Atlanta Fashion Cool-Aid?

New York, Paris, Atlanta?  While this Southern city would not be on anyone’s short list as a fashion capital, I recently attended two great museum exhibitions which go a long way towards putting Hotlanta on the couture “must visit” map.

This past weekend I felt like I had a preview on the upcoming Metropolitan Museum’s Spring 2016 Exhibition of Manus x Machina as I viewed “Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion” at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art ( on view through May 15. The Met Museum is planning to showcase several of her works as well since they are on the forefront of the relationship between what is handmade vs. technologically produced.  The High Museum is the first US exhibition for Iris van Herpen as well as their first fashion exhibition ever–a high water mark to live up to for any future fashion exhibitions.

Smoke dress made out of oxidized steel wire

If you are at all familiar with van Herpen’s work (she dressed Lady Gaga in her experimental period as well as Bjork) you will not go there expecting to see clothing that you can actually wear. Instead think of what would happen if Project Runway’s unconventional challenge, its avant garde challenge and its 3-D challenge were all rolled into one and placed in the hands of an artist/nature enthusiast/mad scientist. The graduate of ArtEZ Institute of the Arts Arnhem, now 31, began collecting various materials when she was 18 but says she didn’t know why.

Umbrella spine dresses

A former ballet student and native of Amsterdam, who still works from her studio there yet shows at Paris Fashion Week producing two collections a year, admits to being more influenced by nature than technology. This exhibition features 45 outfits spanning from 2008 to 2015 incorporating materials as diverse at the spokes from children’s umbrellas, various resins, polymer, goat leather, tulle, stainless steel, PET (polyethylene used in plastic bottles), transparent PVC, Swarovski crystals, hand blown glass balls and laser cut acrylic sheets. The outfits are grouped together by collections inspired by everything from outer space to microbes, biology to micro conductivity. The effect is dramatic, cool, creepy and surreal.

This dress features chicken heads

The designs are shown on custom built mannequins made to exacting specifications; there is no “wiggle room” or give in a strapless “glass” dress supported entirely by how it sits on the hips. I found it of note that IVH cites being influenced by her dance background and credits “movement” as an inspiration. There is some movement in the look of the pieces themselves however it would be near impossible for the wearer to freely move around in these outfits as many are quite restricting either at the neck, chest or hip area. In the accompanying video you do get to glimpse the models coming down the runway with great care as well as with flesh colored under covering as several of the items are completely transparent.

3-D Printed dress

While many of the fashions and footwear (in collaboration with Noritake Tatehana) are reminiscent of Alexander McQueen for whom van Herpen interned, they also brought to mind some from the Susanne Bartsch Fashion Underground exhibition at FIT, albeit with a handmade organic 3-D twist. Van Herpen explains in the video that her influence is primarily through nature rather than technology and that she enjoys trying to “control the chaos” of an unyielding material.

About her design process, van Herpen says she sometimes sketches a design while looking at a potential material. Working in collaboration with other artists she ” enjoys the challenge of getting it to do something it’s not meant to do.” Examples of this include her creation of a “water dress” (made out of taking a blow torch to the PET Polyethylene material somehow making it look like a giant liquid splash) and a steel dress that appears as if it’s enveloped in oxidized smoke. Interestingly, van Herpen addresses the fact that often what is made by technology in terms of 3-D printing can be reproduced by hand after seeing how it is done by machine, however it will just take longer. It is indeed impossible to know exactly what was handmade and what was machine made when viewing any of her seamless fantastical finished pieces.

Dress of transparent acrylic sheets, cotton and tulle

So much of Iris van Herpen’s collection is almost begging to be touched and I found myself fighting the strong impulse to do so. To that end I was very happy to reach the last part of the three floor exhibition to find a “please touch” display featuring samples of some of her more unusual materials including the heated resin which truly looks like a mossy lichen on a dress but in actuality, is a rubbery textile created by applied heat and magnets.

Oscar de la Renta Exhibition

The other exhibition which I viewed (just down the road from the High Museum), was one that I had previously written about: see article in the form of its companion book: Oscar de la Renta: His Legendary World of Style by Andre Leon Talley. I hadn’t realized that this exhibition was “hitting the road” however it is on view until December 31 at the brand new SCAD Atlanta ( in slightly modified but larger form than its initial Savannah viewing.

Oscar de la Renta worn by Beyonce

There are now more pieces from new designer Peter Copping included as well as a few Oscars that were on permanent collection in the Atlanta museum. SCAD Atlanta lets you get really close up and personal with the fashions including many worn by famous women including SJP’s Met Gala “signature” gown, Taylor Swift’s Met gala gown, Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette dress, Laura Bush’s inauguration suit,

Anna Wintour’s coat (left)

Huma Abedin’s wedding gown, outfits worn by Anna Wintour (Abedin and Wintour both wrote forewords in the book) and many more. The young student docents are there with iPads to show you how the dress was worn which is a nice touch. The accompanying video is a documentary which was produced by a SCAD Savannah student detailing her experience while working to put the exhibition together.

A note of interest in comparing the two exhibitions: although they are both very much worth seeing, know your audience.  I was accompanied by my husband, daughter and two boys in their early twenties (my son and my nephew) for the Iris van Herpen exhibition and they were loving it however I would not ever subject the boys to the de la Renta exhibition which I’m sure they would find a complete snoozefest.  On the other hand, if you are someone who appreciates fine design and workmanship of a more traditional nature then you might prefer the OdlR exhibition.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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