This article is part of a continuing series on Visionaries. The New York Times has selected people from around the world who are pushing the boundaries of their fields, from science and technology to culture and sport.
When a lot of people think of tailoring, they think of the most traditional and time consuming type of fashion; seamstresses and tailors in white coats leaning over panels of intricate fabrics sewing meticulously by hand as they have done since the days of Charles Frederick Worth and Christian Dior (and Marie Antoinette, Moreover).
Iris van Herpen, however, a 35-year-old Dutch designer who founded his own company in 2007, always thought of something different.
She thought about how the sewing needle – one of the first tools – could turn into the tools of tomorrow; can, for example, connect to 3D printer and laser cutter. She explored themes such as “biopiracy” and “magnetic movement”; combined mylar and copper with tulle and organza. Her dresses often seem to have their own energy field and seem to terraform the body.
It is an attitude that has landed his pieces in the collections of the Metropolitan art Museum in New York, the Decorative Arts Museum in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. His first solo exhibition, “Transforming Fashion”, originally presented at Groningen Museum in the Netherlands, traveled from Dallas Museum of Art to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. More recently, she created a concrete frieze to wrap the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Dutch Natural History Museum. She works in Amsterdam.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
“There is usually a presumption that the clothes will be difficult to wear, because they do not always look like the clothes we know, but that is a perception rather than the reality.”
What would you like people to know about your job?
That there is a line that goes from craftsmanship to innovation and technology that can be explicitly explored in fashion to weave a new identity, new forms of femininity. Technology is a very powerful tool, just as the hand is a powerful tool, and combined with craftsmanship, it can create a new language of form, beauty and touch. The world is changing so quickly, and fashion doesn’t always explore that – she really likes to look back, where we’re from – but for me it’s about looking to the future, to the unknown.
Also, that my work is often different from what he feels. There is usually a presumption that the clothes will be difficult to wear because they do not always look like the clothes we know, but this is a perception rather than the reality. The conception process takes place on the body. I put most of it on me. You can even put most of it in the washing machine.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
A dancer. I grew up in a very small town in the middle of Holland called Wamel. It’s so small, even if you tell a Dutchman the name, he probably won’t know it. We did not have a television or a computer. But we had some dancing. I grew up dancing – my mom was a dance teacher, and I did classical ballet from a young age and absolutely loved it. For me, it was about the power between mind and matter, how you can transform your body, and the effort that goes into it: training and discipline. I really like to push myself. I think that’s when I became fascinated with movement. I’m still taking a lot of what I’ve learned.
“I grew up dancing – my mom was a dance teacher, and I did classical ballet from a young age and absolutely loved it.”
Who or what inspired you to get started in your field?
When I was 16 I moved to Amsterdam, because there was no high school in my city, and that’s where I became aware of fashion, both because it was around me and because I was at an age where you realize how you can express yourself and your identity through clothing. When I was 18 I went to Arnhem to go to the academy of fine arts. At the academy, I learned a lot about the technique of fashion, but the way it was taught and spoken was very traditional, and I felt quite disconnected from it. It was only after that my world opened up and I started to see fashion in the context of many other disciplines: biology, architecture, art.
Where do you find sources of creativity?
I am mostly inspired by people from other fields. The choreographers Benjamin Millepied and Sasha Waltz taught me to look at the body in a different way; looking at the space around the body as much as the body itself and how we can do both. Philippe beesley, the architect and sculptor, is someone I worked with for six years, and his creative process and philosophy were very influential. And for me, CERN, where I have been several times, is one of the most special places on this planet. Thousands of scientists work together! It’s not that I’m going there to make a dress with it Large Hadron Collider. It does not work like that. I’m going there to ask questions and find out what I don’t know.
“Fashion tends to treat technology as a communication platform, but it goes far beyond that. “
How does technology interact with your profession?
Fashion tends to treat technology as a platform for communication, but it goes far beyond that. We use 3D printers, laser cutting, heat sealing. Recently, we have been experimenting with 4D printers: they code the movement in the material, so it is transformed. Currently, fashion is considered very disposable, but it could be a tool to improve a garment in the long run, so we are less dependent on mass production. The potential of technology fused with craftsmanship is endless. It amazes you.
What obstacles do you encounter in your field?
I used to think it was hard to be a woman running a business, but now my business is mostly female and I feel very powerful. It is probably more the difficulty of being a small brand and of competing with large groups and globalization. But I also think that as a small business you have an advantage because you can innovate a lot more freely and focus on quality rather than quantity. I make 50 to 80 pieces a year, for clients all over the world, and that’s enough for me.
“I constantly try to have people around me who want to push the boundaries and see fashion as an important tool in society.”
how do you define success?
It’s not about the money or the fame – as long as I have enough money to have the freedom to create what needs to be created. At the micro level, I feel successful when we have reached a new level of technique, or created a new type of material. On a macro level, I think it helps people achieve a new understanding of beauty, especially people who don’t necessarily connect with fashion. One of the clichés about fashion is that it’s superficial, and for me it’s very special to see when people have changed their minds about it.
How do you plan to change domain?
A lot of companies don’t really want to move forward; they are not driven by innovation, but by functionality, time and money. I constantly try to have people around me who want to push the boundaries and see fashion as an important tool in society.
What’s the biggest challenge facing your field?
It must be the environmental crisis, even if it is a challenge we all face. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world, and our production methods and materials are just not sustainable enough. On the other hand, I think there are a lot of things that are going well, especially in the change that has taken place around what we accept as beauty. It’s so powerful and so positive.