Iris van Herpen on the role of women in the fashion industry and the business potential of haute couture
Dutch designer Iris van Herpen is a rare breed in the world of fashion. Founder of her eponymous brand in 2007, the original creative who is passionate about technology and innovation, is responsible for creating astonishing Haute Couture garments. A talent that is not only limited to her dreamlike and fantastical creations, but which has enabled her to establish an independent fashion house that operates outside of trends and the dictatorship of the market. Her custom-made garments are meticulously and patiently constructed by around 30 employees - mostly women - in her atelier in Amsterdam. Her designs are highly sought after by clients in Europe, the United States, the Middle East and Asia.
Coinciding with the presentation of her latest collection at Paris Haute Couture Week, a collection featuring flowing nymph-like designs presented in a short film shot underwater, FashionNetwork.com sat down with the designer born in 1984 to talk about creativity and feminism that goes against the grain, the role of women in the sector, the need to deconstruct archaic ways of understanding the industry and how haute couture can be a successful business. Despite her calm tone, her gentle voice and her inherent mysterious aura, Iris van Herpen has very clear ideas and does not hesitate to express them loud and clear.
FashionNetwork.com: How would you describe your latest Haute Couture collection? How did the collaboration with Julie Gautier begin?
Iris van Herpen: The collaboration entitled "Carte Blanche" was inspired by female empowerment. It is a theme that has always been linked to my creative work as a female designer. This season, however, I wanted to delve deeper into this theme that is of interest to the world at large. I made a video with Julie Gautier, an artist and dancer friend of mine, because it allowed me to take the storytelling of the collection further. She is very versatile, capable of doing a thousand things at once. I came across her work a few years ago and it made such an impression on me that I knew that, at some point, I wanted to do an artistic project together.
Instead of presenting a fashion show or a classic presentation, this video format allowed us to immerse ourselves, to work with the absence of gravity and the fluid behaviour of water. This allowed me to devise a different way of designing the garments, looking for a particular effect when they are underwater. We started working on our initial ideas a few months ago, sharing interests, having very natural conversations to eventually lead to a collaboration that has worked very organically. Once we established the idea of water, a big part of the process involved doing lots of test shoots and defining the shooting arrangements and the right choreography.
FNW: After the pandemic, it seems that most brands have abandoned the idea of presenting their collections in digital format. What does this decision to opt for a video format mean for your brand?
I.V.H.: In my case, I need freedom in terms of what a collection might need. I love to organise fashion shows and the next collection will probably be presented in that format. I'm not sure yet... But I think it's essential to act independently and freely in order to be able to respond to the specific needs of each concept or project. In the end, it's what makes the most sense. We deal with creative and exciting themes, we shouldn't restrict them to a format or place limits on them.
"Today, there are not enough women in creative management positions"
FNW: Do you feel that the fashion industry encourages this freedom or is it a sector with rather strict rules?
I.V.H: I think it's a rather strict environment. People have a tendency to stick to their patterns and regimes... I think people need to be inspired to break out of these rather rigid frameworks. For me, being able to break down these boundaries and create with flexibility is the greatest feeling of freedom I can aspire to. During the pandemic, we all talked about the need to rethink the way things are and to change the system. People questioned the pace of presentations, the need to organise so many shows... And, in the end, it seems that we have all changed but things have gone back to the way they were, to the old normality. Questioning all this seems to me a good way of remembering what we had said, kind of like a wake-up call saying "hey, guys, there are other ways to express our creativity!" Together, we should create an ecosystem of freedom.
FNW: What is it like being a woman in this industry and coming up with unconventional ideas that challenge the system?
I.V.H: Evidently, up until now, fashion has been a very male-dominated industry. Today, there are not enough women in creative management positions and I think it is important to go out there, to assert ourselves and to underline that we need that feminine touch. Fashion needs to put forward visions of femininity created by women. It's a very important message that we need to get across.
FNW: How is fashion addressing feminism and female empowerment today? How does the industry need to continue to open up and address women's issues in a different way?
I.V.H: It is essential that fashion embraces women and gives them the positions they deserve. We have to support female designers and, at the same time, incorporate and have women in teams. It is about making important decisions that, progressively, end up defining the social change of this industry. My brand is made up of a large number of women and it's something I'm deeply proud of. It is my humble way of showing the industry that building female teams is not only possible but essential. It is also important to keep highlighting issues and injustices when it comes to conceiving the concept of the collections or understanding the bigger impact of the message you want to convey.
FNW: From a creative point of view, how do you view female empowerment?
I.V.H: I think fundamentally it's about sharing our creativity and collaborating, as in this case I've been lucky enough to do with Julie. Personally, it's the way I feel most empowered: being able to look up to a colleague, learn from her work and create something bigger than we could have done alone. I love collaborating and sharing creative ideas with other women, it's the purest and most meaningful form of empowerment.
FNW: What have you been able to learn from this latest creative alliance?
I.V.H: Julie is very strong and in control of her body. She is able to free dive to a depth of 60 metres and stay underwater for up to 6 minutes, whereas I am afraid to even think about it. I find her connection between body and mind as a dancer fascinating, considering my own background in dance before I made the leap into fashion. To be able to push your body beyond its own limits requires a mental strength - almost meditative - that I totally admire. To be able to merge our abilities underwater has been an incredible experience.
"Ready-to-wear is not the only key to success"
FNW: How do the fabrics react under water, what are the particularities of this type of design?
I.V.H: It is definitely different from non-submerged fabrics. I didn't know that when they go underwater, depending on how deep they go, the garments tend to either pull towards the surface to float or the other way around. So, to prevent them from sinking, we placed a stage on which Julie could perform her choreography. Also, the materials respond differently depending on the body type.
FNW: Was it a difficult experience?
I.V.H: I would say it was quite a challenge, but Julie is so professional that it all worked out well. We put a lot of effort into the looks and the finishing touches of the garments, so in the end I was really surprised at how well they came out of the water - they didn't look like they had been submerged that deep at all! I am very proud to have achieved this equally delicate yet powerful look.
FNW: With such creative designs, have you ever considered offering more commercial ready-to-wear pieces at some point in the future?
I.V.H: It is something I worked on very briefly, just after winning the l'Andam prize in 2014. Presenting a ready-to-wear line was one of the requirements of the award. I was given a lot of support for it. However, my creative style is much more related to craftsmanship and innovation. It didn't make sense to me. It is very difficult for factories to understand either of these two fundamental ideas of mine, even though we work with the best factories in France and Italy. We try to translate these ideas, but it just doesn't work....
Even the mindset is not based on devotion and care. They prioritise quantity over quality and my way of looking at things is completely the opposite. I don't care if I sell 1000 garments or not, my work speaks to the unique character of the piece we create, which is meant to last at least 200 years. I want to create timeless garments, like works of art. When I worked with factories I felt like I couldn't express myself freely, as if I was speaking but no one could hear me. I have a lot of respect for their work and processes but, in my case, it doesn't connect with my way of understanding fashion. My way of working is different and it consists of inventing techniques that no other atelier in the world uses. It's a very personal process that helps build very special relationships with my clients.
FNW: However, many independent creators end up launching ready-to-wear lines in order to finance their creative collections. What is your opinion on this?
I.V.H: In my experience, there is sometimes a lot of misunderstanding. When I won the l'Andam prize, absolutely everyone told me that I had to take steps forward in this direction because prê-à-porter is the only way to make money. And the reality is that this is not always the case and many designers end up having to give up on their creative collections. Ready-to-wear is not the only key to success, there are more ways to succeed. The issue is finding the path that allows you to be in business, but that still fits in with your way of creating and understanding things. For me, success can only come from doing what you truly believe in and what represents you. Anything else is not going to work. And don't forget that Haute Couture can also be a great business.
FNW: In your case, who are your clients?
I.V.H.: There is no single type of client and there is beauty in their differences. Most of them are women, but I also have clients of other genders. They range in age from 25 to 70 and, in general, they are passionate about fashion, craftsmanship and innovation. They are patient customers who understand that the creation process can take a long time and that this forms part of the garments' history.
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