Three mannequins wearing garments of swirling metal mesh greet visitors at the entrance of the Iris van Herpen exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The translucent bunched material creates a soft cloud-shaped shadow on the platform below.
While the mannequins are unmoving, it’s easy to imagine the dresses casting silhouettes on the runway, like dark smoke from a manufacturing factory.
CMOA curator of decorative arts and design Rachel Delphia said the collection resonates with Pittsburgh's manufacturing past.
“She was really interested in conveying the kind of dual nature of industrial smoke,” Delphia said. “Industrial smoke is beautiful and ethereal, but it’s also dangerous and toxic. That kind of complex relationship with industry is something that is such a part of the Pittsburgh experience.”
Delphia said artists have long tried to capture that duality. Painters once romanticized the mills of Pittsburgh and photographers captured life as a steel worker in the early 20th Century.
Themes of manufacturing, technology and engineering in van Herpen’s haute couture fit well into Pittsburgh’s narrative, especially in her 2008 Refinery Smoke collection.
Van Herpen’s “Transforming Fashion” solo exhibit is making its way through North America for the first time. It includes her work from 2008-15, with 45 outfits from 15 collections.
After interning with British designer Alexander McQueen, van Herpen started her own line in 2007. She quickly rose to prominence for her unconventional outfits and diverse collaborations, including ones with Lady Gaga and Beyonce, as well as architect Philip Beesley.
Delphia said she’s worked to bring a fashion exhibit to CMOA for several years now, and van Herpen’s North American tour presented the perfect opportunity.
“She has this incredible mind and it transforms some fairly unlikely concepts and ideas into clothing,” Delphia said.
One of those concepts, Delphia said, was the dual forces of attraction and repulsion. In her 2015 Magnetic Motion line, van Herpen was inspired by her visit to the European Council on Nuclear Research, known as CERN.
Many of the garments in the collection are created using 3-D printing, which isn't a conventional method to create clothing. Delphia pointed to a garment made of a plain black, front-zipping coat, covered in hundreds of plastic cone-shaped formations.
“These are cut with lasers,” Delphia said. “Then they’re connected one to the next with these little silicone connectors. Almost like some kind of complex custom erector set.”
Complexity and simplicity are words Delphia uses a lot to describe van Herpen’s work. She said while many of the designer’s concepts employ new techniques, she’s not afraid of traditional methods.
Another nearby garment, from van Herpen’s 2010 Crystallization collection, depicts the changing state of water. A mannequin wears the a tan dress, adorned with fabric that looks almost like ribbon candy and surrounding the dress is what looks like a frozen splash of water.
To achieve this look, Delphia said van Herpen originally planned to 3-D print the splash, but when it didn't work out, she abandoned the printer and took up pliers and a hot air gun to craft the material herself.
“She’s not using technology purely for technology sake,” Delphia said. “If it makes sense to use hand-work, she does it.”
Delphia said van Herpen’s work has drawn a diverse crowd to the exhibit. She said it's drawn artists and fashion lovers, as well as engineers and biologists. Van Herpen's collection, much like Pittsburgh, represent a base of traditional and conventional that's often refined through innovation and modernization.
Van Herpen’s “Transforming Fashion” exhibit will be at the Carnegie Museum of Art until May 1, 2017.