Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Fashion & Architecture, Redefined: Iris Van Herpen and Philip Beesley at the Royal Ontario Museum

Transforming fashion and space at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo: PBAI/LAS)

Nature, fashion and technology fuse together in an innovative two-part exhibition showcasing the futuristic designs of Dutch couturier Iris Van Herpen and the interactive architecture of Canada’s Philip Beesly. Parallel shows, Iris Van Herpen: Transforming Fashion and Philip Beesley: Transforming Space, are at the Royal Ontario Museum until October 8 and are a must-see for anyone interested in conceptual design as it relates to the human form and its relationship with both man-made and natural environments.

Van Herpen and Beesley have partnered on a number of projects since 2012; the ROM presentation  consisting of a touring exhibition of Van Herpen’s avant-garde designs, organized and curated by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Groningen Museum in the Netherland,s and two sculptural “living labs” which Beesley created with a team of pioneering researchers – represents their 11th collaboration.


Beesley joined forces with the internationally acclaimed fashion designer after discovering that Van Herpen had drawn inspiration for one of her collections from the installation he created as Canada’s representative at the 2010 Venice Biennale. The ROM show highlights the impact of their artistic association with Dome Dress, a piece the museum exclusively requested from Van Herpen, who designed it for her 2017 Aeriform collection in collaboration with the Toronto-based artist and architect.

Philip Beesley speaking to the media. (Photo: Deirdre Kelly)

Equal parts fashion and sculpture, the gravity-defying silhouette combines over 300 pieces of zinc-coated steel with laser-cut forms which have been hand-molded into lacy three-dimensional domes that bubble and float around the body. A film documenting the commission, created by fashion filmmaker and art director Stylianos Pangalos and shown as part of this exhibition, traces the evolution of the dress through a series of scientific experiments initiated by collaborators for developing their ideas.

“The Dome Dress,” says Beesley, who with Van Herpen lead a private media tour of the exhibition in advance of its June 2 public opening, “creates a hovering, scintillating world that wraps all the way around the body, carrying the element of light. Each tiny bit of movement turns into light that reflects as it moves around us.” Shown at Paris Couture week in the fall, Dome Dress is now part of the ROM’s extensive permanent collection of Textiles & Fashion. The museum purchased it in deliberate defiance of its own policy prohibiting the acquisition of fashion not at least 50 years old. An exception was made, says Alexandra Palmer, the ROM’s Nora E. Vaughan Senior Curator, because the Dome Dress represents “extraordinary fashion . . . at the extreme edge of design.” But, and regardless how airy it looks, Dome Dress didn’t just spring out of the ether. 

The preceding Iris Van Herpen: Transforming Fashion retrospective, featuring 55 pieces from 15 collections, shows Van Herpen steadily developing the concepts that would inform the creation of Dome Dress from 2008 through to 2015, the year of the exhibition’s original creation. Sculptural, optical, experimental in design, process and materials, Van Herpen’s fashions are more than just clothes. At the ROM, they occupy a section of the museum all their own, appearing not unlike the skeletal forms and carapaces in nearby galleries housing fossilized remains of prehistoric animals. Van Herpen uses novel technologies to get her unusual effects, including 3D printers and laser cutters. But as the designer emphasized during the recent ROM tour, much of the work is still hand cut, draped, sewn and assembled. Computers help realize ideas rooted in human experience.

Iris Van Herpen in front of one of her transformative creations. (Photo: Deirdre Kelly)

Her 2011 Capriole Dress, for instance, visualizes the feeling she gets while skydiving. Made of 3D printed polyamide, the bone-like creation suggests not only a sensation of weightlessness but of the flesh, the body’s own fabric, being blown away by gravitational forces. Elsewhere Van Herpen, trained as a ballet dancer, represents movement in fashion constructions where various materials collide and caress with each other, creating dynamically tactile effects. Pieces like Voltage Dress, made from laser-cut 3D polyester film lace and microfibre, and also created in collaboration with Beesley, draw attention to the body as an energy field that fashion helps electrify. “I used to dance a lot,” Van Herpen says, “so movement, energy, its transformation within the body and how you can control this has always been very fascinating for me.”

Beesley, in his two-part exhibition following directly after, uses new energies to transform human environments. Aegis, named for the Greek myth of an enclosing veil that protects and nourishes life, and Noosphere, a title derived from mid-century theologian Teilhard de Chardon’s coined term for the earth’s next stage of evolution, the creation of a “thinking” skin, are comprised of interactive structures and networks that respond to people exploring the surrounding space. Sensors and other mechanisms within the installations produce expressive sounds and light as participants move through them. These living labs, as Beesley calls, them, combine new and emerging technologies in artificial intelligence and 3D printing with experimental fabric systems and structures borrowed from the worlds of fashion and architecture. “It’s an intelligent sounding environment,” says Beesley, “a new synthetic biology providing dressing on a house designed for a god.”

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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