Couture Curation

As our wardrobes change along with the seasons, it’s only fitting to view fashionable frocks and runway designs in a fresh light.

While the world of fashion is incredibly varied (except for the models), some designers take the concept of what defines “clothing” to the next level. That means out-of-this world haute couture, technically wearable outfits moving beyond the realm of fashion into something more suited for an art installation. It’s an interesting dichotomy, something style icons Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Bjork have continually brought to the stage, and now arriving here with an exhibit in the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion features more than 50 sculptural masterpieces filling the museum’s third floor, all designed by the eponymous Dutch designer who once interned under fashion legend Alexander McQueen. Her cutting-edge fashions combine traditional craftsmanship and futuristic techniques, including some of the world’s first examples of 3-D printed fashion. 

“Our audience looks to us to show them different art and design and experiences,” said Chief Curator Ron Platt. “This show really aligns with our ideas about interdisciplinary activity.” 

Van Herpen’s advanced techniques unite with centuries-old concepts to create visionary clothing and one-of-a-kind objects featuring influences across centuries and cultures. There’s a strong sculptural identity to her work as well, according to Platt. 

“She’s pulling ideas from the world of fashion but also architecture,” he said.
The shapes and moods she creates can seem more sculptural.” 

And color scheme might have something to do with that. Expect to see designs with iridescent qualities, especially as you walk around each piece, watching colors changing within the material. Some pieces incorporate Swarovski crystals to reveal sparkling colors like a prism. 

“There’s a reduced palette — more earth tones, silver and black and clear and the absence of color makes the shape and sculpture of the outfit take prominence,” Platt said.

At the same time, there’s an element of costumery. This haute couture fashion — which operates primarily on the runways of Amsterdam, London and Paris — also conveys a sense of drama and even science fiction. Unusual materials find their way into designs, such as umbrella ribs or synthetic boat rigging. For the Refinery Smoke collection, van Herpen developed a material made of metal. 

“It’s a woven, metal, gauzy fabric that’s wrinkled and shaped into dresses that look like billows of smoke,” Platt said. “The material starts off silvery and over time oxidizes to take on a tarnished and rusted look.” 

If that description doesn’t excite you, imagine feeling it — because you can. A hands-on section featuring six different pieces of material encourages visitors to explore some of the exhibit’s more unusual elements, providing additional information and a discussion of the creation process.  

There’s plenty to appreciate with careful selections from the designer’s past collections, attractions from the most recent lines, 27 pieces from van Herpen’s solo exhibition at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, and a sampling of her shoe designs which showcase more fantastical materials. 

“We have eight to 10 pairs of shoes and they are created more in response to the outfits,” Platt said. 

This duality of wearability and fantastic expression in van Herpen’s work has a lot to do with definitions of art and how that’s become less rigid over time. While her designs “have function and are wearable, that doesn’t mean they aren’t also very real expressions of an artist,” Platt said. “The work is evocative of a lot of different things in nature, architecture and how we imagine the future.”

Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion is showcased at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Oct. 23 through Jan. 15, 2017. As always, the Grand Rapids Art Museum offers programming to coincide with the exhibit, including numerous events and speakers like Suzanne Eberle, professor of art history at Kendall College of Art & Design, and Ken Krayer, executive director of Design West Michigan.


Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion

Grand Rapids Art Museum
101 Monroe Center St. NW, Grand Rapids
Oct. 23, 2016-Jan. 15, 2017, (616) 831-1000