Iris van Herpen's Underwater Film Is Her Most Personal Message Yet

Iris van Herpen's Underwater Film Is Her Most Personal Message Yet

"Feminine empowerment has been part of my work for a long time, but I don't think I've expressed it this fiercely before," the designer Iris van Herpen tells me over Zoom, just a few days before her short fashion film (yes it's actually short, just four minutes) debuted in time for the haute couture shows in Paris.

For the past few months, van Herpen has been contemplating on the state of the world for women, particularly in places like Iran where women's bodies have served as a battlefield for ideology and authority. Film was the best medium for her to explore these ideas of female bravery and perseverance.

She teamed up with French artist and director Julie Gautier on the film, called Carte Blanche, a dreamy visual showing models in motion underwater at various depths in their couture dresses (only seven looks were made this season). The use of water is a symbolism of female shapes subdued and slowly disembodying control — movements tell a story of resistance and finding freedom.

“In the beginning three woman are melted together into a painting of skin, textures of growth and decay," read the show notes. "The red heart of this female ocean drifts down alone into the deep depths of her own consciousness where she dances a journey of isolation and oppression moving into resilience and invincibility.”

Below, van Herpen breaks down the meaning of the film, the underwater symbolism and the important of remaining independent.

You've experimented with various formats before, so why did you to decide to go with the video route this season?

The concept is really about feminine empowerment and also some current issues that are going on. One is the demonstrations in Iran, which is a subject that I've been following closely and bringing this into the production felt very important. It felt better to go for a film this time and to have the creative freedom and the storytelling to really go deep into the concept.

When did you connect with Julie, the artist? Had you guys known each other already before this project?

No, we haven't. I knew her work for a while and she knew mine. I've been following her for a few years, and the first time I saw her work was the film called Emma. But then I also saw ABreath Around The World, which is a beautiful film that she made with her partner and she really embodies female strength to me.

So when I was working on this concept, and the beginning of the collection, I started the conversation with her to see if she was interested in working together. So, we've really been developing the storyline and the choreography and everything together.

The pieces in this collection moved so gracefully and fluid in the water. Did you think about that at all when designing and how the collection would translate into this underwater setting? Or did that come after you designed the collection?

We thought about it all the way through. In our early stage, we decided to go for this film and to go for the underwater exploration, so this was really part of the development of the collection. I wanted the garments to move beautifully and to look beautifully above water, but also underwater. And that was the challenge because gravity and movement is so different underwater, that sometimes we had a fabric or a texture that moves really beautifully underwater, but then it didn't look that good above.

So, it was constantly the balance of finding the right materials for both, because after the film, we also want the garments to be worn. That was the development that took the longest, to really have it work in both worlds.

Speaking of what's been going on in the world and places like Iran and this idea of the female body and bravery ... why was that important to you as a woman and designer observing everything?

Well, on a very personal level, I've been a woman myself working in the industry that is still quite a male dominated. If you think of the creative directors with the brands ... I of course have had, and still have, my own struggles in that.

In every place this balance is different. I've been quite fortunate in where I grew up in the Netherlands, where it's quite equal, even though there are differences here, I realize that what's going on in Iran is not a local issue, it's a global one. And of course it's in its extremities there.

And I also realized that it changed my perspective to beauty because I've always seen beauty as a very powerful and positive strength. But looking at what's happening there, I realized it can also be a tool that is misused, or a tool to oppress.

I want to bring these elements into the work to show the control and the oppression that is going on and medium of beauty as a very personal tool to express who you are and your own identity and to find strengths to carry on the conversation and the focus towards this issue.

As an independent designer yourself at this stage of your career you're still following your own rules. How happy are you just getting to do what you do at your own pace?

Freedom is an important part of everything that I do and my decisions I have taken are all based on that. I am still independent and that was really important for me because that independence creates complete freedom in what I create, in the way I create. It's that freedom that is really core to the designs, and I think they radiate that freedom.

I think when you look at the work, you can tell this is not like... I don't know, a commercial team deciding what direction to take or too many people involved. It's quite pure and that has been very important for me because it's to me, the way that I can distinguish the work from all of the rest. I think people can recognize the work therefore, and tell the difference.

Feminine empowerment has been part of my work for longer period, but I don't think I've expressed it this fiercely before. And that is really a reaction to the world around me and realizing that we really need to support each other to all have more freedom. The element of freedom is so important to me, but this is also what made me dare to go into design, to have the courage to go this freely into the work.

And throughout the years, many people have tried to steer me, and I think my stubbornness is really part of who I am, but also part of the designs.

Photo courtesy of Iris van Herpen