CINCINNATI -- You're going to want to touch the dresses in “Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion,” an exhibit that opened Friday at Cincinnati Art Museum.
You can't. But don't be surprised to find yourself leaning close and wondering how on earth van Herpen created a dress that looks like a splash of water or a tree or a skeleton or a prism.
In 2010, van Herpen, then 26, presented her first 3-D-printed garment during Amsterdam Fashion Week — she was the first designer to use the concept. She has dressed Lady Gaga and Beyonce; van Herpen also has sold her garments directly to museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During a 2015 show, she had robots print a dress over “Games of Thrones” actress Gwendoline Christie.
Running through Jan. 7, “Transforming Fashion” displays van Herpen's innovative creations in a darkened gallery with spotlights to encourage you to lean in and look for the hand-stitching and detailwork of the couture. You can examine the work from all sides, and follow along as van Herpen explores water and movement, the microbes that surround our bodies, electricity and radiation. The dresses are her visualization of these comments and often feel like armor or sculpture or even science experiments.
“This is interesting art, not just fashion. Iris makes art that just happens to be worn on the body,” said Cynthia Amnéus, Cincinnati Art Museum curator of fashion arts and textiles.
One dress appears to be made of wood — it's actually a 3-D printing dipped in copper. A series of dresses emulating water includes a transparent ruff molded of polyethylene, a common plastic that can be formed by heat. An early creation is crafted from the spines of umbrellas.
The Netherland designer and her high-tech couture have gained prominence in the last few years, and she was recently profiled in Vogue and The New Yorker.
“These are sculptures, which is why they are shown like this. We've not created a window display of them,” said Sarah Schluening, curator of decorator arts and design for the High Museum of Art and co-organizer of the exhibit. “They are meant to be seen in the round. They are just as interesting from the back and sides as from the front.”
And make sure you look beyond the dresses, into the rooms at each end of the gallery.
Around one corner, a collection of seemingly gravity-defying shoes waits to be marveled over. One pair in particular, with soles encrusted in amethyst-colored crystals, represents the global, collaborative nature of van Herpen's work: She created the design in Amsterdam, a craftsman in Japan hand-cut the leather, another artist 3-D printed the crystal soles, and the parts were assembled in Paris. Van Herpen often never meets her collaborators in person, conversing with them by text, email or Skype.
At the other end of the gallery, you have the opportunity to finally touch van Herpen's creations. You can inspect how she stitched together umbrella spines to create a collar. You can feel the starched and pleated folds of a cocoon-like dress. You can see how metal shavings have been coaxed to stand out on a piece of material.
“Transforming Fashion” costs $10 (general admission) but is free to museum members. Save $2 on your tickets by using the code BLINK at checkout.
You also can see the show for free at the November Art After Dark event at the museum.