As she stands at her atelier desk overlooking Amsterdam’s gingerbread canal, Van Herpen speaks poetically about the water which flows through it, often getting lost in its many moods and textures, as she does her own train of thought, which meanders into babbling brooks, creeks, and boggy marshes, before circling back into a clear, steady stream. “If you go back into my archives you will find a lot of pieces that are inspired by water, both in crystalline and chaotic form. It’s the ultimate source of inspiration for a circular system. It’s our liquid state, the clouds, rainfall, crystals, and the snow. It’s never old, only recycled, for thousands and thousands of years.” It can all sound quite nebulous, especially with Van Herpen, whose collections are born from things like magnetic waves, electricity, and nothingness. But, 14 years after starting her label, she remains at the forefront of design, having forged an encyclopaedia of fabrics with the help of master scientists and architects. “I really see couture as a laboratory of fashion, a beautiful place where there’s time and resources to work on new materials.”
You can just imagine the conversations she has with Marina Abramović, Tilda Swinton, and Björk – who Van Herpen counts as close friends – about vibrations, energy, or transcendental meditation, which is something the designer has recently taken to. That’s bound to make her sound Goop-y (and I loath to even make that comparison) but the designer is lofty and cerebral without any of the new, new age insufferability. She has learnt to push back on those who describe her work as “ethereal” or “otherworldly”, vowing that her designs are rooted in reality. In trees, buildings, and water. “My work tries to reflect the world we are in,” she repeats. Led by intuition, she approaches fashion as if it were “a puzzle or a labyrinth to travel through in order to find answers.” It means she values the process over the product and relies on gut feeling to light the way. What’s truly radical about Van Herpen, however, is the way in which these basic instincts harmonise with technology, transcending both man and machine.