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Iris van Herpen’s Hi-Tech Couture | 1
Iris van Herpen’s Hi-Tech Couture | 2

Iris van Herpen’s Hi-Tech Couture

Oct. 9, 2017

Several years ago, Iris van Herpen, a Dutch fashion designer, began visiting cern, the center for particle research near Geneva. Van Herpen, who is thirty-three, does not have a background in science; she attended design school in Arnhem, a small city in the Netherlands. Yet she regularly draws inspiration from the natural sciences to create rarefied, strangely gorgeous garments, many of which employ unexpected materials and 3-D printing. On a 2014 trip to cern, she toured the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator, buried in a tunnel, which exerts a magnetic field about a hundred thousand times stronger than that of Earth. Innumerable magnets and electronic devices are linked together with color-coded wiring and brightly painted metal structures. It struck her as the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. “Now I find it hard to compare, because how can you compare such a thing to—a tree?” she told me not long ago. “But it was so overwhelming that people could have made it—the complexity, and the simplicity, of it. The construction looks like a big puzzle, like a big Lego. It is very simple in materiality, but what it researches is so complex. I found it mesmerizing.”

Van Herpen marshalled some of what she learned about the collider in her spring 2015 collection, “Magnetic Motion.” It included translucent dresses, made from laser-cut acrylic mesh, which hovered around the wearer’s body in a quavering evocation of a force field. In collaboration with the Dutch designer Jólan van der Wiel, she made shoes from resin mixed with iron filings; while the material was still in molten form, it was subjected to magnetic forces that distorted its surface with alarming, spiky growths. Van Herpen sells some of her clothes to couture clients, but her experiments are largely protected from the distorting pressures of the retail environment: for the past six years, she has presented her work to the public as a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, a Paris institution that is the fashion world’s equivalent of a think tank.

Earlier this year, van Herpen’s thoughts returned to cern. She was contemplating her next collection, which would mark the ten years since, at the age of twenty-three, she founded her own label. On one visit to the facility, van Herpen and Philip Beesley, a Canadian artist and architect with whom she often collaborates, had met with a physicist, who spoke to them about matter and antimatter. Beesley told me, “He gave us a sense of how matter and energy would arise from one state to another, and vice versa, and the specific transitions that would occur in between, and the topology that would come from that.” The scientist tantalized them with a radical theory about the foundation of the universe, which proposes that time and space fluctuate in a bubbly, unstable state known as “quantum foam.”

Van Herpen and Beesley considered novel materials that they might use for the collection. Why not make clothes with metal or with silicone? Their conversations were sometimes whimsical. “We asked ourselves, ‘What would it be like to live inside an aura?’ ” Beesley said. “Or, ‘Wasn’t it amazing, when you were little, to have a bubble bath and be under the foam?’ Just rather innocent, quite happy conversations like this, where you sort of dare each other just to actually think it, and then materialize it.”

Although van Herpen is considered to be one of the most innovative and consequential fashion designers currently at work, her clothing often looks more like modern sculpture. She loves anatomy-defying shapes, and has made evening dresses embellished with triangular acrylic spikes that evoke ice crystals, and tops crafted from flame-burnished iron mesh. Her program notes proudly describe the conceptual underpinnings of her garments: for the fall 2014 show, titled “Biopiracy,” she wrote, “Patents on our genes have been purchased. Are we still the sole proprietor of our bodies?” Artificial fire opals were embedded under the silken threads of several dresses, issuing across the body in a gleaming pattern, like replicating cells.

Van Herpen’s work unites the most forward-looking technology with artisanal craftsmanship. Jerry Stafford, a Paris-based veteran creative director who visited cern with van Herpen, told me that while beholding the collider they “realized that all the wiring is hand-applied—it is literally like couture.” Stafford went on, “You have all these people weaving these incredible tapestries of wires in order to create this huge magnetic collider, in which what happens is invisible. That feels very much like Iris’s own world.”

Van Herpen’s avant-garde provocations often end up not in women’s closets but in art museums. In 2012, the Metropolitan Museum made its first acquisition of her work—a minidress that resembles a stylized skeleton and was 3-D-printed with a white synthetic polymer. The museum has since acquired five more of her designs, including the “moon dress” of 2013-14: a doughnut-shaped garment whose iridescent black resin surface is textured and cratered. In October, a touring exhibition of her work will be installed at the Cincinnati Art Museum, having originated at the Groninger Museum, in the Netherlands, in 2012. Sue-an van der Zijpp, the show’s curator, told me, “What really interested me was the way she approached materials. Our culture always maintains a dichotomy between machine-made and man-made, and she is merging that.”

Beyond museum curators, van Herpen’s aficionados include Lady Gaga, who launched her scent Fame in a dress made from laser-cut strips of black acrylic, its seething contours enveloping her, as if she were drowning in a deposit of oil. Björk has performed in van Herpen’s clothes, among them a dress, contoured with bulbous growths of reflective acrylic, that was part of a collection inspired by the forms of microorganisms that dwell on human skin. “Growth processes, or nature in general, are the basis of my work,” van Herpen told me. Her designs often combine a natural element with one that is more architectural. “I love to be in that gray area,” she said. On occasion, these allusions can be literal to the point of seeming silly. In 2012, she offered a 3-D-printed “cathedral dress,” which appeared to be composed of salvaged fragments from a ruined Gothic clerestory.

Van Herpen is tall and slender, with long gold-red hair that she parts in the middle. She has the high forehead and the small, serene features of a Madonna by van Eyck. Like a Madonna, she projects both humility and self-assurance—modesty predicated on confidence. She is calm, curious, and open. She seems to be operating on a slightly different plane than those around her, and is often forgetful, losing track of her possessions. When she is creatively focussed, she moves through the world almost unaware of her surroundings. “I can even bike unconscious,” she told me. “I go from my house to my work, but I am somewhere else, and I don’t even realize I just did that.”

When I visited her atelier, in Amsterdam, she was wearing a short sleeveless dress with a plaid-like checkered pattern—her own design—and fluid, silky pants. The dress looked almost like something that a Catholic schoolgirl might wear, except that at the waist the fabric had been cleverly cut and folded, like origami, to reveal glimpses of midriff. The fabric, from Japan, was made partly from paper. When I asked her how the dress was washed, she looked surprised, as if the question had never occurred to her. Her disposition is that of an artist who happens to work in fashion, rather than a fashion designer who happens to be an artist. Her commitment is to the process, rather than to the end result. More than most clothing designers, van Herpen works to satisfy herself.

She enlists a range of collaborators to assist her in realizing ideas. “Collaboration is a natural process for her—we are all just waves and particles reacting and meeting,” Jerry Stafford told me. “Iris is a quantum self.” Stafford went on, “Her process is governed by very different considerations and moderations than your normal commercial fashion designer, who is designing seasonally, with price points, and trying to create trends. She is outside that.” For the “Biopiracy” show, van Herpen worked with the Belgian artist Lawrence Malstaf to encase models in plastic sheeting, suspending them in vacuum-sealed packages down the center of a catwalk. Plastic tubes supplied air to the seemingly inert figures. Critics were unsettled, likening the models in the installation to quarantined aliens. After the show ended, van Herpen climbed into a bag and got shrink-wrapped, too. She found the experience comforting. “It is really nice to be held everywhere,” she told me. “I really liked the sound of my own breathing. It is like the outside is not there. It is like being back in the womb.”

In 2013, Daphne Guinness, the heiress known for her embrace of experimental couture, collaborated with van Herpen and the photographer Nick Knight on the creation of a “water dress.” Guinness was photographed standing on a platform, naked except for shoes, while buckets of water were thrown at her. Van Herpen then made a dress that mimicked these images, by bending and twisting PETG, a plastic used for food containers, with a blowtorch. “I often get inspired by materials I cannot work with,” she said. “I make a start, even if it’s impossible.” Guinness compares van Herpen to Alexander McQueen, the late British designer, for whom van Herpen briefly worked as an intern. “She has got the same sort of freedom of the imagination, and attention to detail, and getting it done,” Guinness told me. “She has got this very intellectual mind. There is a singularity to her process. She is monastic, unrelenting.” The water dress is an exquisite, hand-sculpted object that looks like a C.G.I. fantasy.

Van Herpen, who is the youngest of three children, grew up surrounded by water; until she went to high school, her family lived in a village along the Waal River, in the central Netherlands. Her father worked for a regional branch of the Dutch Water Authority, and her mother was a teacher of folk dance and meditation. Van Herpen trained as a ballet dancer until her late teens, which helps explain her keen interest in the movement of the human body in space, as well as her erect posture and her air of ingrained discipline. Her family had no television, and no computer. She spent a lot of time in nature, and though she had no particular interest in fashion at the time, she was fascinated by a collection of old clothes that one of her grandmothers had stowed away in an attic. Her father, Marius van Herpen, told me, “For a child with fantasy, it was heaven.”

Today, van Herpen works within constant sight of water. Her atelier is a light-filled loft in a repurposed warehouse overlooking Amsterdam’s old lumber port. On summer days, she and her staff can descend to swim in the water below their windows. I visited the atelier in late May, about a month before her Paris collection was to be shown. It wasn’t swimming weather, but the day was bright, and the workshop’s large windows were open to the salt-scented breeze. A cat lounged on a rose-colored velvet armchair.

The atmosphere was one of peaceful concentration. At a computer, an assistant pored over digital files that Philip Beesley had sent for van Herpen’s adjustment and approval. The images were of repetitive snaking patterns that were to be cut into silver fabric, becoming the filigreed neckline of a long lace dress. Two young women were using a press to bond together a layer of fine tulle and a sheet of flexible Mylar. Several half-completed dresses, and some completed ones, were stored in a room behind a glass door, safe from the cat’s claws. One finished dress was fashioned from expanded, creamy gold laser-cut lace that resembled the netting used to package clementines; when the dress was worn, the lace swirled in rings around the body, as if its wearer were a dancer who had been frozen mid-pirouette.

Van Herpen does not sketch her ideas on paper; she drapes material onto a mannequin and finds the shape she wants with her hands. “I really envy people who can draw in 2-D, but it doesn’t work for me,” she said, while showing me around the atelier. Lying on a table was a piece of material to be used for a dress: laser-cut strips of Mylar bonded with velvet and shaped into a tube. Perplexed, I asked if it was a sleeve. “It could be,” she said, though it was more likely to be turned into an undulating growth on a hip or a shoulder. “I don’t know what it is until I shape it on the mannequin.”

Van Herpen’s designs require the highly skilled hand stitching that defines haute couture. Although her collections are small, with fewer than eighteen outfits, she no longer makes them all by herself, and employs a team of seamstresses. She misses the practice of making clothes, which she discovered while in high school, first by deconstructing existing garments and remodelling them. “I didn’t use a sewing machine—it was very much about the act of doing it,” she told me. “It was very meditative.” At the atelier, a young assistant, Larissa Siems, bent over a mannequin near the window, joining together pleated strips of moiré-patterned fabric with invisible thread. A spider would have been hard pressed to see her tiny stitches. The combination of the stripes and the pleats gave the fabric a dizzying, holographic quality, as if the garment had been projected onto the mannequin, rather than constructed around it. The fabric’s billowing sleeves and skirts stirred gently in the breeze, like the fins of a lionfish coursing through the deep.

Van Herpen explained that water was again an inspiration for the new collection, and would be an important element in the way in which she intended to present the clothes. Her boyfriend, Salvador Breed, who is a sound artist, usually collaborates with her on the shows. Breed told me that, for “Biopiracy,” which was held in a riverside warehouse in Paris, he had sought to replicate the experience of being in a soundless environment—an impossibility at a fashion show—by having guests take their seats to a barely discernible recording of the warehouse’s “room tone,” the ambient sound that radio technicians record as a baseline audio setting. When the show started, Breed had the room tone drop away, to simulate the silence that prevails inside a vacuum, or under water.

For the new show, Breed had enlisted a Danish ensemble, Between Music, whose founders have developed an unlikely underwater performance piece. In van Herpen’s office, which has glass windows that overlook the atelier, she called up a YouTube video of the group and, with a secretive smile, handed me noise-cancelling headphones. The production was otherworldly. Five musicians, each in his or her own tank filled with water, played instruments—a violin, gongs, a hand-cranked organ—that had been adapted, or created, to function without air. Two of the performers, both women, had even developed a method of singing under water, which involved vocalizing into a submerged microphone while pushing a bubble of air around their mouths. The sound was haunting and strange, the wordless song of a mermaid. “It is, really, almost impossible!” van Herpen exclaimed. “What I find very beautiful is that it is not the instrument itself that creates the sound but the interaction between the instrument and the water and the glass. It is those three elements making the music.” Only occasionally did the musicians surface for air, moving as effortlessly as dolphins.

She admired the ensemble’s ambition to alter music’s fundamental premise—sending sounds through the air—and to adapt themselves to a different environment, in which the usual experience of gravity and movement was undermined. “It reminds me of how transformable we are,” she said. The group’s work made her realize how dramatically our way of making music had changed, and would continue to do so. “We might create completely new instruments, or even have to change ourselves to make new sounds. It is the same in any discipline. I think people will have to change themselves in order to change their work.” The childishness and the perversity of the musicians’ project appealed to van Herpen’s sense of experimentation, and mirrored her inclination to ask deceptively simple questions in search of complex answers. “Their work is almost like going forward and backward,” she said. “In a way, we all come from water. But, if we think about the future, we might go away from gravity as well, if we go to other planets. Or Earth may become liquid again. It is all possible.”

Van Herpen has her own fascination with extending herself physically. Her first official couture collection, “Capriole,” included dresses that were inspired by skydiving, which she has done half a dozen times. One, a mass of black coils snaking around the body, conjured the state of anticipation that van Herpen experienced just before jumping from the plane. Another piece—the skeleton dress now in the Met’s collection—represented van Herpen’s physical state while falling through the air, when, she told me, all her energy is concentrated in her body. “There is a little risk to doing it, but the pleasure is too big,” she said of skydiving. “I have so much energy afterward. All the little things that were in your mind are gone.”

Her background in ballet has made her especially sensitive to the constraints and the capacities of the female anatomy. She has worked on several occasions with choreographers, who appreciate her knowledge of the dancer’s art. For Benjamin Millepied, at New York City Ballet, she outfitted dancers in dresses made from black plastic chips sewn onto stretch tulle, and supplied them with matching hosiery that encased each dancer’s calf and foot in shiny black plastic, like something a particularly poised dominatrix might wear. The effect was to draw visual attention to the pleasurable discipline and suffering that go into creating a dancer’s perfect form.

This spring, van Herpen collaborated with Sasha Waltz, the German dancer turned choreographer, on a new work, and one evening in late May she flew with her assistant, an Australian woman named Emma van de Merwe, to Berlin for fittings. On the morning of her appointment, van Herpen rose late, and was irritable. Despite her creative affinities with technology, she had been defeated by the light switches in her room, at the Berlin Soho House, and was unable to reduce them to a level below a sleep-disturbing dimness. Because she had lost her phone—it was being FedExed from Dallas, where she had left it in a car—she had not been able to set an alarm, and the front desk had failed to call her.

But when van Herpen arrived at Waltz’s studio she became utterly focussed. Waltz’s costume-makers had been working with designs and materials that van Herpen’s atelier had sent from Amsterdam, and now van Herpen would see how the costumes moved on the dancers’ bodies. Hanging on a rack were a series of shift dresses that seemed, at first glance, to be made from translucent silk tulle but were actually fabricated from stainless-steel mesh. Van Herpen first made use of the material in her “Refinery Smoke” collection of nine years ago, which featured dresses with billowing, gravity-defying skirts made from metal folded and twisted into clouds and coils. When she first showed the dresses, they were silvery in color; they have since tarnished to a rusty brown. “At some point, they will be dust,” she said, with satisfaction.

The first dancer to be fitted stripped off her clothes and slipped into one of the dresses, which floated around her body, retaining its own separate shape. “Shall we start scrunching?” van de Merwe said. She and van Herpen dropped to their knees at the dancer’s feet and began seizing the dress in handfuls, molding it like clay and squeezing it into folds and excrescences. “I like the color—it looks like stone,” van Herpen said. When the two women had finished their alterations, the dancer began to move sinuously, rolling her torso and shoulders, and flexing her legs and arms. The dress moved, too, but not quite in synch with the dancer, as if it could not keep up with her.

Another set of costumes was made from a fabric that van Herpen developed in collaboration with Philip Beesley. Using lasers, they cut Mylar into computer-generated wave patterns that, when draped on a body, created a disconcerting rippling effect. They called the material Glitch. Van Herpen had used Glitch to make a pair of white pants that, before the dancer put them on, quivered on the floor like a jellyfish on a beach. A dancer put on a Glitch top, which oscillated between opacity and transparency as she moved.

The most surreal of van Herpen’s costumes, called the Samurai, was a black bodysuit, with gloved hands and covered feet, onto which dozens of spokes from dismembered umbrellas had been sewn. A headpiece was similarly covered with umbrella struts. The wearer was to be a statuesque dancer named Clémentine Deluy, known for her work with Pina Bausch. When Deluy pulled on the costume, with the help of van Herpen and van de Merwe, she appeared monstrous and volatile, surrounded by a quivering nimbus of quills that amplified her gestures.

“It’s fantastic to dance in this thing—I feel such power,” Deluy said. “I don’t see myself when I am in it.” Wearing it, she said, was like being “between water and leaves and wind.”

“She’s not human at this stage,” van Herpen declared. She and the others discussed whether Deluy’s mouth could also be covered with tulle. The over-all effect would be more impressive, but the strenuous demands of the dance might require unimpeded breathing. “Let’s try the tulle,” Deluy said. “Today is about trying.”

That afternoon, there was a run-through of the piece. Van Herpen watched with a critical eye, noting how the costumes held up throughout the demands of performance, and how the dancers held up within them. Crushed rosettes in the skirts of the metal dresses drooped somewhat, an inevitable but dispiriting occurrence. In Amsterdam, van Herpen had told me that she had always wanted to find a way for clothes to elude gravity. “It would be a nice challenge to make a collection that could be shown on the moon, or somewhere else where gravity is not always going against the material,” she said. The Glitch dresses moved well on the women, but van Herpen was not happy when she saw male dancers wearing them. “To me, Glitch is feminine,” she said, firmly. She also did not like the full bodysuit that one of the male dancers was wearing under his metal shorts and top. He was, he had told her, allergic to the metal, especially when it came into contact with sweat—an unfortunate conflict between body and art.

But Deluy looked magnificent in the Samurai costume, dominating the space and mastering the other dancers with terrifying, seductive force. At one point, she lifted one of the male dancers, who was naked except for a pair of flesh-colored briefs, and, squatting slightly, cradled him on her knees, enclosing him in a spiky embrace. The moment was powerfully emotional, the effect somewhere between that of Michelangelo’s Pietà and a black-widow spider in its postcoital mode. Van Herpen said of the choreographer, “Sasha really knows how to drive it to the edge.”

In 2013, van Herpen launched a ready-to-wear line, which offered simplified versions of the technical fabrics that had become her signature, and translated the complex structures of her couture clothing into more affordable flourishes in trim and detailing. The first collection included leather jackets that were threaded with ribboned suède through eyelet holes, like bondage wear, and fitted dresses embellished with spiky ribs that traced the contours of the wearer’s pelvic bone.

The experiment was not a success. Although there were some appealing garments, others looked like knockoffs, rather than like genuine expressions of van Herpen’s artistic interests. The spring 2016 ready-to-wear collection was her last. “It was an extraordinary experience, but Iris is not naturally part of that commercial sales world,” Jerry Stafford told me. Kaat Debo, the director of MoMu, a fashion museum in Antwerp, compares van Herpen’s dressmaking to the auto industry’s development of concept cars. “They spend a lot of money on them, but they are not meant to be brought into production,” Debo said. “It is pushing the designers of these companies into developing really innovative rethinking. That is what she does—rethinking a dress, rethinking materials, to push it further.”

Though van Herpen has a small number of private couture clients—women who can spend up to sixty thousand dollars for a dress—a significant proportion of every couture collection is earmarked for a curator rather than for a client. “Other designers can do prêt-à-porter,” Bradly Dunn Klerks, the director of the label, told me. “We do this instead.” In addition to selling pieces to private collectors, or to museums, the company benefits financially from participation in select commercial collaborations. Since 2015, van Herpen has received the support of Swarovski, whose crystals she has suspended in transparent silicone and affixed to sweeping tulle. In 2014, she appeared in a video made by Apple to celebrate the revolutionary creative influence of the Macintosh computer.

In late June, van Herpen travelled to Paris with her new collection. It was the week before the couture shows were due to be presented across the city. She rented a grand apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Michel to use as a casting location and as a temporary studio. One room was given over to a pair of dresses that had been inspired by the idea of quantum foam. They were constructed out of sheets of zinc-plated steel that had been laser-cut into curling forms that called to mind a Spirograph set, and then molded by hand into a mass of pulsating lacy spheres. The two dresses would be the culminating offerings of van Herpen’s show, and at least one of them was headed to a museum: a curator from the Royal Ontario Museum would make his selection after the show.

One of the dresses consisted of two pieces, which at least made it possible for it to be put onto a human body. The top half was a bodice, made of layers of translucent tulle, onto which hemispheric pieces of the zinc-plated steel had been stitched, suggesting the traces of sea foam on the body of a swimmer emerging from the waves. Below was a full skirt, made entirely from the connected metal baubles. The other dress was even more avant-garde, and looked like van Herpen and Beesley’s attempt to produce a wearable aura. The zinc-coated-steel shapes were being pressed into a bubbling mass that would skim the wearer’s thighs and surround her torso and head in a spherical cloud of lacy metal. Larissa Siems, the assistant, was attaching the steel disks together with silicone tubing that she sealed with a small blowtorch. She’d been doing this invisible threading thirteen hours a day for two weeks, and the dress was still far from finished; ultimately, she would need to smooth every metal coil with sandpaper, to prevent the dress from scratching the model.

On the Saturday morning before the show, which was to take place on Monday, Philip Beesley arrived from Toronto, bearing bundles of more zinc-plated steel. “I did get stopped at customs,” he said. “Not for the first time. They couldn’t figure out any malicious intent, so they let me through.”

The fresh batch of material was to be used to build out the two dresses still further. “The dresses are eating the material,” van Herpen told him. “I think there is a black hole in the dress.”

“I think we have created a hunger, not a form,” Beesley said. He is also working with van Herpen on large-scale architectural projects, including an installation intended for the engineering department at Indiana University, where the same “foaming” pattern of steel would be used to encircle a staircase in an atrium.

Together, they considered the progress that had been made on the dresses. “The intersection of the cutting quality and the vectors floating in space is tremendously satisfying,” Beesley said. “It’s not really a material at all—it’s a light-gatherer.”

During the next two days, van Herpen spent most of her time seated at a table in the Paris apartment, watching as a succession of models arrived for casting sessions, parading across the parquet floor in the punishing shoes that had been made for the show, their heels fabricated from latticed metal. Like ballet dancers, the models had to make the painful look not just painless but also beautiful. (Van Herpen herself favors Adidas sneakers, but she also owns towering lace-up boots that are evidently comfortable enough for her to run through an airport in, as I had discovered in Berlin, when we almost missed a flight.)

Other visitors came by, including Gwendoline Christie, the British actress who plays Brienne of Tarth in “Game of Thrones.” “I’m here for the casting,” she announced meekly. At six feet three inches, Christie towered over van Herpen, who became shy in the presence of the actress. A few years ago, Christie participated in one of van Herpen’s shows, lying on a circular platform underneath a web of mesh that was being 3-D-printed onto her body. “When you wear her clothes, you do feel as though you were being bound up in the technology of what it is to be alive,” Christie told me later. Van Herpen has created two dresses for her, including one made for a video, shot by Barnaby Roper, in which Christie writhes on black sand while the dress morphs on her form. “I could never describe it—it sort of glides over the body,” Christie said. “It is not like putting on a dress. You are aware that you are wearing someone’s entire thought process about how the world functions.”

The show was being held at the Cirque d’Hiver, in the Eleventh Arrondissement. On the evening before the event, van Herpen went to watch the members of Between Music rehearse in their water tanks. She had designed dresses for the ensemble’s two female performers, constructed from a silky fabric that swirled slowly in the greenish water inside the tanks; when seen through the thick glass, the performers resembled Greek sculptures of water nymphs. “I like how the fabric moves under the water, and that it’s sort of the same color as the skin and the color of the water,” van Herpen said. At last, her clothes were free of the usual force of gravity.

The show took place at noon the following day, in a large space at the rear of the building. To preserve the element of surprise as guests arrived, the tanks holding the musicians were swathed in black fabric. The lights were dimmed as low as safety regulations allowed, and guests used their cell phones as flashlights to find their assigned seats on the benches. When the show was about to start, a voice called out requesting that all cell phones be turned off, to achieve complete darkness. “Turn it off!” guests muttered to the few remaining holdouts who continued to study their programs, which gave the show’s name, “Aeriform,” and explained van Herpen’s intentions: the investigation of the materiality of air, and the relationship between the human body and the elements.

There were gasps when the black cloths were removed. A loud rumbling and a disconcerting dripping sound gave way to percussive but harmonious music. A mustachioed violinist, in quasi-Edwardian garb, crouched almost fetally under water, his bow rising above the surface, like a shark’s fin, then falling below it. The two singers mouthed into their microphones, their faces registering intense, and perhaps painful, effort. The over-all effect was transfixing—so much so, in fact, that it might have been hard to concentrate on the models walking around the tanks, had van Herpen’s designs not been equally defiant of convention. A dress of white laser-cut cotton heat-bonded onto tulle cascaded in waves down one model’s body. A short, bunchy dress, made from ribbons of velvet bonded to Mylar, outlined and exaggerated another model’s narrow hips. Four distinct gowns had been fashioned from the striped and pleated fabric that van Herpen had used to make the lionfish dress, and all of them undulated in different ways. One fanned out from the waist, like the spray of a waterfall.

The show climaxed with van Herpen’s two zinc-and-steel dresses. The first, the full-skirted one, bobbed around the model’s hips as she walked. The final dress of the show was the bubbling, foaming aura, which, the collection notes informed the audience, had been “3D molded by hand”—that is, constructed with analogue labor. The model, Soo Joo Park, was trapped inside a confection of metal and gauze, but to the audience she appeared to be floating inside a shimmering sphere of refracted light.

Afterward, guests milled around, peering into the tanks at the musicians. Daphne Guinness said, “One wants one for one’s living room,” and admired a percussionist who stared impassively at her through the glass. Within a short time, as the dismantling of the set began, van Herpen was back at work: selecting still images that would be posted on her Web site and distributed to the press. She clicked through images of the garments, and shots of the Danish performers, settling on one of an underwater musician to lead the batch. “Forgetclothes,” she said.

She had been pleased by the response to the show. “People told me they cried,” she said. “Even backstage people cried. I cried when I saw the performance yesterday. It is, like, you can so much feel what you are making.” It made more sense to van Herpen to wonder about the audience’s experience, rather than to ask individuals directly for their thoughts. “What you think about something—that can always change,” she said. “But what you have experienced—that is what it is. I think there is a big difference.” After a show ended, she went on, she always had contradictory feelings: she was happy that the stress of preparation had subsided, but she also felt an emptiness. Soon, she would begin the process over again, discovering in that void a new energy, waiting to be materialized.

Source: The New Yorker

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