Dutch Fashion Designer Iris van Herpen Moves Into Art

The Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, who counts Beyoncé, Björk and Tilda Swinton among her regular clients, is known for dazzling haute couture pieces that resemble sculpture.

Now she’s aiming to show that the equation also works the other way around: She’s not a fashion designer but an artist who happens to make pieces for the body.

Van Herpen is planning an art exhibition, called “Hybrid,” that took a year to plan but will run for just 45 minutes on June 24, as part of Paris Haute Couture Week.

Why just 45 minutes? That’s shorter than a yoga class, some Netflix episodes or a nap.

Compared to her usual presentation at Fashion Week, the designer said, it’s actually a long time.

“Normally we do a runway show that takes only 15 minutes because the audience goes from one show to another. So this is very long for this setup,” she said. “This show really is a hybrid performance,” she added. “There are living performers doing the installation and it will be physically intense.”

On a recent afternoon, van Herpen welcomed a reporter into her airy studio in the center of Westerpark, a complex of former electric-company buildings inside a lush green park in western Amsterdam.

It is one of her two studios in the Dutch capital; her couture atelier, a 12-minute walk from here, where she creates what she calls her “body works,” didn’t have enough elevation to hang her largest new artworks. Here, they dangle 16 feet from the rafters.

In front of the arched windows framing the constantly shifting clouds, is a curtain of tulle, decorated with swirling shapes made of dried splatters of oil paint and dyed silks. This is one of her latest pieces, “The Weightlessness of the Unknown,” among the sculptures that will be shown in Paris.

Upstairs, three more swaths of tulle stretched along steel poles providing a “canvas” for designs made of silk organza plissés and 3-D printed objects. The decorative patterning could be prehistoric fossils, skeletons or fallen birds decomposing on a beach — or rather an imaginary combination of all three.

“My work has always been interdisciplinary,” she continued, “and I really feel such a strong connection between art, architecture, science and couture. That’s what I’m doing with the exhibition,” she added, trying “to let go of the boundaries that we set for ourselves, as the creators and for the audience.”

Tulle, silk and 3-D printing have long been some of van Herpen’s favored materials, which she has used to create gowns and outré headdresses that have both regal and aviary grace. Her fashion pieces are simultaneously futuristic and primordial, referencing her fascination with science and anthropology, as well as with contemporary art.

But after assembling 15 years’ worth of “looks” for a major retrospective, “Sculpting the Senses,” at the Museé des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (it closed in April) — and designing bespoke gowns for Queen Máxima of the Netherlands and France’s first lady, Brigitte Macron — van Herpen realized she had another ambition.

Creating works that aren’t linked to the human form is “exploring a new realm within my own creative process,” she said. “The body is such a focus point that it was for me really about finding freedom. I wanted to see what I am making beyond the body, because there’s more to me, I think, than only couture.”

It was also, partly, to slow down. Until 2023, van Herpen had produced biannual runway shows of her collections for 17 years. In January, she decided to skip the 2024 Spring collection showcase in Paris to focus on her new artworks.

Van Herpen calls the resulting show a “hybrid art installation,” which will include nine works in total: four large works in her Westerpark studio and five others that will incorporate people, whom she refers to as “performers.”

They will not trot down a runway, as models do in a typical fashion show, but be suspended, “using an invisible construction,” that will allow them to stand in place. During the single show, she explained, the performers will remain largely motionless and aloft.

She admitted that presenting the works this way “will be quite challenging. You shouldn’t have any fear of heights,” she added. “You need to be very grounded.”

Because she expects the audience to include the fashion press, museum curators and other art-world people, she thinks the 45-minute run time will defy everyone’s expectations. “For some people it will feel very long and for others very short,” she said. Benches will be placed in the gallery space for spectators, as at a museum.

Van Herpen said she is currently in discussions with a museum to exhibit the works on a more permanent basis, starting in early 2025. But she couldn’t yet disclose details.

Her “canvas” of tulle, both translucent and sturdy, is often used in ballet costumes — a reminder that van Herpen was once a dancer. Onto that shimmering surface she added sculptural elements such as layers of oil paint, crusted into thick impasto, and designs made from both hand-pleated silk and 3-D printing.

For one of the new works, “Ancient Ancestors,” she took inspiration from research conducted by Emmanuel Farge, a French biochemist at the French Institut Curie, a cancer research and treatment center. Farge discovered that primordial marine organisms’ cell structure was determined, in part, by the movement of waves.

The 3-D sculptural elements embedded in the tulle resemble horseshoe crabs and seabird skeletons. “The structures refer to past but also to the future, because these organism are constantly changing,” van Herpen said.

She described the two largest hanging sculptures, “Weightlessness of the Unknown” and “Embers of the Mind,” as self-portraits, although they are wholly abstract — more reflective of her emotional state.

In recent years, her inner life has focused on transformation, she explained. She moved from Amsterdam with her boyfriend and collaborator, Salvador Breed, to Het Twiske, a wetlands nature reserve about a half-hour’s drive north of the city, known for its many bird species.

On long daily walks with her dog, she explained, she often reflects on nature’s ability to decompose and regenerate. “My focus now is more on a transition, rather than a fixed state of being,” she said.

Does van Herpen expect to continue moving further into the realm of art and, perhaps, away from the constraints of creating clothes for the human body?

“I can’t ever see into the future, but I know this is permanent,” she said, referring to her shift toward fine art. “I am a person who needs those different influences; if I focus on one thing only … it just isn’t giving me the right dynamic.”

She added, “I’m not leaving couture, but I’m also not leaving this other” — she paused, seeking the precise word — “dimension. I really intend to take the freedom to work on the pieces that I feel need to come out, at that moment.”

“Hybrid,” Iris van Herpen’s new exhibition, runs at 11:30 a.m. at 53 Boulevard Haussmann in Paris on June 24.

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