In a grand, lengthy gallery at the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) in Pittsburgh, a legion of exquisitely dressed mannequins stand at attention, displaying seven years' worth of innovative, otherworldly haute couture designs by Iris van Herpen, the Dutch fashion star known for her striking, futuristic aesthetic. Van Herpen marries science and technology, as well as artistry and meticulous handicraft, in her ethereal designs. The intricate ruching on one metallic-hued dress evokes invisible electromagnetic waves whirling through space. Delicate acrylic threads protruding from a skirt resemble the threadlike tentacles of a jellyfish.
"Everybody who comes in this gallery sort of stops dead, because it is so unusual and beautiful and strange," Rachel Delphia, CMOA's Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, tells Creators. "Once you're captivated, there are so many points of entry." Van Herpen swept to widespread acclaim when six of her designs were included in the Metropolitan Museum's lauded Manus x Machina exhibition in 2011. She's dressed celebrities like Björk, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga in her eccentric frocks. Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion at CMOA is a stop on the designer's first North American tour, co-organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands.
Delphia says Pittsburgh is apt destination for van Herpen's designs. An early-20th-century industrial powerhouse, the city's football team is still named for its reputation as a steel town. Though the steel industry folded under government restructuring in the 80s, sucking some of Pittsburgh's economic vitality with it, the city is becoming a hub for makers. The curious, resourceful nature of van Herpen's designs reflect that spirit.
"If you're anybody who makes things, [van Herpen's] use of materials, her craftsmanship, the structure, the architecture, the incredible complexity of these garments, that's something you can talk about—even if you have no interest in fashion, per se," Delphia says. "The amount of digital fabrication she uses, from laser-cutting to 3D printing, is another point of entry."
To engage the local creative community, CMOA selected 10 artists/design teams to participate in a fashion show at The Ace Hotel Pittsburgh. Across its properties, the hotel brand prioritizes supporting local artists and cultural institutions, like CMOA. They challenged the designers to create two "fashion meets technology" looks, keeping with van Herpen's ideology and craft. Many of the artists, who ranged from fashion designers to architects to metal sculptors, worked on their non-traditional ensembles at the TechShop, a membership-based, open-access, DIY workshop and fabrication studio, which will soon have 10 locations across the US. TechShop offers makers, amateur and expert, access to machinery and know-how they might not be privy to elsewhere. Creators visited the Pittsburgh outpost, and we witnessed members taking a screen printing class, using a laser cutter to etch some sort of zombie design onto pint glasses, and bending sheet metal with a frankly intimidating hunk of machinery.
"The significance of having the designers work on their pieces at TechShop demonstrates the democratization of the creative process, the blending of old and new technologies, and the sense of community and collaboration that can develop around the arts," Bill Gearhart, the General Manager of TechShop Pittsburgh, says. Consequently Material Worlds, the fashion show at the Ace, featured designs utilizing 3D printing, laser-cutting, metals, and other non-traditional fashion techniques.
Design duo Zain Islam-Hashmi and Brandon Darreff were among Material Worlds's non-fashion designers. They're both architecture students at Carnegie Mellon University, which abuts CMOA, and participating in the fashion show gave them a chance to infuse structural design know-how into another artistic medium, blurring the line between construction and fashion.
"[Our] designs used cement and plaster, which are otherwise stagnant in the built environment or in sculptural applications, and added the challenge of exposing the materials to gravity and movement. We welcomed breaking and cracking of the forms as a juxtaposition of pristine and geometric casts with ones which are damaged and more organic. Burning was implemented to highlight the fractured forms and the beauty in deterioration and rubble," Islam-Hashmi and Darreff tell Creators.
All of the Pittsburgh designers brought an industrious spirit to the challenge, echoing van Herpen's ongoing interrogation of science and manufacturing. "Fashion can be absolutely beautiful, and it's fun to look at the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but what really drew me to Iris's work, is in addition to representing couture, there are these incredible concepts underpinning these collections. That felt, to me, to be right for Pittsburgh," Delphia says. And if the ingenuity on display in Material Worlds is any indication, the city is in for an exciting creative evolution.
Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion is on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh through May 1. Learn more about TechShop membership and amenities here, and check out The Ace Hotel Pittsburgh here.