Iris van Herpen’s seminal 'Sculpting the Senses' exhibition at Paris' Musée des Arts Decoratifs is a must-see

Hailed as one of the industry’s most visionary and forward-thinking talents, the 39-year-old is undoubtedly an avant-garde phenomenon.

Sculpting the Senses displays over 100 couture creations, exhibited like museum exhibits (All photos: Diana Khoo/ The Edge Malaysia)

It opened last November to critical acclaim and even if you are not a fan (or slave) to fashion, a visit to Dutch designer Iris van Herpen’s Sculpting the Senses exhibition, now in its final fortnight at Paris’ Musée des Arts Decoratifs, is a must should you happen to be in the French capital. Hailed as one of the industry’s most visionary and forward-thinking talents, the 39-year-old is undoubtedly an avant-garde phenomenon. Adjectives like “futuristic”, “space age” or “other-worldly” are often used to describe her oeuvre but her overarching source of inspiration is, in fact, the most primal of these sources: Mother Nature.

Born in Wamel, a village in the Dutch province of Gelderland, in 1984, Van Herpen’s stratospheric rise in style is well documented. After studying at the ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem, she found work with another industry trailblazer, the late Alexander McQueen, before setting up her own atelier in Amsterdam in 2007. Four years later, and still only 27, Van Herpen was invited to join the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the French regulating commission that legally determines the eligibility of a fashion house to be deemed worthy of being couture-standard.

And while her name might not yet be household, a quick look at Van Herpen’s client portfolio, which includes extraordinary talents and megawatt muses like Beyoncé, Cate Blanchett, Björk, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga, tells you this couturier is a force to be reckoned with. Critics might also scoff at Van Herpen being awarded a retrospective at an incredibly young age, let alone at the celebrated Musée des Arts Decoratifs, which is housed in a wing of the Louvre behind Paris’ chic Rue de Rivoli in the first arrondissement. But step into the show and the reason becomes immediately — and powerfully — apparent.


The exhibition invites onlookers to detect and observe elements of the world around us

Presented in the Christine & Stephen A Schwarzman Galleries, Sculpting the Senses displays over 100 couture creations, exhibited like museum exhibits. Curated by Cloé Pitiot and assisted by Louise Curtis, with scenography by Studio Nathalie Crinière, it invites onlookers to detect and observe elements of the world around us, beautifully expressed via Van Herpen’s inimitable way with technique, colour and texture. What also comes through is the designer’s desire to explore the relationship between fashion, clothing, the body, nature, art and science.

Some sections are interactive, encouraging viewers to engage in dialogue with artists like Wim Delvoye, David Spriggs and sculptor David Altmejd. There is a projection by hugely au courant new media artist Refik Anadol while the photographs of Kim Keever and the great Tim Walker contribute even more layers of interdisciplinary complexity and talent.

Those aware of Van Herpen’s background will also see how her classical ballet training is evoked in a section dedicated to water and the origins of life, a fluid collection captured in diaphanous waves and organic swirls and how she is able to translate her kinesthetic knowledge and love of the art of movement into dream-like yet wearable forms. Her innate appreciation of the human body and its anatomy might also bring to mind other creative geniuses who felt the same way, namely Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Jean-Antoine Houdon.

Some designs are veritable hybrid structures; others are wispy, ephemeral second skins. And then there are those that pay tribute to architecture such as the Cathedral Dress, which brings to mind a great house of worship juxtaposed against a flamboyant Gothic cabinet by acclaimed industrial designer Ferruccio Laviani.


A still from the James Webb Space Telescope is the backdrop to the first piece while the 'Cathedral Dress' (right) is inspired by the Gothic monuments of Northern Europe

A personal favourite in the entire exhibition, the dress seemed to quietly glow amid the dimness of the musée. Crafted using printed 3D polyamide and copper electroplating, it brings to mind the Baroque sculptures of postindustrial Rococo master American artist Kris Kuksi but was in fact created in collaboration with fellow countryman Isaïe Bloch, founder of Eragatory, a creative set-up dedicated to design for 3D printing and creative fabrication.

Another ally came in the form of Salvador Breed, co-founder of spatial sound company 4DSOUND or “professional audiofreak” as he likes to call himself, who conceptualised a special composition to heighten the overall experience of the immersive journey into the Dutch designer’s universe.

Constantly pushing the boundaries, even with the materials she uses, Van Herpen pioneered unusual choices, such as banana leaf fibres, eco-leather, glass organza, mylar, SD-printed cocoa beans and polyurethane, making space and giving them the limelight, even on the rarefied runway of haute couture. All these may be discovered and explored in the atelier set-up, complete with samples of embroideries, delicate plissé foldings, silicone mouldings and laser-cut drawings which give the viewer a glimpse into the genesis of Van Herpen’s personal story of creation ... of how a tiny scrap of textile or idea of a silhouette eventually grows into the multifaceted complexity of her couture gowns.

With such an original, forward-thinking designer, it is charmingly contrarian to remember how Van Herpen first discovered fashion while playing as a young child in her grandmother’s attic, after unearthing a trove of clothing, costumes and garments from another time and age. Said to have grown up without a television and free instead to amuse herself by exploring and discovering the world, it is easy to see the impact this has had on one of the most groundbreaking designers of the 21st century. Biomimicry? Yes, indeed. But beautifully so.


'Iris van Herpen: Sculpting the Senses' ends on April 28 at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris.

This article first appeared on Apr 15, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.

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