Riley Montana has had a startling first year in the fashion industry. Before she’d ever set foot on a runway, Riccardo Tisci cast the unknown Detroit native alongside Erykah Badu in Givenchy’s Spring/Summer 2014 campaign. In February, a month after the campaign debuted, Montana had an impressive first season walking for the likes of Rodarte, Oscar de la Renta, Topshop, Bottega, Balmain, and Nina Ricci.
But the Montana’s interests extend beyond fashion’s old guard; one of the designers at the top of her wishlist is the 30-year-old Iris van Herpen. Based in Holland, van Herpen is most famous for her delicately constructed architectural silhouettes and fearless use of new technology, such as 3-D printing. We asked Montana to interview van Herpen for our “Models Off Duty” series. Earlier this week, the two spoke on the phone for the first time.
IRIS VAN HERPEN: I have no idea what we should talk about.
RILEY MONTANA: I won’t scare you. I won’t ask you too many questions.
VAN HERPEN: Well, you can. You are welcome to.
MONTANA: A few months ago I was doing research on designers that I wanted to work with; I came across a few, but one that stood out was Iris van Herpen. I’m dying to know, how did you first get into fashion? Was it a magazine or family history?
VAN HERPEN: I wasn’t so into fashion at a young age. I grew up in a really small village where I didn’t have television or magazines, so fashion at that point wasn’t really there. I think it came when I got into my teenage [years], because I moved to a city where I went to high school. Then, of course, you start to be aware of things like identity and what to wear and I started making clothes for myself. I first wanted to be a dancer, that’s what I did from a very young age. But I think during my teen years I started to get more and more interested in fashion. To me, both are really related, dance and fashion, and I started mixing them. I started to realize I really wanted to work with my hands and with fashion, so I went to the art academy [Artez Institute of the Arts Arnhem]. It’s a mix, what I did there. I was studying fashion, but I was also doing painting and sculpture, mixing different disciplines.
MONTANA: That’s funny you mentioned dance, because I wanted to dance also when I was younger. I changed my dreams a lot; I wanted to dance, I wanted to sing…After school you went to intern at Alexander McQueen. What was that like? Did it have an impact on your technique?
VAN HERPEN: Yeah, it did have an impact. I admired his work a lot, and I think it was the first time as a student that you realize what’s behind the company. It’s not only making clothes—it’s the world of the making, which is very complex and intense. For me it was really an eye-opener, how much time it actually takes to make a beautiful garment. In the academy, I really focused on ideas, and during my internship I started realizing the whole making process. In my work today, I think my process of making something is as important—or maybe even more important—than the final result. I realized at my internship at McQueen, that it takes ages to make something and that you sort of have to surrender yourself. It’s almost like meditation.
MONTANA: Let me put myself in your shoes for a minute. I’m Iris, I’m ready to start a collection; do I make a mood board? Do you have a certain person that you go to, to help you creatively? What’s the process when you do these pieces?
VAN HERPEN: It’s a little bit of a chaotic process, so it’s never the same. But I don’t draw a lot and I don’t make mood boards, either. Most of the things are in my head. So when I start on a collection, I actually start making it. I explain to the people that I work with what I have in mind, and I go through it step-by-step. When we start on a garment, we mostly do not know the end result—at least not visually. I have a vision in my head, but sometimes it changes during the making process. Sometimes it does become the same, but the people that are actually making it don’t have the visual yet. It’s a pretty intense way of working, but really exciting in the same way. I sort of need it, because I don’t like to pin myself down. The traditional way of designing that you also learn in the academy—first you make a drawing, then you find your materials, then you start making—it’s a pretty boring process to me; you know your collection when you start making it. It’s not a process of discovery. The way I work is a lot about experimentation. I have something in my mind, and often it comes from a material. I mostly start looking for materials that I like, or we actually also develop materials in the atelier.
It’s a process of growth; it’s not only the mind that is speaking. That’s what I miss when I draw and then make a collection; because of course I did that in the academy. You design out of your head, and I like to use my intuition as well. Things like coincidence and experimentation are really important to me. I’m always looking for a balance between my head and my heart.
MONTANA: That’s amazing—just to hear that you think of these things off the top of your head and you don’t draw, you just create. It’s really inspiring.
VAN HERPEN: When I draw, it’s always two-dimensional and it’s never the look that I have in my mind, so I just need to have it in my mind and to make it. I don’t like the in-between step of two-dimensional drawing.
MONTANA: How did you start working with 3-D printing? That was one of the things that stood out because I don’t see it too often—I don’t see it, actually. What made you get to that point—”I’m going to do something so bold and different”?
VAN HERPEN: The 3-D printing is a story on its own, and it’s actually funny that I started doing it, because as a designer I really admire craftsmanship and working with my hands, and 3-D printing is sort of the opposite—it’s designing on the computer, and then a computer is making it. There is no hand involved in the whole process except for computer work. But for me, the technique is so inspiring because I can create different shapes and a different complexity than when I work with my hands. I collaborate with architects on it, because the file-making takes months. Again, I have an image in my head and I communicate that with a person that can actually model it in a 3-D program. It’s a fun way of working because as a designer, it’s really easy to get stuck in your own head. If I collaborate with people from other disciplines, it opens up my way of thinking about proportions or time frames or materials. It sounds a bit weird, but it’s not only about the clothes, the 3-D printing, I also do other objects, sometimes art objects. For me, it’s a little holiday from my design process.
MONTANA: I see that you’ve worked with Austrian architect Julia Koerner. Is there anyone else that you would want to collaborate with in the future?
VAN HERPEN: One thing that pops up in my head is that I’ve been to CERN recently—I don’t know if you’ve heard about that. It’s a huge laboratory underground at the border of Switzerland and France. There are, like, 10,000 scientists working together on finding the Higgs [particle] and other scientific experiments. I’ve met a few scientists there that were calculating parallel universes, and it really inspired me. I have some ideas about working more often with scientists. Apart from the designing of the clothes, I would like to focus on the materials more: combining the nanotechnology with my work and the biological 3-D printing on letters, and trying to make the process more ecological. Trying to use science in a creative way. That’s something I definitely have in mind.
MONTANA: Nice. How do you see the future of fashion? Do you think designers will be more bold and try to take more risks?
VAN HERPEN: I think it can go different ways. One possibility is that the 3-D printing really becomes part of the production process of fashion, which would mean that—you can already see this in the design world—customers have more input. They can actually design their own stuff. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, and I also don’t know if that’s the future of fashion, but I do feel that the old-school production methods of the sewing machine will be replaced and it depends on the technique what designers will be able to do with it. People are collaborating together more and more from different disciplines, so I do think fashion designers will more and more often will work together and with different fields. That’s more talking about the near future —you already see it happening that people from other schools and other backgrounds become fashion designers and the other way around and there are more duos coming [out]. I wonder what the future in production will be. I do think there’s a good chance that 3-D printing will be a new production method. If that happens, everything is going to change because then you don’t need seams anymore and everyone can wear garments that are printed exactly on their body—on their size—so you fill up the whole gap between haute couture and ready-to-wear.