Decoding Design

Bjork's favorite fashion designer 3D 'prints' couture clothes

Bjork's favorite fashion designer 3D 'prints' couture clothes

Posting in Architecture

Dutch designer Iris van Herpen is turning heads with her eerily beautiful, highly intricate clothes-- made on 3D printers by a company known for its medical-related manufacturing.

The stunning ensembles seen on the fashion runways of Paris and New York often involve intricate details, from elegant hand-stitched embroidery to eye-catching sequins and delicate feathers. But it's rare that designers will collaborate with an industrial company known for its work in manufacturing healthcare equipment. Iris van Herpen, a 27-year-old Dutch designer, is making her name for doing just that. And the results of her daring experiments with 3D printing techniques are pushing fashion in dynamic new directions.

Van Herpen's clothes--like the exquisite shirt shown above, from her 2011 "Escapism" collection--are so artful that they are the subject of an exhibition at the Groninger Museum in Groningen, the Netherlands. The show opened on March 24 and runs through September 23; it showcases garments that appeared on catwalks from 2008 to the present. Not all of the pieces on view are made using 3D printing (although all three illustrated here were). But even the most intricately hand-sewn details van Herpen includes on her clothes are first modeled or otherwise created using software.

From the "Crystallization" collection, July 2010

Given that architects and industrial designers use 3D modeling and other digital techniques to streamline their creative and production processes, it makes sense that a 21st-century fashion designer would, too. Of course, she's not the only one--see Mary Catherine O'Connor's report on Continuum Fashion's 3D printed bikini.

But van Herpen isn't only attracted to 3D printing because it's a much-hyped technology, or because it's potentially more efficient for constructing clothes. Instead, her creative vision involves complex symmetries and extreme detailing, so it actually challenges the traditional acts of sewing, pleating, or embellishing clothes. The technique she's chosen matches her style.

Van Herpen nods to architectural themes (she once designed a bustier that recalls the detailing on the flying buttresses of Europe's grand cathedrals) and biological forms (some of her dresses and shirts look like skeletons, only worn on top of the body). Her process begins by sketching clothes via Photoshop instead of on paper, and then she collaborates with engineers at the Belgian additive manufacturing company Materialise --whose other collaborators tend to be biomedical, orthopedic, and industrial companies. There, she 3D prints her complicated designs in materials such as polyamide. Sometimes, they're finished in lacquer for a spectacularly sleek effect.

from the "Capriole" Haute Couture collection, designed with architect Isaie Bloch, 2011

It's not always a seamless process, as van Herpen admitted on The Creators Project's web site earlier this year. "Old and new techniques seem to mix up the eyes. Two...3D prints did not work out the way I wanted. There were mistakes in the files so they were not wearable," she said. "That was terrible to find out after three months of hard work on them."

Van Herpen's eerily seductive, boundary-pushing clothes are, perhaps not surprisingly, favored by rock stars whose music is known for the same qualities. Bjork and Lady Gaga are fans, and Bjork has been wearing poetic outfits designed by van Herpen on tour to support her recently released album Biophilia. You can also see Bjork in a van Herpen dress in the video for one of its songs, "Moon."

But van Herpen's clothing isn't interesting because it's as bizarre and attention-getting as the celebrities who love it. Her work raises an important issue related to designers' roles in successfully experimenting with new technologies. She seems to embody the admirable goal of creating products that are remarkable themselves as products, and not only because of the headline-grabbing materials, processes, or equipment used to make them.

Images: all copyright Iris van Herpen and courtesy Groninger Museum. Photo credits, from top: Bart Oomes, No. 6 Studios (two images from top); Ingrid Baars

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure