IT’S A RARE occasion that a woman artist is singled out with a large solo museum show. Let alone a 32-year-old Dutch fashion designer named Iris (pronounced EE-ris) van Herpen, who’s as comfortable with advanced technology (lasers and 3-D printers) as a needle and thread.
Now at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art (through May 1), “Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion” pulls together selections from 15 of her haute couture collections for this exhibition.
“Pittsburgh is not a fashion-centric city,” says Rachel Delphia, curator of decorative arts and design at the Carnegie Museum. “At the same time, what human beings put on their bodies to make a statement is inherently relatable.” Fashion notwithstanding, what intrigues Delphia and inspired her to bring the exhibition here is the innovative nature of van Herpen’s work and its art/technology connection. “[That’s] near and dear to this city, which has been steadily reinventing its economy through high tech (Google, Uber) and major research institutions (Carnegie Mellon).”
Delphia points to van Herpen’s Refinery Smoke collection from July 2008. “It’s about the beauty and toxicity of industrial smoke.” Something this town once known for its steel mills understands. Although you would be hard pressed to walk through any doorway wearing a dress from this collection, it’s worth noting how the woven metal gauze of the skirt billows out from the bodice like a fabulous ballgown or halo. Van Herpen studied classical ballet and uses her knowledge of the body and movement in her designs.
Bjork, Scarlett Johansson, Beyonce and Solange Knowles and Lada Gaga have worn van Herpen designs, but don’t expect to see celebs wearing her clothing on a red carpet anytime soon.
“Van Herpen has a kind of futuristic, dystopian view of the world. She’s probing timely questions about technology and the body and how they relate to each other, about the blurry continuum between what’s natural and what’s manmade,” says Delphia.
Van Herpen works with biologists, architects, MIT professors and computer scientists. Fascinated with magnetism and physics, she went to see the hadron collider in Cern, Switzerland, inspiring her Magnetic Motion collection. A dress from the Crystallization collection looks as if the mannequin is surrounded by a splash of water. Laser-cut silicone could easily pass for feathers in a dress from her Wilderness Embodied collection, a version of which was worn by Scarlett Johansson for a magazine cover shoot.
Visitors to the show are clearly intrigued. Questions such as “How do you move in that?” “How do you put that dress on?” and “How did she make that?” reverberate through the three exhibit halls. According to Delphia, on opening weekend in February, two-thirds of the people who came to the museum went to the van Herpen exhibit. This despite the attraction of dinosaurs in the natural history museum and paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Winslow Homer, to name a few.
Janet Kelly is the editor of MyLittleBird. Read more of her posts.