Based in Amsterdam, Van Herpen is recognized for astonishing collections that, depending on the season, conjure hybrid creatures, fantastical earth goddesses, futuristic female visions, or all of the above. While they have been worn by the likes of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Björk, Tilda Swinton, and Grimes, they also seem destined for permanent collections at museums. A number of institutions around the world collect her pieces and there have been retrospectives elsewhere, including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. But this marks her first major show in Paris.
The exhibition unfolds like a cerebral wonderland where visitors can marvel over Van Herpen’s material experimentation—at once traditionally intricate and innovatively lavish. It’s worth noting that she was the first couturier to show a digitally printed 3D dress in 2010 and she works with architects, artists, and engineers such as Philip Beesley, Shelee Carruthers, and Isaïe Bloch to arrive at elements that might be synthetically engineered or organically grown.
Because complexity is inherent to Van Herpen’s work, the show feels like a privileged opportunity to understand her methods and motivations. “My design process is super pure and simple in that it can go from darker moments to moments of dreams and hopes. I think that is really present in the show and I really think that people can come very close to who I am.”
Two days ahead of the opening, as staff were polishing video panels and placing petri dishes under microscopes (some containing fabric swatches; others, insect specimens), Van Herpen has arrived directly from the train station and seems amazed by the progress. We find each other in the first room, which explores her ongoing fascination with water, the origin of life. Talk about diving right in. Given the impossibility of representing something that has no solid shape, it is all the more amazing to see dresses encircled by solid splashes of PetG, a kind of thermoplastic; vaporous waves of gradient organza; and aqueous gowns that ripple around the body. Even the mannequins look like they are formed from bubbles.
“It’s like starting with the hardest part—and it’s never finished,” she says, standing in front of a screen where her dresses have been filmed underwater. I’ve been surrounded by water since my youth, and it comes back to me all the time. I just have to translate it into my work.”
The show reaches its climax with Cosmic Bloom, a vivid installation of mannequins displayed as if defying gravity and dancing (Van Herpen’s main pursuit before pivoting to fashion), all dressed in the most colorful of her designs. To either side images of the galaxy from the James Webb telescope act as background to pieces from the most recent collections. And not to be missed is the previously unseen photo of a model shot by Nick Knight at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider. It’s fair to assume that Van Herpen’s research-based bona fides factored into the invitation.