How could anyone actually wear these? I skeptically wondered as I took in the 3-D printed haute couture dresses on view at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), some having the appearance of physically-restrictive other-worldly exoskeletons. As clothing goes, much of this hardly functional, but Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen repudiates the tired adage that “form follows function,” instead approaching fashion as a highly conceptual and sculptural art form. A celebrated pioneer in 3-D printed fashion, van Herpen’s work emphatically makes the point that “machine-made” doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of craftsmanship, finish, and quality. Functional or not, her work its undeniably beautiful.
Van Herpen is a staple during Fashion Week in Paris and London, and her work (worn by the likes of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé) was on view at the Metropolitan Art Museum earlier this year. Transforming Fashion is the first exhibition to bring her work to the Midwest, showcasing about 50 works from 15 collections spanning from 2008 through 2016.
These works are highly conceptual. Her Refinery Smoke Dress, for example, from a line created in 2008, was inspired by both the toxicity and the beauty of factory smoke. Its massive, billowing form, crafted from oxidized metal gauze (lending the work a gritty, urban character) really does seem vaporous and ethereal, its coiling outer fringes seemingly on the brink of dissolving into air. Other lines are inspired by such varied subjects as lucid dreaming, the electronics of the body, terraforming (modifying the biospheres of other planets), and cymatics (the study of the shapes of sound waves). Sometimes collaborating with scientists, musicians, photographers, and architects, van Herpen’s approach is interdisciplinary.
But it’s in 3-D printing that she pushes fashion forward. For van Herpen, printing is no shortcut (some of these, after the design itself was complete, took days to actually finish printing). One of the dresses from her Lucid collection is comprised of 5,000 individual 3D-printed pieces, all stitched together. In collaboration with Japanese shoe designer Noritaka Tatehana, she even printed translucent crystal which serves as the base for a laser-cut leather shoe. Van Herpen takes the machine, so often associated with cheapness and mass-production, and harnesses it as a tool to produce dazzlingly complex, one-of-a-kind dresses.
This is a beast of a show, spilling out of the GRAM’s regular temporary exhibition spaces and filling the entirety of the third floor, all its galleries momentarily emptied of works from the museum’s permanent collection. It’s the sort of treatment you might expect for a hefty retrospective of a long and crowded career. In spite of its massive scale, Transforming Fashion doesn’t feel overwhelming or pretentious; it’s surprisingly welcoming and interactive. At several stations throughout the moodily dark gallery spaces, curious viewers can touch the materials these dresses are made of, whether it be umbrella rigging or stainless steel fabric. And a two large flat-screen TVs show van Herpen’s works glamorously set in motion by runway models who provide incontrovertible proof that, indeed, people can actually wear these dresses.
Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion was co-organized by the High Museum of Art, and is supplemented by an exhibition catalogue. It runs at the GRAM through January 15, 2017.