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Iris van Herpen’s Science Fashion

Iris van Herpen on the weird wonderland of creative possibilities in new technologies from nanorobotics to synthetic biology.
Iris van Herpen A/W 2015 | Photo: Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones
  • Vikram Alexei Kansara

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands  For many, the merging of fashion and technology means 'wearables' like the Apple Watch. But for Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, technology is the key to a weird wonderland of creative possibilities where materials innovations — not gadgets — offer the most potential.

Named “Hacking Infinity” and inspired by the concept of “terraforming” (modifying the biosphere of another planet to resemble Earth), Van Herpen’s Autumn/Winter 2015 ready-to-wear show broke new terrain with an assemblage of refined womenswear that fused delicate handcraft with high tech. The collection included dresses made with a hand-burnished, translucent meta-weave of stainless steel and silk, as well as pieces constructed in collaboration with Canadian architect Philip Beesley “from a black garden of fractal like geometries.” Van Herpen’s signature use of 3D printing — which, in the past, has given birth to intricate, insect-like exoskeletons — surfaced in the shoes, which were crafted from digitally fabricated “crystal clusters” and laser-cut leather netting. The circle was a recurring motif, symbolising the “boundless hackable infinity” that gave the collection its name.

Van Herpen graduated from the Art Institute of Arnhem ArtEZ and worked for Alexander McQueen before launching her own label. And, indeed, there is something of McQueen's otherworldly imagination in Van Herpen's work, which caught the attention of France's Chambre Syndicale de la haute couture, as well as private clients like Daphne Guinness and Björk.

Iris van Herpen | Photo: Jean Baptiste Mondino

In 2011, the designer was added to the official Paris couture schedule. But since early 2013, Van Herpen, whose studio is located in the Westerpark neighbourhood of Amsterdam, has focused her energies on building a more scalable ready-to-wear business. The designer, who won the prestigious ANDAM prize in 2014, is currently stocked in 14 retailers and plans to expand into new product categories, including handbags and jewellery.

BoF’s Vikram Alexei Kansara spoke to Iris van Herpen about integrating technology into the DNA of her label and the creative promise of new breakthroughs from nanorobotics to synthetic biology.

BoF: For most people, the intersection of fashion and technology means wearable gadgets like Apple Watch. But you see things differently. What other possibilities does the marriage of fashion and tech unlock?

IVH: Personally, I am not a big fan of the words 'wearable technology' and I am not a gadget consumer either. I see the use of technology from a very different perspective. I use technology as a creative tool, not as a functional end product. It's super exciting to use technology to push my skills and dreams forward; to create a shape, silhouette or structure that I cannot make by hand; to create a fabric that has a completely new behaviour; to create a dress that is built from hundreds of thousands microscopic layers, like a fingerprint.

I get highly excited when I discover a new direction for my process through a new technology. It can literally open up a whole new book of possibilities. In the beginning, working with technology was a very different process for me than working with my hands or moulding on a doll. But at this stage my hand works and my digital works are on the same level. They are part of the same process.

I often start sketching on my doll in the atelier or on a piece of paper, before translating these sketches into 3D computer files. Then a dress can be partly printed and finished by hand. This way the randomness and irregularities that are created by hand dominate the computational systems, which is more interesting. When the computer defines the design language, it can become too perfect or too anonymous.

At this moment, I am turning this drawing process the other way round again. For my Spring/Summer 2016 collection, to be shown in September, I have started working in a new field. This will enable me to program the structures of the dresses, but the execution will contain the randomness and slight variations of asymmetry that you normally create through making something by hand and gravity will change the directions of the threads while making the looks.

BoF: What new technologies offer the most creative promise, both practically and conceptually?

IVH: I am very curious about the creative possibilities that nanorobotics will open up. Knitting around an object in space with insect-sized drones is imaginable. I have high hopes for the nanomaterials and meta-materials that will be discovered the coming years. Also, with 3D printing, there are some exciting new possibilities opening up later this year, making materials behave differently and making them super wearable and comfortable. This will make it more practical for fashion houses to embed the technique into a collection and push the technology from experimentation into customisation.

Iris van Herpen Autumn/Winter 2015 | Source: Courtesy

BoF: Are you experimenting with bio-fabrication and other forms of synthetic biology? What creative possibilities does this space present?

IVH: I care about the footprint I leave with my designs, so I do a lot of research in this area. Synthetic biology is maybe the most important field of development for fashion. It can bring health, fashion and sustainability to the next level. A big advantage of biotechnology, for example 'growing’ fabric, is that the material can become part of our natural ecosystem and therefore be non-harmful. When a dress is not wanted anymore, it could become food for new life when put into the ground. The more technology evolves, the closer it will come to nature. But this does not mean this fabric will have to look like its ‘living’ or look like an organism. I really believe, in time, when synthetic biology evolves, that these new materials will become as beautiful and soft as the gentle silks we know today.

BoF: Your work is often the result of collaboration with other artists, scientists or technology companies. How do you work with partners?

IVH: The research and development I do is often in collaboration with others. By working with architects, artists, biologists, engineers and scientists, I can create an unknown space for myself to expand my knowledge and feed my inspiration. Collaborations are core to my daily explorations and ideas. Each collaboration is human, meaning that they all are very different. With some people and institutions, I work on developing techniques. With others, I work on materials. With some it is very hand-craft focused.

I divide my collaborations into long-term and short-term processes. Working on a collection is always short-term, while developing new materials or techniques can take a year or much longer. So I have continuous long-term collaborations going and design my collections in between, like chapters within a bigger story.

Some people are such a big inspiration for me that I continue my research with them. Philip Beesley is an example of that. He is a true master in merging technology and nature, mixing the synthetic with the biological. The artist Lawrence Malstaf has inspired me on the conceptual level with Biopiracy [Van Herpen’s Autumn/Winter 2014 collection] and with the artist Jolan van der Wiel, we have been working on magnetically grown dresses and shoes.

Next to art and science, dance is also a big influence. I used to do ballet myself for a very long time and collaborating with the choreographer Benjamin Millepied influences my collections as well, not on a technical level, but in terms of body transformations and the seduction of movements

BoF: Around the world, many traditional craft-based businesses are facing challenges. Can technology play a role in reinvigorating craft?

IVH: Each new form of production and new material gives birth to new crafts. I have been working with 3D printing for many years now and doing a lot of experiments with new structures for the printer has given me inspiration for new forms of handwork. I can honestly say that working with technology has improved the handcraft skills in my atelier, both for the people that work with me and also for myself. Technology is not replacing us. It is not replacing our skills, nor our craft. It complements the skills we have and merges with them to create new forms of craft.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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