“While many design for women, fashion design is still a male dominated world,” says Dutch visionary haute couturier Iris van Herpen.
You may not recognize him because of him, but you will be hard pressed to forget seeing his work. Its name is synonymous with extraterrestrial, three-dimensional dresses that seem to shape shapeshifting in motion, and the best of them have levels of complexity so staggering that the eyes can barely stare.
That’s why 38-year-old Herpen is a red carpet virtuoso both admired and championed by the world’s weirdest dressers, from Björk to Lady Gaga, Winnie Harlow to Gwendoline Christie and Cara Delevingne. Collected by prestigious museums such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the V&A, sculpture designs are often considered fine art and have been a fixture of Paris’ couture week since joining the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture in 2011.
After spending more than a decade in fashion’s most elite industry, Herpen remains dissatisfied with the diversity in the program. This season will show 29 maisons; 22 collections designed by men and seven collections by women.
“My team is really women-oriented. It’s important to me, and it’s important to talk about it and show that it’s possible. I hope to be an example to others,” she says via a video from Amsterdam. It’s 9:00 there and she looks ethereal in a chinoiserie-style robe with rolling curls.
Misogyny is the catalyst for her offer this fashion week; A short film that refers to the global women’s struggle and is a direct response to the Mahsa Amini protests in Iran. “It is an artistic expression of a political movement,” Herpen says.
The collection bears the name ‘Carte Blanche’ and was shot underwater by French artist Julie Gautier. It’s a successful pairing – nature-inspired and technologically derived gowns look like deep-water corals as the models hold their breath and twist.
“We chose to do this extremely slow underwater dance underwater as a symbol of women who can’t speak,” says Herpen. As a result, a woman screams air bubbles and rises to the surface. “The strength needed to speak is dedication,” she explains. It is visually rich and provides sultry viewing.
Deciding to make the show with a four-minute film upsets the general trend of other fashionistas who are doubling the glamor of post-pandemic runway shows. This week, Franck Sorbier will be the only other designer to choose digital.
Herpen on Monday proved the risk very real when Irina Shayk aired the programmatic movie just two hours after the Schiaparelli show, in which Kylie Jenner walked the runway in the same lion-head dress that Kylie Jenner wore in the front row. Nearby, Doja Cat was sitting with her face covered with 30,000 red Swarovski crystals. A social media eclipse followed, and Herpen’s Spring/Summer 2023 collection struggled to resonate.
Why did you underestimate the podium? “Freedom of expression. Over the last few years, we’ve talked a lot about more flexibility in the way we present our work, but things have gone back to the old ways,” he says. “The system is still traditional, but it’s important to have different options when presenting collections.”
It’s a quiet approach. The artist at Herpen embodies honesty above all – this season comes at a price. “Subject [of the collection] It is important and heavy. A movie needed its story and narration. It was the only way to embody the emotion I wanted to visualize,” he says.
His decision is not surprising. Herpen has long been the black sheep in couture, and since establishing its label in 2007, it has maintained unrivaled dominance over the entire company’s production. He doesn’t produce ready-made clothing, he says, “so there is no middleman or buyer to tell me what to do” and proudly runs his workshop without the need for a secretary. This is notable given her release last year featuring a special costume for Letitia Wright. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a Vogue cover with Michelle Yeoh, Björk music videos, and Lorde concerts to list a few of her personal highlights. It also took two years to create a large 12-room retrospective exhibition that will open on November 29, 2023 at Paris’ famous Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
And these are just his physical creations. “I was pretty focused on augmented reality for me over the past year,” Herpen says. He found himself at the forefront of Web3 fashion, largely thanks to the design process that began with digital rendering. That’s reasonable too. Innovation has been her USP ever since TIME Magazine named her 3D-printed dress among the Top 50 Inventions of 2011.
Don’t hold your breath for the results – waiting for tech platforms to meet the details of their physical output. Currently, startups at Metaverse fashion weeks hosted on platforms like Roloblox and Decentraland are defined by comically primitive avatars.
“As a creator, the sky is the limit on what’s possible,” says Herpen. “But stupidly, it depends on what the bigger tech companies come up with. I believe augmented reality will be an additional layer to our physical reality in every aspect of our lives – creatively, politically, economically. Everything.”
He asks endless questions. The appeal of digital fashion is democratization, but how do you balance that with haute couture pricing? To what extent should you devote resources to an ever-evolving field, and how do you protect your intellectual property when laws lag behind progress?
“I have no idea,” Herpen says. “But we’re in an AI revolution right now and there’s more to come very soon. I know that for sure.”