An ornate gown, center, is flanked on either side by numerous other avant-garde dresses.

A dress from Iris van Herpen's Refinery Smoke collection in the Heinz Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo by Bryan Conley

Cyborg Fashion: How Iris van Herpen’s Designs Blend the Organic and the Artificial

The centerpiece of the exhibition Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion at Carnegie Museum of Art is an 8-foot wide stratus cloud of a dress from the Dutch designer’s 2008 collection, Refinery Smoke. It is made of wreaths of untreated metal wire that were painstakingly woven using a special process until they became soft, a bit like tulle. The bodice is sleek, sleeveless, and form-fitting while the springy metal skirt spreads out below it in comical dimensions, like a massively overgrown tutu. Somehow, the skirt holds itself up without any supports, almost as if it’s floating. Purpose-built to rust, the piece was originally gun-metal gray but today looks more like a dirty ochre.

The design, van Herpen has said, was inspired by the “ambiguous character of refinery smoke,” by a cloud of smog that’s at once “beautiful and poisonous.” This would be a potent message for any city but especially for Pittsburgh, a place that has endured both the environmental impact of heavy industry and the economic catastrophe of losing it. A slew of artists, many represented in the museum’s galleries, have been inspired by the Steel City’s smokestacks, variously imagining them as part of a dystopian hellscape or a workers’ paradise. The alarm and wonder that van Herpen has woven into her dress links up nicely with many of their themes.

A close up of the gown described previously: an intricately textured number with a form-fitting bodice and large, buoyant skirt.
A dress from Iris van Herpen's Refinery Smoke collection in the Heinz Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo by Bryan Conley

Just 32, van Herpen has already carved out a rarefied niche for herself in the fashion world. Her extremely laborious hand-made designs have been a fixture of Paris’s haute couture lineup since 2011, and her eminently Instagrammable work has won some very famous and fashionable fans (Björk, Lady Gaga, and Tilda Swinton). But despite these accolades, van Herpen has largely flown beneath fashion’s celebrity radar. Her avant-garde pieces are sold to only a few select shops and worn by only the most daring of fashion plates. Much of her couture is, for practical purposes, unwearable, and when describing it, journalists typically reach for the stars—to foreign planets, alien civilizations, the stuff of science fiction.

Van Herpen, they suggest, is chiefly a futurist, more concerned with where technology and culture will be in 50 or 100 years than with what women want to wear next season. As such, she is the rare kind of designer whose fashions are covered both in Vogue and Wired. Among the first designers to incorporate 3-D printing into her work, she has also pioneered other high-tech processes in fashion—from injection molding to laser-cutting Mylar. She has even collaborated with MIT and CERN, the Swiss research facility famous for its giant particle accelerator.

Her fashion does not so much dress the body as transform it with mesmerizing plastic exoskeletons or fractal-like gowns. One critic said she was designing “event-wear—where the event is the end of the world.” Van Herpen’s pathbreaking work is often compared to that of the late British designer Alexander McQueen, in whose London studio she interned at the beginning of her career. McQueen’s influence is clear down to van Herpen’s cloven-toe heels. But as much as her designs evoke that sometimes sinister, far-out aesthetic, her work is also distinguished by a lovely, even sweet, celebration of the natural world.

It’s interesting to consider that in addition to McQueen, van Herpen also interned for the acclaimed Dutch textile artist Claudy Jongstra, a DIY wizard whose felt murals are made with wool from rare breeds of sheep that she raises herself and colored with organic dyes made from plants grown in her own garden. Perhaps it’s not too much to say that, in her fashion, van Herpen is connecting something of the conceptual genius of McQueen to the bespoke naturalism of Jongstra.

Van Herpen grew up in a small village outside of Amsterdam. The child of hippyish parents, she was raised on a farm and did not have her first computer until she was in her 20s. She spent her youth painting, playing the violin, and especially dancing, flirting for a time with a professional ballet career. She has since gone on to collaborate with the Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied, creating a suite of dazzling costumes for the New York City Ballet out of flashy onyx chips of plastic that were meticulously sewn onto flexible tulle.

Van Herpen has said that working at the intersection of technology and fashion can lead people to misunderstand something basic about her method.

“People think that everything I make is 3-D printed, but the basis of my work is really craftsmanship,” she told Vogue last year. “I think a lot of people try to separate the two. You have traditional houses that focus on craftsmanship, and then you have people who are into technology, but I don’t really see that they have to be apart. I see them as equal, and I actually think that they can complement each other. Sometimes a texture that I’ve been developing on a 3-D printer can be an inspiration for a handwork technique, and sometimes it’s the other way around.”

Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion on view in the Heinz Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo by Bryan Conley
Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion on view in the Heinz Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo by Bryan Conley

While van Herpen often employs technology to mimic nature, she also sometimes uses a natural material or a traditional technique to represent something artificial or imagined.

Some of van Herpen’s trippiest, most high-tech pieces are made of leather, suede, or unexpectedly prosaic materials like the insides of children’s umbrellas. Some of the most “organic” designs, meanwhile, are made with futuristic materials extruded from 3-D printers or sourced from military contractors. With techniques like this, she has created a hyperrealistic bird’s plumage out of laser-cut silicone or made a black microfiber dress with spiky tufts of white film lace look like a fuzzy caterpillar. And whether she’s working with space-age polymer or an organic yarn, what she does is couture at its most essential: hand-made, unique, and free of shortcuts.

Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion is on view in the Heinz Galleries at Carnegie Museum of Art from February 4 to May 1, 2017.