A ret­ro­spec­tive of de­signer Iris van Her­pen’s stun­ning cou­ture hits the ROM


IRIS VAN HER­PEN: TRANS­FORM­ING FASH­ION/PHILIP BEESLEY: TRANS­FORM­ING SPACE at the Royal On­tario Mu­seum (100 Queen’s Park). $19-$30. To Oc­to­ber 8.

The Royal On­tario Mu­seum is throw­ing its cou­ture hat down. Fol­low­ing last fall’s big Chris­tian Dior show, the mu­seum is stag­ing a more fu­ture-for­ward fash­ion ex­hibit with a ret­ro­spec­tive of Iris van Her­pen.

Trans­form­ing Fash­ion show­cases 10 years’ worth of the Dutch de­signer’s sculp­tural dresses, plus one orig­i­nal com­mis­sion and a com­ple­men­tary in­stal­la­tion by Cana­dian ar­chi­tect Philip Beesley, a van Her­pen col­lab­o­ra­tor.

If you’re a long-time NOW reader, you may have seen van Her­pen’s harp-belted cre­ation on the pa­per’s cover in 2011, worn by Björk, who col­lab­o­rated with the de­signer on synes­the­sia-in­spired

out­fits for her Bio­philia al­bum art­work and tour in 2011.

Not un­like the Ice­landic mu­si­cian, van Her­pen of­ten draws in­spi­ra­tion from con­cepts in science, tech­nol­ogy and na­ture such as volt­age, crys­tal­liza­tion, mum­mi­fi­ca­tion and mag­netic mo­tion.

A 3D-printed skele­tal dress from her 2011 Capri­ole col­lec­tion on dis­play at the ROM was in­spired by her love of sky­div­ing and the way it af­fects the body in free fall. Nearby, a “snake dress” from the same col­lec­tion is com­posed of twisted ser­pen­tine forms made of black acrylic sheets. An­other cre­ation uses finely woven me­tal gauze to achieve the ef­fect of a puff of smoke from a re­fin­ery. It has ox­i­dized to a brown­ish hue from its orig­i­nal sil­ver when it de­buted in 2008.

Dur­ing a press tour of the ex­hibit, van Her­pen re­peat­edly pointed out hand-stitched de­tails. Re­view­ers tend to fo­cus on van Her­pen’s use of tech­nol­ogy, namely 3D print­ing, but she of­ten stresses crafts­man­ship.

“The show re­ally ex­plores that space be­tween fash­ion and art, and I think that’s an im­por­tant space to discover, es­pe­cially in this time where fash­ion has be­come more com­mer­cial than ever,” she tells NOW, adding that speed of fash­ion cy­cles is a chal­lenge.

“Crafts­man­ship is al­most gone. Time for new devel­op­ment is not there. Fash­ion moves so fast that it ac­tu­ally goes re­ally slow.”

Af­ter the me­dia tour, van Her­pen par­tic­i­pated in a pub­lic talk be­fore re­turn­ing to Paris to meet the June 26 dead­line for her next col­lec­tion. Though the ROM show is strictly sculp­tural dresses and shoes, her run­way pre­sen­ta­tions al­ter­nate be­tween wear­able and art­ful.

“I al­ways have a tran­si­tion be­tween the more wear­able and the more sculp­tural pieces. The two re­ally need each other,” she adds. “They are like lan­guage – the sculp­tural pieces talk about the con­cept, the in­ter­dis­ci­plinar­ity and the in­spi­ra­tion. The more wear­able piece go to peo­ple and cus­tom or­ders.”

Her work’s three-di­men­sion­al­ity is both cere­bral and aes­thetic. It comes partly from her back­ground in dance and de­sire to ex­plore the space around the body, but also it’s a way to avoid us­ing prints, which she thinks are gen­er­ally ugly.

“Tex­tures are so im­por­tant but in a way there’s print in­her­ent in that,” she ex­plains. “It’s never a flat print. I need the real shad­ows and tex­ture.”

She did her in­tern­ship with the late de­signer Alexan­der McQueen, who was also the sub­ject of a tour­ing mu­seum show in re­cent years.

“The pieces he made had a strong di­a­logue with the peo­ple wear­ing them. I saw fit­tings where peo­ple came to the ate­lier and you felt like the artist has made some­thing just for a per­son, and it worked,” she says of her ex­pe­ri­ence with McQueen. “That’s why fash­ion is a bit dif­fer­ent than other forms of art. You can have that very in­ti­mate con­nec­tion be­tween the artist and the con­sumer.” (Iron­i­cally, her favourite col­lec­tion of his is the print-heavy At­lantis from spring 2010: “He’s one of the few de­sign­ers who can ac­tu­ally han­dle prints.”)

Walk­ing around the ROM and in­spect­ing de­tails like the fos­sil-like bust on a 3D-printed dress or ra­di­a­tion-wave-in­spired swirls made of leather, you can’t help but feel like you’re get­ting half the ex­pe­ri­ence with­out see­ing these dresses in ac­tion.

A jagged dress made from mir­ror foil from van Her­pen’s 2013 Volt­age col­lec­tion flings light around the gallery, sug­gest­ing the way it might trans­form a space as the wearer moves around a room. For the de­signer, it’s a trade-off: you aren’t able to closely in­spect de­tails or dis­cern how the dresses look dur­ing a run­way show.

“The move­ment is an el­e­ment you will not see in the show, but the move­ment and the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the body and the gar­ment is what I’m de­sign­ing for,” she says. “I put ev­ery­thing on my­self. It’s re­ally im­por­tant – the touch, the feel of it.”

You can sense that mo­tion by do­ing a 360 around a glit­ter­ing, stat­uesque me­tal­lic tulle dress that wouldn’t look out of place in a mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion of the movie Alien. The piece is one of the most strik­ing at the ROM, and was part of a col­lec­tion in­spired by Beesley’s Hy­lo­zoic Ground in­stal­la­tion, a hang­ing lat­tice­work of mov­ing whiskers and buzzing fronds that re­sem­bles a ro­botic for­est canopy.

The two started col­lab­o­rat­ing on fab­rics for her Volt­age col­lec­tion and made an orig­i­nal com­mis­sion for the ROM as part of her fall 2017 Aer­i­form col­lec­tion. The Dome Dress, made from over 300 zinc-coated steel forms, hand-moulded into three-di­men­sional domes, is dis­played in the gallery be­low Aegis, an­other sen­tient ar­chi­tec­tural canopy cre­ated by Beesley.

Beesley’s in­stal­la­tions ref­er­ence abio­gen­e­sis – the way life emerges from non-liv­ing forms – and the ways tech­nol­ogy can con­form to na­ture and cre­ate self-re­new­ing sys­tems. His work echoes the Aer­i­form col­lec­tion, which is all about har­ness­ing air and light.

“The Dome Dress is about cre­at­ing a move­ment or an aura around the body,” says van Her­pen. Where would she wear it? “A very spe­cial oc­ca­sion. Maybe such a spe­cial oc­ca­sion has yet to hap­pen.” kev­ | @kev­in­ritchie

Iris van Her­pen’s science- and na­ture-in­spired cre­ations in­clude a 3D-printed dress that re­sem­bles fos­sils.

Synes­the­sia-in­spired shoes.

Philip Beesley’s sen­tient ar­chi­tec­ture.

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