Artist Iris van Herpen designs dresses that are so geometrically complex, they literally stand on their own — and her work has caught the eye of big name celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Beyonce.
Now, van Herpen’s fashion artwork has found a temporary home at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
CMOA’s “Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion” exhibition makes a statement in the realm of fashion, showcasing couture dresses with organic shapes and outlines. Van Herpen, 32, is the Dutch fashion designer behind the 15 eye-catching collections, most of which were inspired by some aspect of the world around her. Using unconventional materials and design mechanisms, such as 3-D printing, umbrella tines and lightbulb chains, van Herpen created the dresses and shoes in the exhibit with otherworldly appeal. The pieces on display appear to belong to a powerful queen, with geometrical-structured bodices, metallic tones and intricate details.
The CMOA is the exhibit’s third stop on its North American tour, after its previous stop at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The exhibit will remain at the CMOA until May 1.
According to Alice Lieb — who has been a docent at CMOA for six years — van Herpen’s first step in designing a dress is to ask the client if they will need to sit at all while wearing the dress. If they do, they might be out of luck — the rigid, hooped skirts and three-dimensional designs of some of van Herpen’s dresses make it impossible to sit without ruining the clothing.
Each collection in the exhibit portrays a different vision van Herpen had in mind, representing components of the the physical world or biological sciences, according to Rachel Delphia — the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman curator of decorative arts an.d design at CMOA.
“[Her inspiration may] be primary forces like magnetism and radiation,” Delphia said. “[Or] the idea of human-machine hybrids or what microorganisms look like through an electron microscope.”
Delphia said van Herpen stands out in the world of fashion and also in the world of art because of her success in a historically male-populated industry.
“Unfortunately, there still are not as many solo exhibitions about women as there are about men,” Delphia said. “So the opportunity to feature a women designer was really exciting.”
The very first collection that visitors see when they enter the exhibition is called Refinery Smoke. It is made of a metal mesh and fades from a metallic grey into a rusty tone, with the metal mesh widely surrounding the bodice of the dress in a skirt.
“Iris was drawn to, what she says, is ‘the duality of industrial smoke,’” Delphia said. “So the fact that it’s both beautiful and ethereal, we also know that it is toxic and dangerous — she was trying to create a line of garments that would evoke that.”
The exhibit’s stop in Pittsburgh is particularly fitting with this industrial theme. Pittsburgh and the surrounding region has an extremely complex relationship with industry — after seeing both the rise and fall of the steel industry — which has sparked inspiration among artists for centuries, according to Delphia.
“I think it is very fitting for Pittsburgh because of its art-science connection,” Delphia said. “That made it particularly interesting for this city and also for the Carnegie.”
Sarah Schleuning, the curator of decorative arts and design at the High Museum of Art, worked directly with van Herpen to shape the exhibit in Atlanta. Schleuning met with van Herpen, assisted her in selecting the works to be displayed, developed the content of the exhibition and wrote the labels and publications for the pieces.
Throughout her time with van Herpen, Schleuning was particularly struck by the artist’s use of nontraditional materials.
“You can really make anything out of anything,” Schleuning said. “If you can dream it, you can build it and you can make it.”
Schleuning said it was an unusual opportunity to work with an artist who is alive today, as she often works with pieces by artists who are no longer living. In this case, Schleuning was able to hear van Herpen’s input, better understand her ideas and produce what van Herpen envisioned for this exhibition — an intersection of science, industry and art.
“You have really incredible dialogues about how you see the work, how [the artist] see the work, and it’s really enjoyable.” Schleuning said.
According to Schleuning, the curators wanted to portray van Herpen as more of a scientist and experimenter in this exhibit, which is largely different from traditional fashion.
The process to get this idea across properly and to get the exhibit up and running for the local presentation at the CMOA took about 12 to 15 months, according to Delphia. This time was spent adapting the collection pieces to CMOA’s galleries, preparing educational materials and planning associative programing.
But, so far, the time investment has paid off. According to Media Relations Manager Jonathan Gaugler, the exhibit has been extremely popular thus far. Gaugler said there are about 1,000 visitors to the van Herpen exhibit per day — although he also said the average number of visitors varies widely for each individual exhibit.
“That’s big,” Gaugler said in an email. “When you consider just how huge and complex our museum is and how much there is to see and do here.”
CMOA does not have a textiles and fashion department, so the exhibit is the first of its kind at the CMOA, according to Delphia.
“This exhibition is about much more than just gazing at beautiful ball gowns — not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Delphia said. “But I loved thinking about her creative process. She has an incredible, inquisitive mind.”