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Regarding the fantastical fashions of Iris van Herpen

Is a given piece less significant as art because it is additionally fashion?

A dress and collar from Iris van Herpen’s “Chemical Crows” collection (2008)
A dress and collar from Iris van Herpen’s “Chemical Crows” collection (2008)
Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion, at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Galleries through May 1, is a study in contradictions. Fantastical in imagining and mathematical in execution, this is an assemblage of dresses, three works from each of multiple collections, that waft, shimmer, undulate and tense; elements shiny, spiky, pleated and gathered, reflect, absorb, embrace and repel. 

In the decade since graduating from ArtEZ Institute of the Arts Arnhem and creating her own label, the Dutch designer has captured the devotion of women who continually push the boundaries of fashion and art themselves, like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Björk. Van Herpen’s original artistic passion was for dance, and that devotion remains visible in her design, which constantly focuses on how the movement of the body is translated to the fabrics that contain it. This includes fabrics she’s created, as her pieces are frequently built from innovations perfected for a single collection, ranging from the reformation of hundreds of children’s umbrellas to 3-D-printed polymers.

Your introduction is a trio of pieces from “Refinery Smoke,” evoking the ethereal transparency of vapor, floating waves of layer upon layer that cushion or smother; it’s crafted not with the light delicacy of tulle or chiffon, but with woven metal gauze. The garments are soft, soothing; they proffer comfort and warmth. In doing so, they are vastly divergent from the majority of the show that still awaits you, a tender trap, the tasty treat before the steel snaps down.

The works from “Mummification” pay honor and homage to the intricacy of Egyptian burial, but without its confinement; this is leather and chains enhancing the body and leaving it free, more Harley Davidson than Tutankhamun. Pieces from “Micro” explore the invisible organisms that are unacknowledged but ever-present upon the body, amplifying the too-small-to-be-seen to dwarf the host within. One frock, “Wilderness,” utilizes bird skulls and silicone feathers, cocooning the wearer within a flock of phoenixes; in another, another garment creates a forest, rich, lush, dense. Many works in the exhibit recall the angular, severe landscape and populace that H.R. Giger created and brought into the collective unconscious with the “Alien” films — pointed, seal-slick, glossy-wet black or reflectively bronze or silver, sharp as razors and as dangerous too.

Alongside each troika of garments is a placard explaining the inspiration for the collection and the influences at play during its construction. It’s interesting background, two or three succinct paragraphs on the process and the collaborators that brought it to flower, but not essential to viewer interpretation; it informs without adjusting the experience.

But the aspect of the supplemental displays that is perspective-altering is the photographs, indistinguishably styled, lit and shot, of the same garments that are in front of us, with one change: In the photos, the works are presented alone.

Within the gallery space, we view all of these pieces adorning mannequins which are not quite identical but nearly so, a few subtle shifts between the curve of one lip and another, the eyebrow of one slightly higher. They are same height and same size, unwigged and practically genderless; they’re unassuming and innocuous and bring seemingly nothing to the table — until we see the images of these works of art without them. And we realize that what the mannequins provide is in fact massive, because they’re keeping us aware, subconsciously as may be, that these works are not meant to stand alone. They are meant to be worn by people.

This understanding makes us examine what we regard to be the relationship between fashion and art — each one of us, in a personal and specific interpretation. Is a given piece less significant as art because it is additionally fashion? Once it qualifies as art, is it fashion still, or something more? Van Herpen is also the creator of works, that is, garments, that are much more wearable, no less artistic or architectural, than those here displayed. Is there a line between those and these? The majority of works visible within the gallery are impractical, not particularly functional, not-quite-wearable art.

Having first seen these pieces resting on the backs and shoulders of humanoid forms, this viewer assumed the somewhat symbiotic relationship as a given. But viewing, in the photos, the possibility of these works as autonomous objects, one desires to see them both in three dimensions and alone, not as things that exist through their connection with us, or our likenesses.

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By Mars Johnson