Last year, the Musée d’Orsay mounted an exhibition on polychrome sculptures from the 19th century. There was something revelatory about these painted busts and figures since, of course, we are conditioned to seeing the purest marble or bronze. That show passed through the mind while taking in Iris van Herpen’s collection today with its enigmatic explorations of color and form. The most recent collection included two or three solid hues amid her signature stony, metallic palette. But these gaseous movements of ocher and purple, these waves of vermillion, and these kinetic patterns in gradient blue felt like a turning point. And such a breathtaking disruption, in turn, invited a new reading on her work.
Van Herpen is a voracious researcher who finds her message at the nexus of historical, scientific, artistic, and futuristic references. She would not have introduced color for color’s sake. Backstage, she cited inspirations that spanned the Harmonia Macrocosmica (a 17th-century star atlas) to the possibility of engineered human hybrids. Cut to the 3-D-printed face-contouring jewelry, the cloud-like dresses in translucent organza (a collaboration with New York–based artist and former NASA engineer Kim Keever), and the dress with “anamorphic faces” embedded into undulating layers of white silk outlined in black. There was something Picasso-esque to the way the eyes moved as the model walked—a surrealist flourish within a graceful creation. The two final looks followed a similar construction, except that the petal-like projections now appeared to be emerging from the body, not just covering it. And in warm bursts of color, the modified anatomies that remain a fascination for Van Herpen were no longer so severe.
While her exoskeletons and crystalline structures have always felt far more visionary than the usual display of couture, their future as wearable designs seemed uncertain. By contrast, this collection, titled Shift Souls, expressed lightness through diaphanous silhouettes with hand-plissé volumes, soft patterning, and alluring body focus. This expression of femininity might translate to greater visibility for Van Herpen; and with two full days of shows to come, it set the bar high. “I see it not as one shift at a time so much as an evolution,” she said backstage, somewhat downplaying this significant leap. To close the show, light effects by artist Nick Verstand submerged the models in a deep blue vapor that canceled out the colors. But they definitely lingered on in the mind.