Iris van Herpen Imagines a Fashion Future in Which Clothes Are Only Made on Demand
May. 20, 2020
By Iris Van Herpen
As told to Laird Borrelli-Persson
Like a fern, Amsterdam slowly started to unfurl last week as lockdown restrictions were eased, presenting the opportunity to speak with Iris van Herpen in her atelier. Because her process is so collaborative and interactive, it’s been challenging to make much forward movement, but her new collection is coming together in “baby steps.” In the interim, the designer and her team have been focusing on new ways of using VR [virtual reality] and AR [augmented reality], the latter in relation to an upcoming exhibition in Paris.
Van Herpen has always been at the vanguard of fashion and technology, while maintaining her focus on the beauty of the human body and its movement—she is, after all, a trained dancer. Here, she shares her thoughts on shows, production, and the ultimate ideal of circularity: technology that brings us closer to nature and its cycles.
We live in a world where technology is part of every level of our lives; it also makes the world change so rapidly. It seems that fashion has not been the first to embrace change at all, and you can really see that the system has become old in that sense.
Sustainability has become such an important factor within every industry, and fashion has only started to address it just now. I think collaboration is going to be really key because fashion is a bit behind. The only way to catch up is to start using the knowledge of other industries and start partnering with them to improve fashion’s footprint and to change the way the whole system is working—with materials sustainability, but also with the [way] a garment is being made.
Ultimately we have to look at a system where mass production isn’t the way to make things, [and imagine one in which] we can make garments on demand. I foresee a system that is sort of in between haute couture and ready-to-wear, so that products can be customized more [using] new technologies like 3D printing. If you think of a ready-to-wear garment, it doesn’t take a long time to make. In the old days, size grading would be done manually, but nowadays that can be done by illustrator programs, and [it] can even be automated. In theory it’s very possible that if you order something online today, it could be produced in less than a week and then be shipped to you.
So why would we keep holding on to a system that is purely focused on preproduction? That is the big chunk of waste that is being created every season. I don’t know the facts, because I haven’t checked them myself, but they say more than half of all the garments that are being produced are being thrown away even before going into someone’s closet. That is insane when we think about that—and that is happening every single season again.
We are a slow fashion company and we are pretty lucky with customers who give us the time to develop and put effort into innovation and the sustainability of the materials. Making a special product just really takes time. The fastness of communication, like online social media platforms, is really challenging for brands to keep up with [in terms of] production. I think couture is a very beautiful example of almost the opposite of the speed of the world that we’re in today; it’s like art. I’ve always seen fashion as art, and couture as the ultimate example of where art and fashion meet. The couture system is really pure and simple; that’s what attracts me to it. We only create on demand, so every piece that we make in the atelier is ordered and there is no overproduction. I think that is ultimately the system that also can happen for ready-to-wear when we embrace innovation and technology.
My hope is that we’re becoming a world that embraces both live and virtual show formats. I don’t think we should stop with all fashion shows at once; they are creating a really magic moment for the few lucky ones that can be at that show. When I think of my own design parameters, the thing that is most important to me is actually the movement itself, the interaction between the body, the texture, and materiality. When you are seeing that garment in full movement, on a life-size scale, I think that’s a completely essential experience. Most of the detailing, and even most of the dimensionality, cannot be seen on a mobile device, so the work loses so much of the emotion and the integrity that goes into it.
But a medium like VR [virtual reality] really does have advantages, because a lot more people [than can attend a runway show] are able to embrace or see the work up close in an extreme amount of detail, but also within three-dimensionality and within a world that I created from scratch. As an artist, I think that’s a really beautiful blank canvas, and it’s even a much freer canvas than with a fashion show because there are so many rules within a fashion show. Also my work is very collaborative—I work with artists and scientists and architects—and a lot of it is not really possible to bring into that box of a fashion show, so VR really has a lot of possibilities and can create a lot of freedom within creativity. That said, there is a magic to people coming together and celebrating the work of a live person in a live setting, and I don’t think VR will be able to replace that. It’s very important that there are still shows, but again you have to see them as very special moments, like an exhibition that you’re going to and not something that you consume on a daily basis.
For me, the ultimate goal within technology is to use it to collaborate with nature. The current systems within a lot of industries—not only fashion—are built in a way that we abuse the resources of our planet. There are much smarter ways to work and to create. Ultimately all the innovations that we are looking at and we should be embracing are technologies that can actually bring us closer to nature and to make us collaborate with our planet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.