Iris van Herpen: Sculpting the Senses
The Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris pays tribute to fashion designer Iris van Herpen with Sculpting the Senses, an extensive exhibition featuring over 100 haute couture pieces. The exhibition is on view now through April 28, 2024.
“Since 2007, Iris van Herpen’s creations have been disrupting the codes of fashion and opening doors to universes seemingly unrelated to her discipline. Her insatiable curiosity leads her to explore distant domains, drawing inspiration from contemporary art, architecture, the life sciences, art history, alchemy and mysticism alike”, writes Museum of Decorative Arts curator, Cloe Pitot.* The comprehensive exhibition, Sculpting the Senses, leads visitors into this imaginative universe, exploring ‘from micro to macro’ the many inspirations of this singular artist.
Van Herpen was born in 1984 and intensively studied dance before turning to fashion design, establishing an early understanding of the body, movement and fluidity. Her haute couture garments are not specifically about clothing, as the exhibition demonstrates, but about the greater universe, embodying ideas of architecture, movement, biology and the cosmos, among many others. She worked with Alexander McQueen and Claudy Jongstra before launching her own studio in 2007, at which point, van Herpen became well-known for her ethereal and innovative designs. She presented her first 3D printed design in 2010, the same year she entered into the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris and soon after began focusing on eco-responsible manufacturing methods, including pieces made from recycled plastic or 3D printed cocoa beans.
Sculpting the Senses allows viewers to enter into the universe of van Herpen. As the title suggests, there is a sensorial experience to the exhibition design, which was conceived by Nathalie Criniere and the NC Agency. There is a feeling of mystery and excitement that takes you out of the everyday and into a magically creative realm that is enhanced by the darkened rooms and a sound installation by Salvador Breed. The exhibition is divided into nine themes that reflect the influences of her work: Sensory sea life, Water & dreams, Skeletal embodiment and Synaesthesia are among them. In addition, at the end of the exhibition there is a large room that immerses visitors into her atelier process through hundreds of material samples, a cabinet of curiosities that presents accessories and objects such as shoes, masks and hair pieces, and a video room that shows catwalk videos of her collections. Throughout the show, van Herpen’s haute couture creations are integrated with relevant art and design pieces that were inspirational to the artist and which also embody connected themes. The movement and intricacy of Wim Delvoye’s Nautilus (2017) sculpture, Ferruccio Laviani’s Gothik-A Cabinet (2022), a ‘bee’ sculpture by Tomáš Libertiny or an immersive video by David Spriggs, are some of the artworks on view. There are also several historical pieces such as works by the 19th century illustrator, Ernst Haeckel, and 19th century glassmakers, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. In addition, collaboration has long been an important part of van Herpen’s career and the exhibition underscores this importance. She has worked with innovators and creators from various disciplines including projects with Neri Oxman, Philip Beesley, Isaïe Bloch and Kim Keever, as well as high-level athletes such as sky-diving champion Domitille Kiger and free-diving champion Julie Gautier.
While the dresses are elaborate and intricate, fascinating to look upon albeit hard to even imagine putting one on the body, they also appear like second skins, as if a kind of shield or sheath that enhances our human potential. Adding in elements of connectivity, that might track our health or allow us to communicate, creates a type of fascination what feels inevitable – as if we can picture the future in which these pieces laid the groundwork for the type of clothing humans will eventually wear in order to protect themselves from the elements or other realities. Science fiction, perhaps, but also so immediately connected the forms of human evolution that it is a natural progression and a beautiful reminder of how everything is connected.
Iris van Herpen: Sculpting the Senses, is on view at the Museum of Decorative Arts, Paris, through April 28th, 2024. A comprehensive catalogue features essays and images that highlight the past 16 years of van Herpen’s career and her visionary approach to fashion.
*This quote is taken from an essay by Cloe Pitot featured in the catalogue for the exhibition.