Think haute couture and one thinks of the ateliers in Paris. Fashion’s most fabled medium conjures up images of rooms dripping in chiffon and history, of salons staffed by the famous ‘les petites mains’ and scores of seamstresses who have honed their craft through years of dedication. What one doesn’t tend to think of is computers.
Haute couture doesn’t conjure up visions of an atelier based as much on technology as it is on sewing; collections as focused on innovation as they are on intricacy. One designer, however, is changing all of that. Iris van Herpen, Dutch creator and ‘3D couturier’ at the vanguard of technological innovation in her field is the woman changing the conversation when it comes to luxury fashion. From her atelier in Amsterdam to the runways of Paris, Van Herpen is showcasing a new approach, harnessing the very latest in technology to redefine craftsmanship, forging a way for the future in fashion, and rediscovering the very essence of what luxury once meant in the process.
As Van Herpen tells it, the standard approach was never an option. Right from her early days as a student at Arnhem’s ArtEZ Institute of the Arts, she set herself a mission to push boundaries. “While studying fashion at the art academy, I couldn’t believe the narrow movements of the system, the repetitive processes of the teachers,” she explains. “After graduating, I sensed more and more how stuck fashion was. It wasn’t collaborating with or even relating to other disciplines. The system still desperately held on to the industrial age.” So, she struck out to do something different, launching her own label in 2007 after a brief stint with Alexander McQueen, expressly with the intention of harnessing new technology being used by other industries.
Ten years on, she has made that landscape her own. Her name is now synonymous with the new; her collections with the most cutting edge; and her vision with the future. “We work with all kinds of techniques, from traditional techniques such as plissé, shibori and hand stitching to 3D printing, 3D moulding and laser cutting,” she says of her processes. “Every technique requires a different approach and different skills. It’s like playing music, every instrument needs a lot of practice before you master it.” And, alongside those, she still pays the closest attention to handcrafted skills. “The experience and knowledge in craftsmanship helps the atelier to master the dresses that are 3D printed. And, constructing some of the dresses computationally helps to figure out new construction perspectives for dresses that we make fully with the hand and the needle.” That’s why, in her Amsterdam workshop, you’ll find mannequins and sewing machines alongside reams of computers, each machine responsible for its own part of the process.
At the same time as shining a light on the path forward, Van Herpen is also making a powerful statement about the state of fashion right now, as the industry churns through never-before-seen rates of consumption. According to Business of Fashion, the fashion and textile industry is the second most polluting in the world, second only to oil. A fifth of freshwater pollution comes from textile treatment while cotton cultivation is responsible for a quarter of the world’s insecticides. Today, 80 billion pieces of new clothing are made each year – 400 percent more than we consumed two decades ago – much of which will soon end up in a landfill.
3D printed clothing, Van Herpen points out, provides a zero-waste alternative as clothes are made exactly to measurements. “People are very aware of the need for change in fashion consumption,” she declares. On issues of sustainability she is way ahead of the curve, literally inventing fabrics out of nothing, leaving no footprint as she goes. Van Herpen is also harking back to the idea of fashion as something to be treasured, providing an antidote to the prevalent mass-market approach.
As she puts it: “My work embodies exactly the opposite of what generally fashion is made of today. It’s going back to forgotten craftsmanship and the love for the process, it’s just at the same time I embed new technologies and disciplines. I’m just a fashion designer that stretches the edges of my medium.”
The results of this are nothing short of staggering. Van Herpen’s catwalk shows, seen at both ready-to-wear and haute couture in Paris, have become some of the most talked about of their seasons. Critics are often astounded at their otherworldliness. In her Lucid collection shown last year, she used tiny hexagonal laser-cut elements connected with translucent tubes to create solid, exoskeleton-like dresses that curved around her models’ bodies while Magma dresses hewn from 5,000 separate pieces of flexible 3D-printed matter moved like liquid. The year before, her show featured the actress Gwendoline Christie lying at its centre on a concrete plinth while machines created a 3D-printed cobweb of a dress around her. This year’s couture show just seen in Paris used hand-cast PU fabrics and injection moulding to create dresses whose shapes and forms resembled gills. And, at last year’s Costume Institute of Technology’s exhibition Manus x Machina at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, visitors were treated to seven of her creations, including her famous ‘Bird’ dress, an item made from synthetic ‘dragonskin’ and adorned with thousands of tiny hand-stitched, laser-cut feathers. It is not surprising that her work will be shown in a major retrospective that will tour the US this year.
Van Herpen makes it clear that it is her desire to push the boundaries that produces her otherworldly aesthetic. “Curiosity and philosophy are the base of my work. Absolutely nothing is what it seems to be, and when I look at the world around me with that in mind, everything suddenly becomes possible and inspiration becomes liquid.”
She adds: “As designers, we don’t realise how much of our design is dictated by materials. Instinctively, a designer knows how each of the fabrics will behave and uses that, but imagine materials that can change our perspective. It’s almost unthinkable how they can change the design process. Nano-engineering, synthetic metamaterials and the revitalisation of real craft are together able to create materials with completely new behaviours.” It just so happens that the results of those efforts take us to a whole new world.