A conversation with Gagosian director Antwaun Sargent at Frieze London 2021 unpacking his exhibition exploring the dimensions of space within the context of the African diaspora.
Iris van Herpen’s Roots of Rebirth
Spring Summer 2021 Haute Couture, Paris
The 2020 book Entangled Life by mycologist Merlin Sheldrake notes that ‘fungi is the ecological connective tissue, the living seam by which much of the world is stitched into relation.’ His ideas formed an unlikely yet seminal reference for the Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, whose Spring Summer 2021 haute couture collection of quivering fungi-inspired dresses titled ‘Roots of Rebirth’ was presented as a digital series of interconnected imagery and videos this season.
Van Herpen has been pushing an interdisciplinary exchange between fashion, technology and science since she first began as a designer — her mastery of hand and machine craft has conjured just about every pattern in nature: plant membranes, feathers, fossils, fins, and now the moving tentacles of fungi-lamella membranes. This season she explored Sheldrake’s concept of the rich yet deeply fragile ‘Wood Wide Web’ — an idea that encompasses the vast and intricate collaborative structure that join fungi to one another in an invisible underground network.
Ahead of her time, for years Van Herpen has sought out technology in order to find new techniques for bringing her garments to life. Collaborating with scientists, biologists, and architects has been fundamental in her creative process, merging different disciplines in unexpected ways. Her wider curiosity is what brought van Herpen to observe the intrinsic symbiosis between fungi and her creations worn on the human body — itself filled with forms of digestive fungi.
For SS2021 she translated this in several ways, from embroidery on organza toiles that crawled over naked skin like intricate root channels or the endless wires that serve our hyperconnected world, or flowing silks that called to mind the underskirts of moist mushrooms in movement. Finding craftsmen with the kind of intricate detail and lightness of hand required for a single Iris Van Herpen creation is a challenge when her methods stand apart from traditional fashion design methods. This fact has led her to look elsewhere, sparking multiple collaborations with the Canadian speculative architect Philip Beesley, director of the Living Architecture Systems Group, who is often cited for his organic living art installations. “I think design is becoming more and more alive and it’s going towards a symbiosis with nature and our relationship on this planet”, explained van Herpen over Zoom from her atelier in Amsterdam days before the virtual show. “Philip is our longest collaborator, so it’s really interesting working with such a mix of different scientist. It’s just so special for us to have that access and that choice of knowledge to implement in our design process.”
Whilst fashion might not be the most likely conduit for the micro-organic underworld of fungi, van Herpen believes its an important story to tell as, contrary to popular opinion, fungi balance our environment by digesting pollution and replacing it with good bacteria, similar to what happens in our bodies when we eat. “Fungi have always been between worlds, yet are apparently closer to animals and plants. They will give us a lot of new perspectives towards cleaning up waste in the future and creating materials,” she added. Her dedication to the cause is such that van Herpen and her team even experimented with combining sustainable silks with fungi for fabrics in the initial stages of the collection’s development, however her experiments weren’t quite as durable in their implementation.
Visually, a more classical reference that van Herpen employed for the season was a painting by the Mexican Surrealist artist Remedios Varo published inside A Magazine N°13 Curated By Iris Van Herpen (2014). Entitled ‘Solar Music’ (1955), the work depicts a woman playing an instrument through a beam of light formed by parting trees of the enchanted forest in which she stands. On one dress, a similar effect appeared through hundreds of mahogany-copper crêpe de chine petals like fungi-lamella. Another features a white ‘mycelial web’ of beige organza silk and translucent delicate lace petals like fungi twisting down the bodice. “This relates to the synaesthetic approach that I’m always looking for in merging disciplines,” said van Herpen, who played the violin and danced competitively before delving into fashion. “That’s also what I find so interesting about the book, Entangled Life — Sheldrake is a scientist and a biologist, but at the same time he’s looking beyond that and trying to understand how fungi truly influences us, even in the way we think and how our brain is connected”.
Chez van Herpen, materials and craftsmanship are always subtly intertwined to create shape-shifting silhouettes from intricately woven filaments. “When I feel fascinated by a subject, I use my intuition to translate that into shape, into texture, into the line-work, even into the movement, if I can,” she added. Through entangled materials, mushroom textures slither through the fabrics as organically and intuitively as if they were created with digital layering. “There was a lot of time spent developing the materials itself, using new ways to think about weaving inspired by growth systems within nature”, said van Herpen. “It’s a beautiful process and I always compare it to the old traditions of making kimonos, which once finished, you keep for the rest of your life and often hand over to the next generation. That’s the beautiful relationship towards a piece of art that you should really treasure for life”.
As for silhouette, the season evolves some of van Herpen’s ideas of pleating, producing snaking thread-work through twisting bodices and blooming petal necklines, whilst triangle tessellations of Parley For The Oceans’ recycled ocean plastics are utilised in grids of printed appliqués for her more exoskeletal designs. Crowning some looks were headpieces by Seattle-based sculptor Casey Curran, which saw translucent monofilament threads weaving their way through a series of brass coils arranged to create a serpentine motion through a lifting and falling motion of each quill. Conceived with the Japanese nail artist Eichi Matsunaga, 3D-printed claws sprouted from fingernails were a further touch of fantasy.
When van Herpen first started in fashion, she began interning with Alexander ‘Lee’ McQueen. For his Autumn Winter 2006-07 collection inspired by fungi and fauna, McQueen layered silks over organza creating billowing multi-dimensional mushroom-like dresses as a minor segment of the collection. This body of work comes full circle, a fact van Herpen readily acknowledges. “It’s hard to be that fragile or that personal in your design approach. But it was so clear in his work,” she reflected. “Working with him was the moment that I realised fashion could be art. But it wasn’t until I dived into his work more deeply that I understood fashion could be one of the disciplines where I could express that same energy that I liked so much about dance,” she added. And though the beauty of dance lives only in the instant the act is performed, van Herpen is well aware that fashion works conversely. “After we finish a garment, it starts to live,” she asserted, musing on the life cycle of garments and the possibilities of extending this season’s hypotheses into real-world growing garments. “Fashion needs to collaborate with nature,” added the designer. “Ultimately something always has to die, be it a plant or animal. In the future we have to find ways to actually help nature.”
Words by Alexandra Castle
Photography by Gio Staiano & Molly SJ Lowe
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