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Iris Van Herpen Couture AW17Photography Lillie Eiger

Iris Van Herpen on a decade of fusing fashion and art

Following the AW17 Couture show – featuring musicians playing underwater – we spoke to the Dutch designer as she celebrates her tenth anniversary

Ten years is a pretty significant milestone for any brand – let alone one started when its designer was only a year out of university. With her particular blend of haute couture fashion, technology and art, Iris Van Herpen has spent the last decade establishing herself as not just a designer but as someone who is constantly pushing the boundaries of what clothing can be. Her high-tech creations are often jaw-dropping, as if fantastical illustrations have somehow burst unexpectedly to life – imagine a dress that appears to be made of bubbles, or from the exoskeleton of some mythic creature, and you’re on the right track.

Playing with ideas of wearability and fashion as art, it’s not surprising that Van Herpen’s pieces have found their way into galleries (as well as on the bodies of other avant-gardists, like long-term fan Björk). Currently, 43 of her most stunning pieces are currently on show in Texas, as part of a retrospective called Transforming Fashion at The Dallas Museum of Art. Several also featured in the smash Manus x Machina exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. “If you see fashion as a garment only, and as a very practical daily thing, then it might be difficult to see my work in depth because it's not relating to that space,” the Dutch designer explains. “But if you can see fashion as a type of art, then I think my work really makes a lot more sense.”

Similarly, her shows aren’t exactly straightforward affairs where the hottest new faces strut down the catwalk and back. Van Herpen has encased models in plastic and invited Game of Thrones actress Gwendoline Christie to have a garment 3D printed on her as she lay on a raised platform. For her 10th anniversary show this week, she took things one step further, inviting a band of musicians, called Between Music, to play. The catch? They were entirely submerged in water. As the audience entered the Cirque d’Hiver show space and took their seats, they passed by a series of large black boxes, covered with sheets. The lights went down, and the sheets were removed – revealing the band suspended in eerily lit tanks. They proceeded to play haunting, uncanny melodies, even singing into microphones which hung in the water.

Introduced to the band by her boyfriend, who is also a musician, Van Herpen admits that she was “really mesmerised by the intensity of their work.” Of course, building instruments that work when underwater – and then being able to play them – isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Like Van Herpen, Between Music have been honing their craft for a solid decade, collaborating with deep sea divers, physicists and neuroscientists. “They're only releasing it now because the development of the technique took so long. So, it's sort of their ten years and my ten years combined,” she said with a smile.

As for the clothing, the anniversary collection was titled Aeriform and took its inspirations from the elements. (“Water and air,” Van Herpen said. “I've been translating these elements into all the textures, the volumes, and the techniques of the collection.”) Intricately crafted, the 18 looks all took the female body as their base but varied from graphic but fluid, almost two-dimensional looking garments to wildly futuristic dresses, with a few made of shining silver. A partnership with artist (and long-term collaborator) Philip Beesley was also present, in the form of metal lace in geodesic floral patterns which floated cloud-like around the body in the final looks. The effect was to elevate the wearers, making them seem almost beyond human.

“I really hope to show fashion as a form of art. To move fashion forward, rather than looking back at the history of it.” – Iris Van Herpen

Ten years down the line, what particular memory stands out for Van Herpen? It’s a simple one. “I think my first show here in Paris,” she reflected. “Paris means a lot to me. I was showing in London before, and Amsterdam, but I've never felt they were my place. But here I feel at home.” Paris, of course, is the home of haute couture – but instead of exploring what has been, Van Herpen’s work proposes a potential future for it. As for her own future, in particular… “I really hope to show fashion as a form of art. Also to show that couture is a platform for innovation. To move fashion forward, rather than looking back at the history of it.”