On the art-versus-fashion spectrum, Dutch couturier Iris van Herpen—that’s pronounced Ee-ris—leans heavily toward the former. Picture, if you can, an undulating swath of body armor made from umbrella tines, platform shoes perched on 3-D-printed crystals, and a transparent photopolymer resin dress shaped like a splash of water.
For the High Museum of Art’s first-ever fashion exhibition, curator Sarah Schleuning wanted to highlight innovation, not trends. So she chose the experimental van Herpen, whose mind-bending creations (Lady Gaga and Björk have long been fans) turn the adage “form follows function” on its head.
The show, Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion, is the designer’s first stateside exhibition. Years ago, Schleuning discovered van Herpen at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, which is co-organizing the show and a subsequent North American tour. Schleuning was captivated by van Herpen’s sculptural, futuristic garments—if one can even call them that.
“[She] is an incredible thinker,” Schleuning says. “She’s really pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”
On display are 45 looks, three from each couture collection van Herpen has created since her debut in 2007. In addition to mannequins, there will be videos and music from her runway spectacles (she once suspended shrink-wrapped models above the catwalk), a short documentary on van Herpen’s process in her Amsterdam atelier, and even a “lab” where visitors can touch the unusual materials.
Van Herpen, who got her start interning with the late Alexander McQueen, may not be a household name. Her work—understandably—is hardly commercial, despite the fact that she also produces a ready-to-wear line. But at just 31, she’s been on the official haute couture calendar for years, showing in Paris alongside members of the industry elite, including Chanel and Givenchy.
She often partners with architects and engineers to develop new techniques and materials. For a 2014 collection inspired by a visit to the Large Hadron Collider, she teamed up with an artist to create garments made from iron-spiked resin, which she manipulated with magnets. The jiggly “snake” dress of black acrylic sheets was meant to evoke her mental state before a parachute jump.
“Technology, strangely enough, is never the inspiration for something,” van Herpen tells Schleuning in a recent interview. “For me, it’s a tool. Inspiration comes much more from science, or architecture, or a dance or play that I saw, or it can even be a musician. Then, if there is a certain idea, I find the technology to create it, if it’s needed.”
Agrees Schleuning: “She’s living [proof] that if you can imagine it, you can build it.”
This article originally appeared in our November 2015 issue under the headline “High Fashion.”