Rooted in Sustainability: How Mushrooms and Isolation Inspired Iris Van Herpen’s Spring 21 Collection

If there’s one queen of sustainability, it’s Iris Van Herpen. Herpen, a Dutch fashion designer listed as one of the top designers changing the globe on Business of Fashion, is known for her fantastical aesthetic, which she brings to life by using 3D printing techniques, laser cutting, and upcycled resources. 

Before launching into the fashion scene with the goal to make a difference, Van Herpen always found herself using her creative brain, expressing her innovation. She found herself loving to paint, dance, and even played the violin. 

Once Van Herpen hit high school, she fell in love with fashion, and all that the possibility the realm of it had. After going down the glamorous wormhole, she attended the Fashion Design at Artez Institute of the Arts Arnhem and held internships at both Claudy Jonstra in Amsterdam, and Alexander McQueen in London, where she found herself refining her craft. 

After launching her first collection in 2007, Van Herpen showed the world just the type of creative innovation she had to offer. 

Featuring the brass ribs of 700 umbrellas reassembled to fashion her garments, Van Herpen’s first collection waited no time before pieces of the collection were offered to be purchased by The Groninger Museum. 

Basing her garments to resemble kinetic structures, one of the most famous pieces that have been birthed from Van Herpen’s mind is her ‘Water Dress’, a translucent and sculptural garment that looks like it is ‘splashing’ away from the body of a model in 3D, like splashes of water hitting upon a hard surface.

In order to create this piece, Van Herpen relied more on her innovative instincts rather than her technological skills. According to The Smithsonian Magazine, 3D printing technicians had not yet developed a transparent material that could print reliable and maintain its own structure. But that didn’t stop Iris.

“Sometimes,” Van Herpen tells The Smithsonian, “I imagine a technique or material that doesn’t exist yet,” therefore, she has to create it.

Using a hand-held heating tool, Van Herpen found herself blow-drying a sheet of polyethylene terephthalate to soften it- a material that was the ‘30 or 40th‘ one she tried, according to The Smithsonian, which she manipulated after perfect durability with pliers by hand in order to get her desired outcome for the dress. While you could argue that the resource, she used wasn’t good for the planet, Van Herpen would argue that sustainability isn’t fixed. It is not something that is black or white, there is a lot of grey in between as to how you can achieve sustainability, and what it actually is. Sustainability is also about using all of the extra non-recyclable resources we do have in order to create things, so there isn’t just more of it to sit around and be leftover. So that it’s given a new purpose.

With her newest collection for Spring 2021, Van Herpen has focused on sustainability in a way we more so traditionally think, upcycled materials. 

After collaborating with Parley for the Oceans, the Dutch designer created her new collection using ‘Ocean Plastic fabric’, which is made from upcycled marine debris. 

Van Herpen tells Vouge, “We are now at a moment where the quality between organic silk and recycled polyester are completely equal… Now it’s really a matter of decision, it’s not a matter of choosing quality. Basically, there’s not a lot of reason not to use sustainable materials anymore, other than changing your mindset.” 

Choosing the higher path for the planet, Van Herpen tells Vouge that Merlin Sheldrake’s book, Entangled Life, inspired her collection. 

Reading about how fungi sustain life on Earth, the Dutch couture queen found herself being inspired by the gills of mushrooms, mirroring them in the pleating of her garments. We can thank mycelium, the lace-like branching part of the fungus, for the silhouettes and embellishments found in her Spring ‘21 season. 

Reflecting back on the chaos of the last year, Van Herpen says “I think the last year for me, and I guess all of us, has been one of isolation and separation. And of course, it’s really beautiful to look at nature and how nature connects in a very similar way to how we communicate.” She attributes the inspiration for the collection mostly to mycelium. The designer describes how mycelium forms a ‘world wide web’ under the ground, a system of communication. 

Being rooted in innovation, Van Herpen’s designs are a direct reflection of the marriage between art, science, technology, and the possibility of what steps fashion can be taking right now to shape the future. 

“I don’t find my work futuristic,” she tells The Smithsonian. “Many of the concepts and explorations are happening today. They feel as though they are of the future, and not yet real, but the fact we are seeing them, means they are.” 

The Dutch creator is pushing the limits of what fashion says it can do, to see what its boundaries actually are… even if that means creating new materials on site. 

Through Van Herpen’s collections, we see a constant call for action. It’s not about where fashion is going, what steps we can do in the future, but where we can get the industry to be and how we can shape the future of it right now. 

Take a look at Van Herpen’s colorful and airy mycelium inspired Spring 2021 Couture Collection made out of only upcycled marine debris. Take a look at where sustainable fashion can go. 

Writer: Rachael Mrocka