Iris van Herpen works at the nexus of fashion, design, technology, and science. With a dynamic and path-breaking body of work, she is widely heralded as a pioneering new voice in fashion. Fashion is about quick deadlines, international platforms, and a voracious need for the next new thing. It is a discipline that requires tremendous creative energy to constantly produce and perform. Van Herpen is known for her willingness to experiment—exploring new fabrics created by blending steel with silk or iron filings with resin, incorporating unexpected materials ranging from umbrella tines to magnets, and pushing the boundaries of technologies such as 3-D printing.

Van Herpen has created a body of work that continues to defy expectation, evolving and forging new ideas and inspirations based both in nature and in visions of the contemporary world. The resulting works, defined within the fashion world as couture, are typically collected and shown in museums, viewed more often as fine art than as design-forward wearables. This exhibition documents the evolution of Iris van Herpen’s couture through a selection of her collections from 2008 through 2015 and illustrates the many ways she continues to seek inspiration beyond the world of traditional handwork and craftsmanship.

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Chemical Crows, Skirt, Collar, January 2008
Ribs of children’s umbrella, industrial boat filament yarns, cow leather, and metal eyelets
Groninger Museum, 2012.0191.a–b
Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios

For her Chemical Crows collection, van Herpen took inspiration from the alchemists’ desire to turn mundane metals into precious gold. She is interested in manipulating functional materials into extraordinary works of high fashion. In this case, a broken umbrella gave van Herpen the idea for this collection, whose concept was triggered by the presence of a group of crows living near her studio. Van Herpen carefully hand fastened the brass tines of hundreds of children’s umbrellas together to create a metal fabric, transforming these often overlooked parts into extravagant sculptural protrusions that invoke the form of birds’ wings.

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Refinery Smoke, Dress, July 2008
Untreated woven metal gauze, cow leather, and cotton
Groninger Museum, 2012.0196
Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios

Refinery Smoke is based on the astonishing beauty, the ambiguity, and above all, the elusiveness of industrial smoke. Seen from a distance, smoke provides a fascinating and dynamic spectacle: at times it seems to be alive, but it also harbors something sinister and can even be toxic. Van Herpen has manifested these ideas in a metal gauze that she had specially woven for the Refinery Smoke collection. The material, which is unusual in the fashion world, consists of innumerable fine metal threads. The dresses started as silver gray but have oxidized over time to a reddish-brown, serendipitously reflecting the dual nature of industrial smoke.

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Radiation Invasion, Dress, September 2009
Faux leather, gold foil, cotton, and tulle
Groninger Museum, 2012.0201
Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios

An intercontinental phone conversation prompted Iris van Herpen to question the innumerable flows of digital information that surround us like rays at every moment and in every place. In Radiation Invasion, the wearer seems to be surrounded by a complex of wavy rays, flickering patterns, vibrating particles, and reflecting pleats. The collection is about the simultaneously frightening and fascinating presence of radiant energy (particularly that generated by electronics) that constantly surrounds us. Van Herpen represents in this collection how it might look if we could detect and manipulate radiation—if we, like magnets, could attract and repel.

To see more from the Iris Van Herpen head to the High Museum. Van Herpen’s exhibit will be open until May 15, 2016.