“Fashion design is still a male-dominated world – even though many of them design for women,” says Iris van Herpen, a visionary Dutch haute couturier.
You may not recognize her face, but it would be hard to forget her work. Her name is synonymous with otherworldly, three-dimensional dresses that seem to shape change in motion, the best of which have such an astonishing level of intricacy that the eyes can only stare.
For this reason, the 38-year-old Herpen is a red carpet virtuoso, loved and endorsed by the world’s most quirky looks – from Björk to Lady Gaga, Winnie Harlow, Gwendoline Christie and Cara Delevingne. The sculptural designs are often considered works of art, collected by prestigious museums including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the V&A, and she has been a fixture at Paris Fashion Week since she joined the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture in 2011.
After more than a decade in the most exclusive fashion sector, Herpen remains dissatisfied with the diversity in the schedule. There will be 29 maisons this season; 22 collections designed by men and seven by women.
“My team is really driven by women. This is important to me and it is important to talk about it and show that it is possible. I hope to be an example to others,” he says in a video from Amsterdam. It’s nine in the morning and she looks ethereal in a chinoiserie robe with flowing curls.
Misogyny is the catalyst for her offerings this fashion week; a short film addressing the global struggle of women and a direct response to the Mahsa Amini protests in Iran. “It’s an artistic expression of a political movement,” says Herpen.
The collection is called “Carte Blanche” and was shot underwater by French artist Julie Gautier. It’s a successful combination – inspired by nature and derived from technology, the dresses look like deep-water corals as the models hold their breath and contort.
“We decided to do it underwater as a symbol for speechless women, with this incredibly heavy underwater dance,” says Herpen. At the end, the woman lets out a cry of air bubbles and floats to the surface. “It’s a sacrifice of the power to speak up,” he explains. It’s visually rich and makes it suffocating to watch.
By choosing to feature in a four-minute video, she breaks the trend with other fashion designers doubling up on the runway eyewear extravagance after the pandemic. This week, Franck Sorbier will be the only other designer to opt for digital.
The risk turned very real on Monday when Herpen released the planned video just two hours after the Schiaparelli show, where Irina Shayk walked the runway in the same lion-headed gown Kylie Jenner wore in the front row. Doja Cat sat nearby, her face covered in 30,000 red Swarovski crystals. There has been a social media eclipse, and the Herpen Spring/Summer 2023 collection has barely made any noise.
Why litter the runway? “Freedom of expression. We’ve talked a lot over the last few years about being more flexible in how we present our work, but it’s all gone back to old habits,” he says. “The system is still based on tradition, but it’s important to have different options when presenting your collection.” .
It’s a calm approach. The artist in Herpen is all about honesty – this season comes at a price. “Topic [of the collection] is important and heavy. He needed a plot and a story for the film. It was the only way to embody the emotions I wanted to visualize,” he says.
Her determination comes as no surprise. Herpen has long been a black sheep in the fashion world, and since founding her brand in 2007, she has unparalleled control of all of her company’s production. He doesn’t make ready-made garments, “so there are no middlemen like shops or buyers telling me what to do,” he says, and he proudly runs his atelier without the need for a secretary. That’s remarkable considering her body of work last year included a custom costume for Letitia Wright Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Vogue cover with Michelle Yeoh, Björk music videos and Lorde concerts to name a few of her personal highlights. For two years, she has been creating an extensive 12-room retrospective exhibition at the famous Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, which is scheduled to open on November 29, 2023. “It really feels like a lifetime’s work,” she says happily.
And these are just her physical creations. “The last year has been pretty focused on augmented reality for me,” says Herpen. It has come close to the forefront of Web3 fashion, thanks in large part to the design process starting with digital rendering. That makes sense too. Innovation has been her forte since TIME magazine named her 3D-printed dress one of the 50 best inventions of 2011.
Don’t hold your breath for the results – she’s waiting for the tech platforms to be able to handle the details of her physical results. Currently, Metaverse fashion week rehearsals, hosted on platforms like Roloblox and Decentraland, have been defined by comically primitive avatars.
“Creatively, the sky is the limit of what’s possible,” says Herpen. “But it’s stupidly dependent on what the bigger tech companies come up with. I believe that augmented reality will be an additional layer to our physical reality in all aspects of our lives – creative, political, economic. All.”
He asks endless questions. The appeal of digital fashion is democratization, but how do you balance that with haute couture prices? What degree of resources should be directed to a space that is in constant development and how to protect your intellectual property when the law does not keep up with progress?
“I have no idea,” Herpen says. “But right now, we’re in the midst of an AI revolution, with more coming soon. I know that for sure.