniques with traditional craft when I started 3D printing in 2009.

“I like working with my hands and my head and working on complex puzzles and new techniques, to push my limits in what I am able to achieve” – Iris Van Herpen

Is it true that you rarely work from visual references? If so, what do you work from?

Iris Van Herpen: I am very attracted to chaos, because to me chaos shows the primordial power of nature. Clothes today have a merely practical (warmth and covering) and aesthetic purpose, and I hope this can possibly change in the future, into a much broader range of functions. In a way everything is possible, it is just a matter of the right time and the right idea, and that inspires me to visualise.

Can you talk a little about your fabrics?

Iris Van Herpen: My materials vary from silks and plastic to metal powder and velvet, from leathers to liquid glass. Recently I have been mixing various techniques: from handwork to synthetic biology and metal-infused materials with magnets to techniques including injection moulding and laser cutting, from 3D printing to advanced computing and mechatronics engineering. I think I will tire you out if I explain these techniques!

What technical processes excite you at the moment?

Iris Van Herpen: 4D printing fascinates me – being able to create a shape or structure that has a memory, and therefore is able to 'react' and change. If this technique realises its potential, it will mean I can design a dress that changes form and proportions over time.

How do you incorporate Swarovski crystals into your approach to design?

Iris Van Herpen: I like embedding crystals into the collection, so that the Swarovski stones are like little secrets within a three-dimensional structure. I play a lot with light within my collections and materials and this is what I do with the crystals as well, using their light and also using their shadows.  

What was the last thing to inspire you?

Iris Van Herpen:  I often feel inspired by the impossible – my last inspiration came from an idea to make a dress that is spaceless and shapeless, a dress not existing from matter, but from energy only. A dress that can endlessly change her shape.

Check out AW15 below:

Lead image: Photography Jai Odell; styling Nell Kalonji; hair Naoki Komiya at Julian Watson Agency using Kiehl’s; make-up Laura Dominique at Streeters using M.A.C; model Matilda Lowther at Select; photographic assistants Jared Beck, Ben Parks-Wardell; styling assistant Rosie Marks, Ioana Ivan; casting Noah Shelley