Iris van Herpen Spring 2023 Couture Collection

Iris van Herpen has always gone against the grain, agitating against couture’s sometimes fusty culture and diversifying into science and technology as part of her process. Take her fall collection, which she unveiled in film format at a time when her peers are doubling down on flashbulb-heavy live events.

“It didn’t feel like I could really embody the emotional aspect that comes with this concept on the runway,” she explained, on a Zoom call from her studio in Amsterdam, before going on to reveal that the collection was intended to be worn underwater as a symbolic reference to female protest. “Partly, it’s an ode to the demonstrations in Iran, because I really believe that it’s a movement that we need to support globally,” she said. “I chose the medium of going underwater mainly because it requires a different strength, and it takes away our voice.”

The designer partnered with the similarly polymathic French dancer, choreographer, underwater film-maker, and freediver Julie Gautier on footage that showcases garments at the bottom of the Y-40 pool in Italy. At its time of construction, Y-40 was the deepest manmade pool in the world at 138 feet deep. It remains “a second home” for Gautier, who choreographed and stars in sequences that show van Herpen’s work in all its siren beauty while simultaneously loading it up with symbolism. Van Herpen has often said that she is hypersensitive to movement, informed by a childhood spent studying classical ballet. This collection, which she tested in vats of water in her studio, pushes that sensitivity to new heights.

The film begins with a series of corseted looks that hug the body on a nude base, made up of van Herpen’s signature fluid forms traced in mylar. These develop into diaphanous gowns of organic silk and recycled polyester which undulate in the water like exotic jellyfish in shades of bruised purple and red. The most moving part of the four-minute-long piece comes around the three-minute mark when Gautier, wearing a corset embellished with streams of bright-red human and synthetic hair—“a symbol for being free”—begins screaming. All her pain elicits is a silent stream of bubbles; eventually, she is forced to return to the surface to draw breath.

Van Herpen is currently preparing 100 looks for a retrospective at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, opening in November 2023. It’s been a uniquely personal and emotional experience for the designer, who has spent the past three years poring over her archive in partnership with the museum’s curators. “It’s like a diary, an explosion of past and present,” she said. The exhibition will go some way to acknowledging van Herpen’s unique place in the fashion firmament, but for now she’s hoping her latest collection will remind showgoers and clients, in the midst of a glitzy week in Paris, of the brave female protestors fighting for their lives across the world. “For some people, fashion is just clothes. But it’s so much more than that. Fashion is a very personal way to talk about our identity, our culture, and our values. As a designer, it feels important to me to show people the wider perspective.”

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