Interview by Asia Lanzi

Renowned for her boundary-pushing designs that effortlessly blend the realms of fashion, art, and science, Dutch designer Iris van Herpen stands as an exemplar of innovation and creativity in the fashion industry. Her ability to draw inspiration from the natural world, combined with a commitment to sustainable practices, has captivated both fashion enthusiasts and environmental advocates alike. In this interview, we delve into her unique creative process and explore her recent collaboration with Aveda for a holiday collection, shedding light on how high fashion and beauty can intertwine in a sustainable and innovative manner.

Your designs often blur the lines between fashion, art, and science. Can you share some insights into how you draw inspiration from the natural world and incorporate cutting-edge technology into your creations? 

Nature is a significant influence. I often turn to nature with a focus on biomimicry. This means I don’t just appreciate the beauty of nature, but also examine the systems present, such as circularity. It’s a major source of inspiration in my research for more sustainable materials. Nature offers complex processes that are valuable not only for material development but also for exploring textures, shapes, and silhouettes. My interest in science complements this perspective. Science provides a unique way to observe nature from a different angle and understand its intricate processes. Over the years, I’ve developed close connections with various scientists and institutions. For instance, I have a strong affiliation with CERN, a prominent scientific research center that delves into areas like dark matter. I find their work highly inspirational for my material research. My collaborations span across different disciplines. The aim is to push couture and craftsmanship into the future with an open-minded approach. To me, fashion is a form of art, and, much like science, it has the power to offer new perspectives. I hope to achieve just that with my work.

In the world of fashion, you’re known for challenging conventional notions of handmade fashion. How do you balance the use of innovative techniques and traditional craftsmanship in your couture pieces?

I have a deep appreciation for both the historical craftsmanship and the contemporary landscape of fashion. I find that by blending current techniques from various disciplines, such as 3D and 4D printing, injection molding, and others, we can explore the full extent of our capabilities. This approach allows for a fascinating fusion of biology and technology, offering a rich field for creativity. For me, it feels entirely natural to draw from the heritage of couture, adopting and customizing traditional techniques in our atelier, and adapting them into modern processes, such as 3D printing.

When we delve into the realm of historic embroidery techniques, we discover similarities to the construction of 3D prints. That’s why I love combining traditional embroidery with 3D printing, sometimes incorporating embroidered fabrics into the 3D printing process. This amalgamation of technologies enables us to craft intricate and delicate textures that exhibit unique movements. Motion holds great significance in my work. Drawing from my background in dance, I constantly seek ways to infuse transformation into my designs. By harmonizing these techniques, I can achieve a different kind of material transformation of motion. 

Can you tell us more about the inspiration of natural phenomena behind The Aveda x Iris van Herpen Holiday collection, and how did you translate these inspirations into the design of the accessories?

This collection is deeply rooted in our shared commitment to sustainability. Both brands are passionate about exploring sustainable materials with minimal ecological impact, which was a pivotal influence from the beginning of our collaboration. We aimed to create accessories using recycled materials, aligning with our dedication to sustainable practices. Biomimicry also played a crucial role in inspiring the collection. [This concept involves imitating nature’s designs and processes in human creations.] It just started with sketches that sought to capture the essence of nature in the accessories. We worked closely with the Aveda team to ensure that the collection could accommodate the diverse spectrum of hair types and textures, making these accessories accessible to a wide range of people. This inclusivity was of great importance to us.

Can you walk us through the creative process of developing the collection with Aveda? What were the key steps and challenges you encountered during this collaboration?

The creative process was remarkably smooth. It began with sketching and discussions about our shared inspiration, which was deeply rooted in nature’s influence. Antoinette Beenders, from the Aveda team, provided valuable feedback and input, particularly on how to ensure that the accessories would be suitable for all types of hair. I also delved into the packaging design, incorporating some of the prints and designs that I had been working on earlier to infuse a cosmic feeling into the collection. The process flowed quite organically. We also worked together on a show in Paris in July, where Aveda handled the hair for the event, creating a parallel creative process. We also collaborated on the campaign, which beautifully showcases the versatility of the accessories through hair sculptures and how they can be combined in various ways. 

Sustainability is a central theme in this collaboration. How did you integrate sustainable materials and practices into the design process? How important was it to align the collection with Aveda’s commitment to the environment?

The integration of sustainable materials and practices into the design process was greatly facilitated by Aveda. They undertook the research on recycled materials and handled the production aspects. They presented various sustainable material options to me and my team. In this collaboration, Aveda was the driving force behind the material development, leveraging their extensive experience with sustainable materials, including packaging. As a result, all materials used in the collaboration embody sustainability.

How does this collaboration bring together the worlds of high fashion and beauty, and what unique contributions does Iris van Herpen bring to the collection?

What I aimed to infuse was the soul of my couture work, essentially. This involves genuine craftsmanship. While couture garments are primarily crafted from fabric, it wasn’t a straightforward translation in terms of materials. The focus was on the design DNA that I wished to infuse into these elements. These pieces exhibit the same level of intricacy as my couture creations. They feature beautiful laser cutting, and the file work was carried out in our studio by the same artisans who work on our haute couture garments. This collaboration strikes a delicate balance between traditional craftsmanship and the innovative techniques inherent to our couture work. It beautifully showcases the craftsmanship intrinsic to couture while emphasizing the innovation deeply ingrained in our DNA.

The concept of ‘slow fashion’ is gaining traction as a sustainable alternative to fast fashion. How do you see your commitment to slow fashion impacting the industry, and what role do you believe it plays in the future of fashion?

I genuinely hope to set an example. Fast fashion can be very tempting for a designer running their own brand, but to be entirely honest, I was brought up in an environment where sustainability was already a core principle, some 30 to 40 years ago, long before it became the norm. I grew up with that perspective, and in this light, fast fashion never held much allure for me. I firmly believe that for the sake of our future, we need to adopt a different mindset. With my brand, I strive to serve as an exemplar that fashion can take on various forms, and slow fashion represents a new language that demands serious consideration. Consumers, as people, are becoming more conscious of their choices and seek greater transparency regarding the origins and impact of products. I believe that the more transparency we introduce, the greater the impetus for change. 

Many of the young individuals in my studio, including our interns, express to me that my slow fashion couture brand serves as an exemplar, showing that a different approach is possible. I hope the younger generation will recognize that there exists a viable alternative to fast fashion. I consider it vital for the fashion industry to adopt these principles on a broader scale. At present, only a handful of brands specialize in this area, and I hope it becomes more commonplace. I believe it will have a significant influence. There exists a middle ground between couture and fast fashion, one that focuses on local production and delivers fewer collections per year. Even this brings about a substantial impact. We need not overhaul everything at once, an unfeasible task for any brand, but each step toward positive change holds an impact. This, I believe, encompasses the message I aim to convey through my work.

As a designer, what advice would you give to emerging designers looking to explore innovative, interdisciplinary and sustainable approaches to fashion and design?

I think it’s very important to think locally, to look at your own country or the countries around you, to identify specialists and how you can collaborate with them. Many fashion designers believe they have to work with factories for production, but there are numerous small ateliers with a wide range of techniques. When you prioritize quality over quantity, it opens up a whole new realm of creative possibilities. Creatively, it’s much more engaging. So, continuously questioning yourself and being mindful about whether you’re focusing on quality or quantity can lead to better decision-making and a more creative process.

Your designs are known for their visionary and avant-garde style. Can you share some of the key influences and experiences that have shaped your artistic journey and design philosophy?

My journey has been enriched by various influences. Dance holds an influential place among them. I have a background in classical ballet and contemporary dance, and these art forms continue to inspire me profoundly. Dance, for me, is one of the purest forms of artistic expression, with its transformative language of the body. Even though I no longer actively dance, the lessons I learned from it continue to infuse my work. Architecture is another major influence in my work. Collaborating with architects has been eye-opening. They bring different design methods and experimental approaches, which have been invaluable in shaping my own perspective. Working with architects like Philip Beesley, known for his experimental spirit, has offered me fresh insights into materials and my discipline. I view architecture as a form of shelter, while fashion provides a more personalized micro-shelter. Exploring these perspectives with architects who have a different understanding of these spheres is truly inspiring.

I also draw inspiration from the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who explores the idea that we construct various spheres in our lives, culturally, socially, personally, architecturally, and even in the realm of fashion. These different spheres significantly influence my work. Nature has consistently played a prominent role in my creative journey. Initially, it was the sheer beauty, complexity, and diversity of nature that captivated me. However, over time, my focus has shifted towards the intricate processes, often on a microscopic scale, which I strive to translate into textures. At the same time, I’m drawn to the purity of circular systems in nature. The inspiration from nature has also led to more sustainable thinking, which has become a prominent aspect of my work, particularly in my collaboration with Aveda.

The Aveda x Iris van Herpen Holiday Collection is available here.