Sumptuous gowns from the 3D printer, bodysuits that emit lightning-like electrical flashes – the Dutch designer Iris van Herpen translates new technologies into spectacular fashions
Lights out, gown on. At this spring’s Met Gala, where the most spectacular evening dresses of the year come together at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, actor Clair Danes was clearly the star, or to be more precise, her dress was – because it shone in the dark like a homage to Cinderella.
That textile conjuring trick was made possible by the glass-fiber coating New York designer Zac Posen had applied to the pale-blue organza fabric of the gown. His creation fit the motto of the evening and the name of the fashion show celebrating its opening night to perfection: Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology.
The show is devoted to the big questions currently occupying the industry: How does progress influence fashion? What is already doable? Dutch designer Iris van Herpen has plenty of answers. The exhibition included a number of her creations, which demonstrate that these days a lot more can be done than a little illumination.
A visit to Amsterdam. Iris van Herpen is just 32 years old. Her rather small studio is right on the harbor front in the west of the city, with a romantic view of an old cargo ship. In the past four years, van Herpen has acquired a reputation for being an expert on the connection between fashion and technology.
A slight woman, with long, fair hair and a high forehead, van Herpen regularly does something many industry watchers have long missed: She surprises. In ever-new ways and materials, she combines knowledge from different areas of research.
Van Herpen collaborates equally with architects, photographers and dancers, and biologists, physicists and other scientists from elite universities.
The results are clothes hitherto unheard of: robes seemingly made from shimmering soap bubbles; bony, skeletal dresses; bodysuits that emit lightning-like flashes; black cocktail dresses produced entirely on 3D printer.
A graduate of ArtEZ, the Academy of Art and Design in Arnhem, van Herpen uses high-pressure blowers to mold plastic so that one dress ultimately looks as though it was fashioned from squirted, shock-frozen water. For her Magnetic Motion collection in fall 2014, she used a special adhesive to affix metal powder to the surface of shoes and textiles to simulate magnetic effects and volcanic eruptions.
In 2013, in the Embossed Sounds collection, she showed dresses that emitted sounds when touched and could be played like wearable, electronic instruments. Herpen’s designs regularly win her major prizes and they are equally often exhibited in museums.
Her designs featured in the Manus x Machina show included her feather-studded, silicone Bird Dress, which has three bird sculptures growing out of it.
My work is not futuristic. I’m showing what is already possible
Creative chaos reigns at her studio in Amsterdam, and in the middle of it all, a new bird dress is now taking shape. A member of van Herpen’s team is using a sponge to polish, millimeter by millimeter, the surface of the silicone skin onto which the feathers will later be attached.
“This bird model is for a well-known star,” the designer comments briefly, without giving away exactly for whom it is intended. Iris van Herpen is discreet. While others may describe her as the “alien of fashion”, or a “high flyer,” she herself finds it hard to relate to such epithets. “Many see my work as futuristic. But I am not future-oriented at all. I focus on the here and now. With my fashions, I want to show what’s possible.”
Van Herpen is associated especially with 3D printing as her special field. Back in 2010, she presented a top that came entirely out of the printer.
While that piece was still stiff, rigid, the printed dresses she produces today are eminently wearable. “Sitting down on a chair or running in a dress from the 3D printer is no problem today,” she explains, “we print in many different fabrics and qualities, similar to a digital picture – there, too, you have different resolutions.”
Since van Herpen’s ambition is to always keep abreast of the latest technological advancements, she reads trade journals and is constantly researching on the Net. Companies she collaborates with also update her regularly.
“I remember my first 3D model very well,” she says. “I produced a 2D drawing on paper, which the computer experts then translated millimeter by millimeter into codes. Today, it seems incredible that we had to use a two-dimensional sketch to get there. These days, I work with experts, who translate my ideas straight into files on the computer, and they are then sent to the printer.”
The file making is still the most complicated part of her job. When she starts on a new collection, she designs the 3D dress first because the coding can take several months, but the actual printing only a few days.
None of her printed dresses could have been made by hand in their final form, says the designer. The best example of this is her Cathedral Dress from 2012: a garment that resembles a wood carving with complex interlaying of several of cathedral facades.
“The basis for the 3D-printed dress was a transparent, multilayered polyamide onto which we applied a copper finish,” she says, describing the process, “the dress will change color over time, because copper tarnishes – and that produces new effects.” These kinds of approaches make the industry gape in wonder, but they are not individual strokes of genius.
Anyone in fashion who is working with new technologies is forced to rethink, to open up, to network and compare notes. For an industry increasingly plagued by copyists, collaborative creation is a particular challenge.
And although van Herpen’s ideas start out in her studio in an old coffee and chocolate warehouse on Amsterdam’s waterfront, the final results are an international collaboration.
“It takes half a professional life to be really good at file making,” she explains, “and if you don’t have the time to become an expert yourself, you have to work with other people who are experts.” This is evidently new territory. “Fashion shuns such collaborations,” says van Herpen, “the industry is very self-protective.”
She, however, firmly believes that her strategy will pay off in the long run. “The value of the knowledge I can gain this way is priceless. I don’t think anyone in the fashion industry knows as much about new technologies as we do here in my little studio.”
This could make her the trailblazer for a big movement. The old structures of the fashion business no longer work, as competition from ever-growing and ever-improving clothes chains, such as Zara, Cos and Uniqlo, undermines the old established fashion houses.
Designers are having to set themselves even more clearly apart from their competitors by offering something different, something that cannot be had on the mass market – for instance, by availing themselves of technological expertise like that of a van Herpen.
For van Herpen, everything is moving forward far too slowly. “In medicine, 3D printing is very much more advanced than it is in fashion,” she has observed, “there’s simply not enough demand for it in our segment.”
Are fashion companies afraid of new technologies? Or are they just not interested in technology? She shakes her head. “The problem lies with the fashion industry’s tempo – every six months, there has to be a new collection ready for the market. But you need time if you want to really get into something like 3D printing. And in fashion, time is something no one has.”
And that goes for her, too, which faces her with a dilemma. She solves the problem by dividing her work into short- and long-term projects. “Some of the new materials we are developing take a year and more to complete. Some are ready at the wrong time, and we only use them three years later. If I only thought in the usual six-month rhythms of the fashion industry, I would never make any headway. My collections are like temporal snapshots of my work.”
Right now, no one knows more about new technologies than we do here at my little studio
This concept works for her because Iris van Herpen is a small, privately run company that can work without pressure to show a return. Others don’t have this flexibility and so for lack of time, continue to use the techniques they already master.
A glance at the industry reveals that major technical innovations are primarily implemented where the seasonal rhythm plays a minor role. In sport and denim fashions, for example, almost every company is experimenting with new technologies.
The use of laser, ozone and infrared techniques is now commonplace at jeans manufacturers, and sports clothing is equipped to deal with perspiration, odors and even bacteria. Sports shoes are knitted from technical superfibers that weigh practically nothing, and the soles have built-in intelligent computer chips to record things like the wearer’s running time.
In the near future, Adidas, Under Armour and Nike even plan to launch made-to-measure models that can be produced in store for the customer on a 3D printer.
Van Herpen also believes that customized fashion is the future. “Old school,” is what she calls today’s off-the-peg clothes with their standard sizing. “With 3D printing, made-to-measure clothes are really easy to produce. All you have to do is make minor adjustments to the file and out of the printer comes a dress that suits the customer perfectly.”
Despite this optimistic view of the future, she still believes that the sewing machine will survive. “Haute couture dresses sewn by hand right down to the last detail will still be around in a hundred years’ time. What we are in the process of inventing is not set to replace an old handicraft but to become an additional new option. Instead of three ways to produce a dress, there will be seven, and they will be intermeshed.”
The impulses for such extra options don’t necessarily have to come from the fashion industry. “Technology companies, like Apple and Google, are very interested in fashion and already investing in this area,” says van Herpen, “and they could greatly influence how clothing is made in the future.”
A first, up-to-the-minute example of such a collaboration between a high-tech company and a design studio was on show at the Met Gala. Working with evening gown specialist Marchesa, the computer manufacturer IBM designed a dress that featured 150 LED lamps that light up in different colors in tune with the mood of the party.
But there’s still a long way to go yet. As the down-to-earth van Herpen puts it: “Right now, we see an awful lot of gimmicks used when technology is combined with fashion. But over time, we will recognize the benefits of technology and be able to take something really interesting from our experiences.”