Representing the creative future

A Love Letter to Iris Van Herpen’s Morphogenesis Dress

Exploring the links between science and art through Iris Van Herpen’s work

We rant a lot. We know. We can’t help ourselves! So, to make sure we never forget about the delightful joy of fashion, we asked you to share what made you fall in love with it – from tiny crushes to full-on fetishes. This week first-year fashion communication student at Central Saint Martins Abigail Gallen got inspired by a readers’ suggestion to look into Iris Van Herpen and is helping us learn everything about one of the most iconic dresses of all time: The Morphogenesis Dress. 

There are a lot of things one could write in a love letter to the unparalleled design practices of Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen. With a reputation for impeccable references and intricately detailed design, I dedicate this love letter to the ultimate concoction of art, fashion, science, and the human body: the Morphogenesis Dress.

“Sensory Seas” displayed at the Cirque d’hiver Bouglione in Paris, on January 20th, 2020, for Paris Haute Couture Week, after approximately five months of an incredibly intense creative process. The show was classic Van Herpen — twenty-one unforeseen looks floating down the runway, begging the viewer to question whether what they are seeing is a garment or a moving piece of fine art. Her designs always ask to be viewed with an open mind as to what fashion has the potential for.

Van Herpen started her career officially in 2007, founding her own label one year after graduating from Netherlands school ArtEZ University of the Arts. She showed her first collection “Chemical Crows” at Amsterdam Fashion Week the same year, and followed in 2011 with her first official couture collection under the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, “Capriole.”

2020 saw the couture “Sensory Seas” collection in Paris, which included unmissable Look 19, appropriately named the Morphogenesis Dress. This dress — along with all of the other looks in the collection — is beautiful. But it is the inspiration behind the piece that makes it worth a love letter.

Allow the backstory of this dress to date back to the early 1900s of Spain. Santiago Ramón y Cajal was a Spanish scientist with an interest in neuroscience and pathology, specifically having to do with neuroanatomy and the central nervous system. Similar to a slight few other notable figures, Cajal understood the connection between science and art. He himself was a talented illustrator and created some of the most profound scientific sketches of all time that went into immense detail. Undeniably, Van Herpen first drew inspiration from Cajal’s findings and illustrations, which is evident in the intricacy of the designs within Sensory Seas. Van Herpen told Vogue of her inspiration, “…the inspiration came from…paintings of our nervous systems; the way our brains connect to our senses. I found them beautiful paintings, and I was really mesmerised by the way that the art and science merged.”

The creative process delved further with a specific interest, on Van Herpen’s behalf, in marine ecology. The more research was done, the more Van Herpen noticed the parallels between the human body and its central nervous system, and the “anthropology of a marine organism.” She came to the conclusion that marine ecology is quite similar to that of human sensory systems; both are unexplored, and both serve to send a message. In Van Herpen’s words, “Sensory Seas aims to highlight the nuances between the anthropology of a marine organism and the role of dendrites and synapses delivering signals throughout our own bodies.”

With all of that in mind, Van Herpen worked with architect Philip Beesley to create the all-white Morphogenesis Dress. The process was complicated, going further than the average garment design; the two used 3D twisted vortex models, Rhino software, and the KERN lasercutter to execute the final product, which is a voluminous and elegant rendition of Van Herpen’s attempt to show the viewer the similarities in the movement of a neuron and the ocean.

As a fashion student with two scientists for parents, I never thought I would be inspired by what my parents do — it all seems unbearably complicated. But what Van Herpen and Philip Beesley, as well as Santiago Ramón y Cajal realised, is that art is undeniably science, and science is undeniably art.


Read all our love letters!