Insight: In conversation with fashion designer Iris van Herpen

Iris van Herpen Atelier working on the Rolls-Royce Phantom Syntopia

Dutch haute couturier Iris van Herpen’s work is a symphony of processes. It is highly collaborative involving visual artists, designers and architects for work that can be performative and theatrical. These are elaborate garments that are created with craft and expertise.

In her latest creative partnership, the atelier worked alongside Rolls-Royce’s specialist Bespoke division to create Phantom Syntopia. The one-of-a-kind car, a special commission for an unnamed Rolls client, has taken four years to realise with almost all the elements painstakingly crafted by hand by the Iris van Herpen atelier and skilled crafts people at Rolls-Royce.

With luxurians ever-thirsty for high experiences, something that is unique to them, a great deal of theatre is at play with Phantom Syntopia, most of which happens inside the car. On opening the classic Rolls coach doors you enter a space where seats are swathed in an elaborately textured silk fabric, the headliner is filled with close to a thousand twinkling stars illuminating in turn like a gentle wave, and with glimpses of light subtly surfacing through twisting sculptural forms.

And for the final touch, van Herpen has created a dress for the client to complement the car. The sculptural design is a marriage of craft and technology featuring a liquid metal fabric and glass organza petals, laser-cut and hand stitched in a pattern that emulates undulating waves.

Details of Phantom Syntopia's fascia and gallery

As part of our on-going investigation into the concept of luxury, we met with Iris van Herpen to talk through Phantom Syntopia, and discuss her collaborative approach.

How do you feel about the final product?

I am very happy with the result, as I hoped to bring a sense of delicacy and three-dimensionality to the car. When inside, subtle light reflections bring life to the headliner and gallery (a feature on the Phantom fascia) for a complete experience. It has a sense of life and an organic-ness that I always try to bring to my work. We tend to experience a car from the interior, and here the inside is wrapped in an haute couture garment. The feminine quality comes to life on the inside.

When Rolls-Royce approached you to collaborate, they suggested basing the theme on your atelier’s 2018 “Syntopia,” a collection that looked to principles of biomimicry in which art is inspired by patterns and shapes found in nature. Why this collection?

I think the Syntopia concept is aligned with Rolls-Royce. For the collection, I was inspired by biomimicry by looking at the processes inside nature to innovate within design, and scientifically learn from nature. Rolls-Royce is also focused on bringing nature to the car, so I wasn’t surprised when they chose to work on this project.

How did you translate this to the car?

I transformed the sense of being in movement into an immersive experience of fluidity inside Phantom. I wanted this to become a state-of-the-art experience — of being overwhelmed by the forces of nature. The powerful movement of the car is woven into the shifting three-dimensional waves inside the car to embody nature’s ingenuity.

Were there aspects of the project and process that worried you?

I was very curious if I could push the boundaries in the way I had in mind — as in bringing in the haute couture elements. Then during the process, I realised Rolls-Royce was also willing to push the boundaries, which gave me great courage. Our atelier came to Goodwood (the home of Rolls-Royce) for two weeks to work, with a lot of the craftsmanship carried out here, which helped with the process.

Rolls-Royce Phantom Syntopia star headliner © Rolls Royce

Did you ever imagine your designs presented in such a way?

My way of working is multidisciplinary, and I get inspiration from different sources. Architecture, design, science, and nature are part of my process. I’ve worked on architectural projects, so doing a car felt natural. And I am always excited to bring my way of thinking into different disciplines.

A car like Phantom is designed to be passed on to generations like heirlooms. Similarly, your haute couture pieces are tailor-made and a far cry from fast fashion. Did this project make you consider even more this concept of permanence?

Yes, it did. My pieces are one-offs, and people who commission them keep them. It’s akin to buying a piece of art, and they are often handed to the next family member. But the extreme stress tests at Rolls-Royce did show me a different way of looking at longevity.

What elements from this experience will you be taking to your atelier?

The art of car making that Rolls-Royce is doing here is so close to haute couture. The process, how craftsmanship and innovation are brought together, is so similar. I didn’t realise how much time and dedication goes into making a Rolls-Royce.

With my haute couture work, I have to get to know my client and translate emotion and their universe into a design process. At Rolls-Royce, customers are also part of the journey of design. I’ve learned a lot from the process, and I’ll definitely be taking this knowledge back to my atelier.

I’m very selective in my collaborations because each one naturally impacts my work. I like to learn something in the process. On many levels, this collaboration was a natural symbiosis.

Images: Details of the craftsmanship, Iris van Herpen atelier and Rolls-Royce’s Phantom Syntopia ©Rolls-Royce

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Iris van Herpen atelier working on hantom Syntopia copyright © Rolls Royce
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