Iris Van Herpen forms her collections around historic and abstract themes, and by experimenting with techniques more associated with product design than fashion, she has pioneered the use of rapid prototyping, a technology that allows a designer to design their creation onscreen and then ‘print’ it in 3D.
Since graduating from ArtEZ Academy of Art and Design in the Netherlands, Van Herpen has worked for Alexander McQueen and Viktor & Rolf, and has featured at fashion weeks in Europe. She amazes spectators from every angle, and sees no limits to her work.
Sublime: Your collections have titles such as Mummification and Radiation Invasion. How do you arrive at your concepts?
Iris Van Herpen: All the subjects I choose have been with me for a long time. Concepts come to you at different times in different ways. Sometimes you read something interesting, and later on you have more thoughts about it. Ideas stay with me for a long time. Then if I decide to really do something with them, I go deeper into the subject.
I came across Mummification through reading about art. The Egyptians saw art and life very differently to how we do. They didn’t see daily life as the reality. They tried to create reality through dead people, using their art. I found it really fascinating. Then I looked at how they created their art, their materials. It was so beautiful, looking at the amount of time and craftsmanship that went into it. Today, for us death is just a funeral and then we go home. But they had so much time for people who died. They saw that after death, people went on to their real life, so they spent much time on that. We think of it the other way round, and we don’t spend any time on death.
S: What effect did working for Alexander McQueen and Viktor & Rolf leave on you creatively and personally?
IVH: At Alexander McQueen, where I did an internship, I learned a lot creatively about materials and how to do research. I worked with special materials, and I did a lot of handwork there. I saw how much time it takes to create something special, something that has value, and I still think in those time frames. I took that away with me. At McQueen I’d spend long hours on one garment, and I found it was very peaceful, working like that. Now I’m designing, I don’t feel as if I have to rush to create something.
S: How did you come across rapid prototyping, and how was the experience of using this method?
IVH: I actually found out about it a few years ago, on the internet. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s so far away,’ and I didn’t see it having any relationship with my work at the time. But I did some research and realised the possibilities. Later on, the director of a museum in Hamburg had a conference about bringing the technique forward and looking at what’s possible. It’s used a lot in product design and also in architecture, but not in fashion. We got in touch with each other. We started working with Daniel Widrig, who knows the technology.
You have to produce your design on a computer in 3D. It was a whole new world of designing. It’s quite difficult, but it’s nice. Normally, I work a lot with a dummy, and experiment with the drape of the material, and I constantly change my design. But with this you really need to design about a month ahead. It takes a long time, and you don’t see anything solid until it’s finished. It was so complex; for one of the designs the printing took seven days, with the printer going for twenty-four hours non-stop.
S: Is there an element of sustainability to this technology? I ask this because I read that products made using rapid prototyping are better because they don’t waste material
IVH: The company I’m working with is even saying that in future, you’ll be able to print a dress, and then later on it can be made into a whole new garment. If the industry does go in that direction, it will be a whole new world of fashion. You wouldn’t need people to make clothes using their hands any more, or dressmakers. You’d just need the idea to make it. There are some real possibilities.
I think it will happen, but not in the way we see it now. It’s still being tested, it’s not there yet. It feels like the first computer we ever had, and back then we couldn’t even imagine how much we could do with a computer. So right now we can’t imagine how we might use rapid prototyping in the future.
S: Do you ever feel pressured to design clothes for mass production?
IVH: When I’m designing, I don’t think in that way, because there are already a lot of people designing for mass production.
I want to present another side of fashion. I’ve been interested in fashion, and in art, since I was young, and so for me it’s really exciting to get those things together. I see fashion as something free. It has such an interesting future – so much is possible, and the fact that we cannot imagine how we will look in 200 years’ time is something that really motivates me. My fascination lies in going into the future and seeing what my imagination will come up with. To see what is possible; what materials we will use, what shape our bodies will be. That’s the side of fashion I want to explore. There’s always a balance between different ways of approaching things, and that keeps this dimension alive.