This conversation is part of The Big Ideas, a special section of The Times’s philosophy series, The Stone, in which more than a dozen artists, writers and thinkers answer the question, “Why does art matter?” The entire series can be found here.
Iris van Herpen and Damien Jalet are known for pushing boundaries in their respective fields. Ms. van Herpen, a Dutch fashion designer, fuses traditional craftsmanship with modern technology to create sculptural forms. She has dressed Beyoncé, Björk and other performers, and has designed costumes for the Paris Opera and the New York City Ballet. Mr. Jalet, a Belgian-French choreographer, often experiments with perspectives and blends visual art into his presentations. He has collaborated with Thom Yorke, Madonna, Paul Thomas Anderson and many others.
In early May, we asked Ms. van Herpen and Mr. Jalet to discuss the creative process, the importance of originality and why art matters in our modern times. This is an edited transcript of their conversation. — The Editors
Damien Jalet: I look at your work — we’ve worked together once, and I hope we will again — and I am struck by how much you think like a dancer, like a choreographer. You indeed started as a dancer at a young age. How did that shape you as a designer — your view of the body, how you relate to anatomy? Did it give you a perspective to start with?
Iris van Herpen: Yes, I come from dance; I wanted to become a dancer, and I think those years are still shaping my fascination for movement in my work today. Like you, I think of the body as a sculpture. A lot of designers have a woman in mind, with a certain look and identity, but I don’t really think that way. I have the human anatomy as my muse, so it’s a bit more abstract. The way I start a collection, I really see the body as a blank canvas. And when I danced I learned a lot about the transformative strength of my own body, and also about the symbiotic power between our mind and body. It’s the transformative power of dance that really attracted me, as we all are creating the concept of being us.
In my work, in every piece I make, I’m looking for the movement and the aliveness that dance can express. Dance inspired me to look at fashion from a transformable perspective — my design process is sort of translating a piece of dance, a three-dimensional choreography of micromovement, into a garment.
D.J.: Do you use your own body as you create a dress to understand how the flow of the dress should work?
I.V.H.: Absolutely, the process is always through draping; I don’t really make drawings. I drape on a mannequin, and it’s really my hands and the material that are doing a little dance. When I start, I really don’t know the outcome, and that openness is really important because I really don’t want the work to become too organized or too controlled. I need a moment of chaos, and the moment of chaos is really the draping moment.
After draping, I put the material on and I start testing it myself, and I start interacting with it and seeing the way it moves. And then often that influences my next motion in the draping process.
Fashion and art are never only a reflection of who we are — they are about seeking who we want to be, and who we want to become. My role in this search is about making fashion more collaborative, shaping fashion more intelligently, and about empowering women and fashion in the fields of science, art, architecture, biology and engineering.
D.J.: You seem to always have this high level of pressure on you every year, or twice a year, to present a show. You have all these people working with you. There are also all the technical elements you use, and you don’t know how those will turn out at the beginning. When you start a collection, it seems you are just guided by intuition, which is a very hard thing to grasp. I guess it’s a bit like walking in the dark and just guiding people, guiding everyone who is working with you toward one goal that you can’t clearly see yet, but you somehow feel.
I.V.H.: But that’s similar to you and your dancers, right? It’s a conscious and an unconscious parallel system, I would say. You seem to play with the borders of the conscious and unconscious, at least that’s what I feel when looking at your work.
It makes me think about my collection about lucid dreaming. At a moment in my life when I had a lot of lucid dreams I started realizing how much came from those — from that unconscious place. And I started to use that blurry border in my mind to design while I was dreaming. I still think back on that collection a lot because it brought me closer to the question of why I create.
Which makes me want to ask you: Why do you create? Is it for yourself or for others? What do you look for?
D.J.: The whole parallel between dreaming and creating is really interesting. When I’m creating, I see very little, because it’s really about trying to understand what my deeper intuition is telling me. That state when you start falling asleep, or when you are slowly waking up, is a very interesting moment because you are between two worlds in a way, half-unconscious or half-conscious. Like daydreaming, the lightest form of an altered state of consciousness.
I think if you push this further, really to the extreme, you go into a trance, to a place where you are completely unconscious yet awake, which is actually a technique that humans have been using for very long time. I believe we started dancing to get to this place.
I got this notion kind of confirmed while observing rituals where trance is very present, in places like Indonesia. For me these unconscious places are basically where all mythology originates. What’s unconscious is somehow the same as what’s invisible, what can’t be grasped, because the moment you become conscious, it’s gone. But sometimes there is this little bridge — and it comes to us through using intuition. When I have dancers work around certain ideas, using improvisation and restrictions, somehow things happen that even they had never thought of. That’s always the most beautiful thing, when you just are exploring something and expand your consciousness through that experience.
I think it’s through sharing your work that the work is born. I think of birth as always very intimate, but also violent — there’s this mixture of power and vulnerability. When you create your art, you explore the little corners of yourself. You put some of your most intimate thoughts in it. And then when you share it, when you release that, it can be both exhilarating and traumatic, because suddenly you have to face how the world reacts to it. You can be naturally creative, but the experience of premiering something is quite challenging.
I.V.H.: So true. When I started, I never thought it would be this personal. I think that’s something I discovered along the way, that there is no way you can create when you don’t go down deeply there.
That also raises the question whether we create our works or the other way around, and I actually dare say it’s sort of equal with me. I really think my work and my processes have created me as much as I have created them.
Throughout the years, looking at my work, I really think I’ve become a different person because of my work, because when you have to create constantly, the process pushes you constantly as well, to improve and to search beyond yourself for inspiration. I really see that process as a constant ebb and flow of taking and giving. As much as I create, I think the world is re-creating me. That feedback loop is challenging, but also very electric and addictive at the same time.
D.J.: I also think that as an artist sometimes you have to have a disassociation between you and the art. But I’ve found it nearly impossible to do so because we are bonded to it.
For example, I could speak very clearly about one time when I used my art to deal with a very traumatic event — being three meters away from a gunman during the attacks in Paris, and managing to escape while he was shooting. I remember being so shaken, so obsessed, that I even considered no longer creating. That was my first instinct. But I had this work scheduled, so I said, “Why don’t I confront this in this creation and find a way to articulate with my medium something that I cannot articulate with words and explore that?”
So I decided to focus on certain images and certain principles — one of them being, if you don’t move, you die. And there was this idea of a tunnel turning on itself, threatening the dancers in it, rolling forward and backward, and the people were just stuck in it, and getting expelled from it. I realized when I finished the work that this tunnel was a kind of passage, one perhaps for me to pass through. I understood what this piece meant. I had a very strong emotional reaction to it because I really had let my unconscious push me to activate certain ideas.
It was something that really helped me to let go of the trauma — of almost dying, of seeing people die. That’s the cathartic power of what we do, sometimes we are able to transform something that is pitch dark into something else through intuition.
When you start being creative it’s, as you say, very addictive. Moments of realization are what you are hunting for, moments of discovery that can transform your perception as a creator, and also as a spectator.
I.V.H.: Precisely. It’s that important and infinite hunt for all the layers of life around us and all the invisible forces that shape our world — from the microscopic to the macroscopic. Our senses usually just tune into that first layer around us, even though there are so many other realities happening at the same time.
D.J.: I was wondering if there was a work of art that shaped your perspective on life.
I.V.H.: There are so many works of art that have shaped me. It’s hard to really pick one, but if I have to I would say the sculpture “Apollo and Daphne” by Bernini. I remember seeing it for the first time, that transformation of a woman that grows back into nature, that sort of radiates the circle of life so beautifully. It shows that nature is taking and giving back life to earth constantly, captured in a moment, that moment of metamorphosis. And also the craftsmanship is beyond belief. That has really shaped the way I see us relating to the planet — we will always remain part of it, no matter how far we manage to think ourselves away from it.
D.J.: I can see that. It seems that through your metamorphic designs, you want to express how much we share with nonhuman forms of life. Is this a way to shift away from a mainly anthropocentric point of view? Like, the first works of art found in caves were about depicting animals, and man was represented in a humble and somehow clumsy, unfinished way. This humility has vanished through history, yet today there’s a focus in art on deconstructing the idea of humans being above nature, or disconnected from it, which for sure is a motive that animates my own work. Do you feel somehow connected to that approach as a creator?
I.V.H.: Very much. I look at the forces behind the forms in nature through biomimicry; these endless mysteries within nature create a huge influence on my work. A lot of the three-dimensional patterns I create echo the rhythms of life, and the geometric patterns unveil the mathematical logic hidden inside nature.
Coming back to your previous question a bit, if I were to name a different artwork that influenced me, I think it would be the Folkloric Dance Company, which doesn’t exist anymore, unfortunately. As a kid I didn’t travel the world; holidays were spent in my own country. But my family did go see the Folkloric Dance Company a lot in Amsterdam. This group of dancers, they would go and study a certain culture or community somewhere far away. They would study and learn their rituals, and their dancing, and their instruments, and their music and costumes. And they would put everything together in a performance when they returned. When I was little, that was really my way of traveling the world. It was through dance, and through music, and the clothes. It left such a huge impression on me, to know that these cultures or communities were out there, and to be able to come really close to them in a way. It made me realize at the time how big the planet was, and it took me out of my own bubble of the Netherlands.
D.J.: The art itself was the escape?
I.V.H.: It was freedom, I guess. I think art can really sometimes give you a feeling of freedom, that you can be anywhere at any place.
D.J.: There was this one question that I wanted to ask that I felt was important. Stanley Kubrick said that some of the artistic failures of the 20th century came from an obsession with total originality, and that innovation didn’t happen through abandoning the classical art form of your own discipline.
It seems to me that you might agree with that, because there’s a sense of craftsmanship that you bring to fashion design. What you do is haute couture, but it comes from a certain tradition of tailoring. Does the question “Is what I’m doing original?” ever come up in your creative process.
I.V.H.: Yeah, that’s a nice question. I very much agree with what you said. It’s really the history of couture that is guiding me in my work. Nothing comes out of nothing, so the craftsmanship that we master we can attribute to a long evolution of craftsmanship and innovation combined throughout so many centuries. And we are looking at that constantly. So in that sense, I don’t believe at all in originality. But at the same time we are combining it with technologies of today and newer techniques — like 3D printing and injection molding and laser cutting. Without the knowledge of the traditional craftsmanship, we would not be able to integrate these new techniques at all. So they really need each other.
I don’t think I could create anything beautiful or balanced if I did not know both the traditional techniques, as well as some of the newer tools that we are discovering today. To me it really feels important to continue this evolution of craftsmanship.
But I don’t believe pure originality exists. I think we’re all programmed and shaped by our upbringings, and by our culture, and all the art that we’ve seen in our lives. So while in my process I’m definitely looking for a uniqueness in my form, and the femininity, and in the identity I create, I can only shape that from what has been done before me.