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INTERVIEW BY HALLY WOLHANDLER
PORTRAIT BY ESTER GRASS VERGARA

 

The Dutch fashion designer and 3D-printing pioneer - whose work is often in exhibitions as well as on runways - has her first U.S. solo show at Atlanta's High Museum of Art this fall. Here, she takes us into her world. 

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Why this space?

There are all kinds of studios with people working in different disciplines in THIS building. I'm part of a bigger community here, with different artists. And we're on the IJ [Amsterdam's waterfront], so we're near all the boats. It's old-world, and I like that feeling. I grew up next to the water in the small village of Wamel, and being on the water really feels like home to me. I don't have the feeling that I'm inside the city, because it's really peaceful like in the country. It's not hectic. This is incredibly important to me, because I really need peace when I work. 

What's a day in the studio like?

I have two main assistants. Together the three of us guide the others in day-to-day work. We oversee the people working with the garments: those who do the hand-work, the little experiments, the laser work. Then there are the people who work on the computer illustrator files and on technical drawings. The total team is around 20 to 22 people, depending on the time of year. I'm really hands-on in that I'm always in the studio, guiding others in what to do when I design. I have a private office here where I do a lot of design work during the day, and when I finish something, I guide the others to make it. I don't do hand-work myself so much anymore - I used to do it, of course, but there's not really time for that these days. The draping, however, I do. Draping is still a big part of the design process, and I do it all myself. Then, for ready-to-wear, it goes to the pattern people. I like working in the evening the most, so most of my design work is done at night. During the day, it's more practical stuff. The evening I really have for myself. 

You're a big collaborator. You work with architects, filmmakers, artists. What value do you see in bringing others into the fold?

Every collaboration has a different goal and a different reason. There are a few people with whom I've been collaborating with for years, and with them, I really feel connected on a creative level. People like Philip Beesley, Jerry Stafford, and Jolan Van der Wiel. I work on material development with Philip and Jolan, and it's really not about making a dress together; it's about pushing the boundaries of materials. Those processes always take a long time. It's not like you work on a material for a season, because it takes a lot longer. Sometimes it takes one and a half years, and then I use it in my collection right away. Other times, I postpone it and use it later. I like to work with a lot of architects for a practical reason, like scaling and proportions. I also collaborate with artists, like Carlos Van Camp and Lawrence Malstaf. When you work with artists, it's more a collaboration on a conceptual level. We don't work on the collection together, but I take their work as an inspiration for my own, and level with them spiritually. I've also worked with the sound artist Salvador Breed for years. We inspire each other in different ways. His studio is in the same building, and I explain to him the concept behind the show and collection and he makes the sounds for each garment. Then, when the collection is finished, we use his music for the runway show. We once did a more intense collaboration for the spring/summer 2014 collection, titled "Embossed Sounds," where we put sound files inside the clothes, and by touching the clothes you could create different sounds - so the dresses together made the music of the performance. You could touch, play with, and discover the garment in a really tactile way. Today we're really focused on the visual aspect - by which I mean touch is something we don't really experience online.  

Are your high-tech fabrics developed in the studio?

Yes, we do that here. We don't do 3-D printing in the studio; because the machines are so big, it's really not practical. Plus, the new machines are sometimes prototypes, and not on the market. But the laser cutting and a lot of the other special techniques we use are done here.

Are you working on any new fabrics right now?

Always. It's a continuos process, and I don't think I'll ever stop. It's often the starting point of a collection. I'm working now on a show for October, and there will definitely be some new materials involved. The latest collection was inspired by terraforming - creating a biosphere on another planet. It's something that people associate with science fiction, but they really are doing research toward it, and so I've been imagining how these new places will work and will look. A material i worked on for this was woven from very thin metal that we burn with fire to bring out colors. That was a really special process, discovering the prismatic colors in the metal that were invisible at first. After a while, we were able to find the purple and the blue and the red and the yellow and all of the colors of the spectrum. It was like painting: Each piece of fabric is unique so it's a very handcrafted way of using technology. The hand of the human who made it is really a part of it. I think that's what I'm often trying to do with my work: to combine the two worlds of the very controlled and the chaotic. The design process becomes a lot more interesting for me through this combination. We also just worked on 3-D printed crystal shoes. This was in collaboration with Noritaka Tatiana, a Japanese shoe designer. Y

You have a show opening at the High Museum in November. What was the process of putting it together?

It was part of a longer process that has been going in for quite some time. In 2012, I had an exhibition at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. We selected the pieces for that couture exhibition, and then I had a meeting with Sarah [Shleuning, the curator of decorative arts and design at the High Museum] and we just continued the conversation that started with the Groninger exhibit. The curated process was a long time of adding pieces. Sarah came to all the fashion shows in Paris, so she was really part of this world for a few years, but the selection process was very organic in the sense that it wasn't like meeting each other and having to decide, but really growing together and each season choosing a few items to be part go the exhibition. I like long processes, when there is really time to think about things. The final exhibition is 45 couture pieces. It's going to be really exciting for me to see all the work together. 

You studied fashion design, but you've shown clothes in museums, which really speaks to the fact that your work is received as art. What differences do you see between art and design? 

There is a difference between art and design in the sense that design still has other functions than art in its beginnings, but the interesting part for me is finding the overlap between the two, and finding my own space in between them. That's why it was very helpful for me that I did haute couture when I started by label. I was purely focused on couture and made-to-measure garments. It really gave me space to develop my craft and my language and since sometimes I'm also doing ready-to-wear, I think it's important to find the balance between the two. A piece is something seen as art and sometimes seen as a dress as a functional object, but I think that's a very personal difference and opinion. In the end, it can be both. I don't have a clear answer about whether my work is art or fashion. It's in the eyes of the observer, and it will be different for each person who sees it. When I design, I often have a process that is much more connected to the arts, in the sense that I do not envision a particular woman in my mind when I design. I don't envision the purpose of the garment, either. It's really a free process, and that's what it's really about for me - the process, not the end result. It's not always a functional design, so I'm playing with both areas. 

That's interesting, because so many fashion designers talk about designing for their "woman". 

I don't have a muse. It's not about a certain identity - that's too precise for me. It's more about the body in general: her movement, her transformation, and the beauty within that.