Iris van Herpen
Photo by Marc de Groot

Iris van Herpen: “I try to stretch the boundaries”

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Short Profile

Name: Iris van Herpen
DOB: 5 June 1984
Place of birth: Wamel, The Netherlands
Occupation: Fashion designer

Ms. van Herpen, you once said, “I’m creating in a space that’s between reality and dreaming.” What does that mean?

When I’m designing clothing, I try to stretch the boundaries or the perception of boundaries that we give ourselves. Reality is everything and dreaming is the same: it’s where you put your own border between those two, and I think that border for me can be very different than the border for someone else. In my Fall 2016 collection, which was called Lucid, I was very dedicated to that border between those two worlds. I don’t know if you’ve experienced lucid dreaming but I think it’s very much the experience of stretching those two realities towards each other.

How does fashion come into play in that scenario? Dries Van Noten said, for example, that ready-to-wear is reality, whereas couture represents dreams.

I think it depends on the consumer. There are consumers of couture that wear it on a daily basis and it’s completely reality to them; it doesn’t have a link to dreaming at all! Some consumers have this one very special couture piece, and that is like a dream for them. It’s something you put on and you’re transformed. But I think at some point, ready-to-wear is able to do the same! It’s a special piece for a special moment, and it’s very linked to your dream, to your wishes of being somewhere else or being someone else. I think it’s something very beautiful how clothes can transform your feelings or your look or your identity.

“Every garment has its personal state of being and that’s something very powerful to play with.”

Is that idea of transformation something that informs your designs?

Absolutely. It’s a big part of my work. To me, every garment has its personal state of being, and that’s something very powerful to play with and to be in contact with. Everyone has quite a lot of different personalities. I don’t really believe in an identity that is very singular for one person, so I think the way you dress can have a big influence on the way you feel. To me, picking out the garment I’m wearing for a special evening depends on how I feel at that moment: sometimes I can be introvert, sometimes I can be extrovert, sometimes I feel positive or happy, other times I’m not.

Is that how you hope your fashion will be consumed: as special pieces that transform the wearer?

I think within my collections, there’s a degree of both: there are more simple pieces that are wearable for daily life or work situations, but there are also special pieces that you would only wear for very special occasions. Anyway I think the word fashion is a difficult one! (Laughs) What is fashion to start with? Is the cheap t-shirt you buy for wearing three times fashion? I mean, it is, but it’s where you put the words.

So an element of fantasy or theatricality is necessary for you?

Yeah, I think a very big part of fashion is about dreams and creating an identity and creating a story for someone and with someone. The mass production side of fashion is something I am less interested in because it has less to do with creating a dream for someone. That said, I don’t really having a specific person in mind when I’m designing.

How come?

It’s more that I’m making the dresses for a female body, and I see that as a muse. It’s the starting point; it’s like my canvas. Depending on the garment, I can shine a light on different elements of the silhouette. When I drape on a mannequin, I start from the middle, the waist. That’s definitely my focus point.

Iris van Herpen's Fall 2016 collection, Lucid, presented in Paris in March 2016.

Does your own body inspire you as much as the figurative body?

It’s not so much a structured identity, it’s not about me personally. I’m not making the dresses for me. I’m not making the dresses for a certain muse either because that would be too defined already. It’s much more about the silhouette, the movement. That’s a key element.

Of course, the way a garment moves is equally important to how it looks.

Right, seeing your clothes on the runway is a complete transformation in experience. Then it’s alive. I like the behavior and the misbehavior between the body and the garment. I think it’s the interaction between the two that makes a challenge: sometimes a garment is completely in tune with the body and it’s like a dance. Sometimes it’s the contrary! The garment has influence on the body and I think that’s an interesting dialogue to play with. Then you go a step further with the touch or feel of a garment and it truly becomes real.

So you are interested in creating a whole experience around your clothes?

Absolutely. I’m interested in synesthesia, that you can link an experience with the senses. When a garment triggers all your senses then it’s a full experience.

Does that approach get easier with the help of technology like 3D printing?

It seems like it should be easier, right? But when I work with 3D printing, I really try to challenge both the material and the machine. We’ve been doing textures and materials that we were advised to not do it or told it wouldn’t work out… So then you try to push the technology and the material to kind of make the impossible, in a way. That’s why technology like this is interesting for me: if I didn’t push it, I wouldn’t be able to make these things that I’m not able to make by hand. The whole reason I’m working with this technology is to push my craftsmanship.

“When a garment triggers all your senses then it’s a full experience.”

Has working with such precise technology also made your designs more precise, more perfect?

I don’t think perfection exists in any way — that’s the beauty of making something. And a lot of the things I make come from mistakes. When I start on a collection, I don’t pick materials; a lot of designers go to a supplier where they can find fabrics but we already start one step earlier where we develop the materials ourselves, that’s a big part of the process. Maybe half of the materials we develop aren’t suitable or don’t end up in that collection. I guess you could call them “failed” in that sense but often they do come back in another state of being later on. My whole process is going forward and backward all the time.

Do you feel like despite using computers in your design process, you’ve also become closer to your work somehow?

Yeah, absolutely. In the beginning, it didn’t feel natural to me because I grew up without a television or computer. It just didn’t feel like a need, I was pretty capable of handling my design process without it. But then I started seeing the challenges within it and how they can interact. The two processes, designing on a computer and designing by hand, are completely interactive now, and it’s sparking a lot more creative freedom.