Iris van Herpen outfits people in strings of ones and zeroes. Traditionally trained in couture, the young Dutch designer has spent the past several years experimentally making garments on 3D printers: coding clothing instead of weaving. The technological potential is obvious enough that Time Magazine chose a van Herpen dress as one of the fifty top inventions of 2011, and she frequently collaborates with additive manufacturing companies developing new markets for their machinery. (The possibilities range from augmenting online shopping with instantaneous delivery to democratizing couture with algorithmic fitting.) Yet van Herpen’s dresses are also coded in the sense that they’re conceptual. Her best designs are as suited to the museum as to the runway or ballroom.
Van Herpen sees fashion as a form of self expression that associates her fascinations about reality of everyday life and translates into her collection. Each collection has its own story. For example, dresses from her Radiation Invation collection reflect her fantasies about what the world would like if we could see all the radiation and signals around us. Consider her skeleton dress, currently on view at the Bass Museum in Miami. Printed in hard white plastic, the dress leaves most flesh exposed, and the way it covers a woman paradoxically renders her more naked than if she were wearing nothing: The skeletal structure appears to deprive her even of her own skin.
Van Herpen’s skeleton dress is part of Vanitas, an exhibition drawing on the tradition of art that reminds us of death. Conventionally applied to 17th century Dutch paintings that evoke the fleeting pleasures of life in juxtaposition with mortal remains, the vanitas has found renewed interest in the work of contemporary artists from Andy Warhol to Damien Hirst. (Hirst’s most famous example, a shark in formaldehyde, is helpfully titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”.)
The contemporary vanitas is often a reflection of vulnerability. Van Herpen’s dress plays on vanitas in another way. Vanitas merges with vanity. The dress flaunts mortality with striking immodesty. Showing off the inevitability of death, the woman in the skeleton dress lives more fully. In Paris Iris van Herpen showed a plastic skeleton dress that represents her feeling of reborn during a parachuting jump. The dress is printed on a 3D printer. This is what the fashion industry need – great combination of traditional craftsmanship and diligent craftsmanship with innovative techniques such as 3D printing. Thus she creates sculptural effects with stunning organic and futuristic visual impact. She thinks in future we could wear clothes out of all kinds of materials, even smoke or water. This fantasy is reflected on her Refinery Smoke, the illusion of wearing smoke.