Friday nights close to the Paris Bourse are quiet. The streets are empty and the Tabacs are closed.
One such Friday night in March, during Paris Fashion Week, I walk down Rue du Mail and slip into a courtyard behind two large, heavy doors. At the other end of the courtyard lies a fashion showroom displaying next season’s looks. Here, the silence of the street is abruptly broken, by the chatter of PRs, bleeping mobile phones, fashion buyers and agents negotiating, still working at nine o’clock at night.
It’s the behind-the-scenes of fashion, the non-glamour, the wheeling and dealing. It is here, rather than on the catwalk, that the next season’s trends will really be set, as this is where the buyers from some of the world’s largest online and off-line boutiques make their orders for what fashion looks will reach the shop floor.
Tucked away in the basement, removed from the commerce upstairs, the Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen is showing her first prêt-à-porter collection. The setting is fitting. It’s six years since she launched her own label, but so far her only collections have been extraordinary haute couture shows displaying her unique view of fashion design. Now she is showing how those ideas can be turned into garments that won’t just appear on the catwalk or in exhibitions.
“It feels really natural to be doing a prêt-à-porter collection,” says van Herpen. “Because for my couture collections, I do a lot of development research for techniques, but the audience for this is very small. Few women have the money to afford this,” she says, gesturing to an haute couture dress in laser-cut Plexiglas, weighing between four and five kilograms, displayed on a mannequin to demonstrate the origins of the ready-to-wear collection. The purposefully commercial setting highlights the ambitions of her brand, so how can her conceptuality be turned into a product that sells? Van Herpen has her own ideas about that and, as with everything else she does, it smacks of the future, setting her in sharp contrast to an industry obsessed with the past.
The Hôtel de Ville is a 20-minute walk from the showroom where, earlier that day, the exhibition Paris Haute Couture opened to the press. Containing haute couture garments, sketches and photographs from the past century, it celebrates a craft that is elitist and close to extinction. Protected by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, haute couture is a closely guarded art form. In its stipulations, this governing body states that in order to create haute couture, a designer must create made-to-order designs for private clients; have a workshop in Paris that employs at least 20 full-time technical workers; and present one collection of no less than 35 outfits, twice a year. This is the reason why, with the rise of industrial manufacture of clothing, between 1946 and 1967, the number of couture houses was reduced from 106 to 19. Today, there are 12 Parisian couture houses. It is in this rarified world that van Herpen made her Parisian debut, in July 2011, as a guest of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
“For me, couture is the future of fashion,” says van Herpen, clad in a black leather dress of her own creation. She is small and elfin. “People need a story; they need to understand where things come from. In ready-to-wear you can’t always find it or feel it.” Take, for example, her “splash dresses” which have the appearance of the wearer being splashed in water. The procedure of making them involves transparent acrylic, a hot-air gun, a pair of pliers and, like in all haute couture, a lot of time, but the finished result is unlike any other couture garment. “Haute couture is the only place where development can be made. In ready-to-wear, it’s running so fast that it’s difficult to take new steps forward in terms of material or technique. So haute couture is interesting for this, but sometimes I feel that there is a lack of experimentation as well.”
Van Herpen, who is 29, graduated from the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem, in the Netherlands, in 2006. She set up her own label in 2007 in Amsterdam, following internships with British fashion designer Alexander McQueen and Dutch textile artist Claudy Jongstra. Both designers’ work are referenced in van Herpen’s – the armour-like qualities of McQueen and the material experimentation of Jongstra – but van Herpen examines them through a filter of new technologies and collaborations reaching far outside the world of fashion.
“I am very interested in other disciplines and if I look to architecture or product design I feel that they are more open to new things, in fashion it’s much slower,” says van Herpen. “A lot is being done in fashion but there is no real progress, so the only way to make progress is to work with other people, outside of the fashion industry.” It is these collaborations that have made van Herpen a phenomenon noted in both the design and fashion press with her collections being reported on websites ranging from Vogue to Wired.
Her most recent couture collection, Voltage, was shown during the haute couture week in Paris in January. It featured 11 garments inspired by Nikola Tesla’s energy theory and two ensembles produced using a 3D printer. One was a skirt and cape made in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Neri Oxman and 3D-print specialist Stratasys, using a material so new that it doesn’t yet have a name. Resembling an exotic under-water coral formation, it’s akin to something grown in a lab and appears organic, almost alive. The second 3D-printed garment, a black dress designed with Austrian architect Julia Koerner, was printed by Belgian firm Materialise. The lace-like texture of the dress was created through selective laser sintering and helped create a more body-conscious creation.
Van Herpen uses architects and designers like Oxman and Koerner as facilitators for her ideas. “I couldn’t work with technology if I didn’t work with an architect or a designer,” says van Herpen. “It’s not that I don’t have the talent or the brain to be able to do it myself, but by opening up to scientists like Neri Oxman, it opens up a new world.” She finds collaborators online and proclaims “the internet makes creativity borderless.” So far, she has produced several 3D garments with the help of London-based architect and former Zaha Hadid employee Daniel Widrig, while Belgian architect Isaïe Bloch assists van Herpen with 3D visualisations. “When I have something in my head, he is the fastest one to translate it,” she says.
Her own creative process is more low-tech. She scans her drawings and manipulates them through the cut-and-paste mode in Adobe Photoshop. The meeting between these cutting-edge technological applications and the handcrafted results in garments that feel entirely without history. It is reminiscent of the movement that occurred within design and architecture in the early 21st century, that is often referred to as “parametric”17 and resulted in organic and fluid shapes as a result of the use of new computer software.
But while van Herpen’s designs are gaining momentum within fashion, the concept of parametric design in architecture and product and furniture design is experiencing a back- lash. The sweeping curves of Zaha Hadid’s buildings or Ross Lovegrove’s products date back to a time where the belief in these new computer-aided design technologies gave rise to a new form of design.
However, the aesthetic that it created is one that can firmly be placed in the past and recent years’ obsession with the documentation of craftsmanship and truth to material is at odds with the sleek, glossy, computer-drawn lines of that era. Fashion design still seems to be flirting with the look and ideas that these new technologies brought, perhaps because the smaller scale of fashion makes these designs achievable.
To 3D print the heel of a shoe or a detail of a dress for ready consumption, is within close reach, while the 3D printing of buildings or even furniture in mass production, is still, to a large extent, a fiction. There is, therefore, a discrepancy between the programmes that help create the designs and the actual execution, which has proven a difficult gap to bridge, making these organic structures in design and architecture seem slightly artificial.