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These gorgeous, intricate gowns are made entirely of trash

“We only have 10 years to make big changes before we will begin facing terrible consequences on the planet. This is a very short time to reverse the whole system of mass production in fashion.”

These gorgeous, intricate gowns are made entirely of trash
[Photo: Courtesy Siermond & Nicholas Fols]
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Iris van Herpen’s collection for Paris Haute Couture Week consists of five gowns covered in intricate, elaborate lace. It’s hard to believe that the ethereal dresses are made entirely from trash.

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The Dutch designer has partnered, for a second time, with Parley for the Oceans, an organization that collects plastic waste from the ocean, then recycles it to create new materials. This time around, van Herpen pushes the boundaries of the recycled plastic fabric, hand- and laser-cutting it to create patterns that would not be possible with cotton or silk. The collection as a whole tells a larger story about the fragility of our planet and what it will take for people to survive the environmental crisis that looms before us.

[Photo: Courtesy Siermond & Nicholas Fols]

Earthrise

As she created the Earthrise collection, van Herpen spent a lot of time thinking about the iconic 1968 photograph that astronauts took during the Apollo 8 mission, revealing the Earth rising above the moon’s horizon. “It’s really beautiful and meditative,” she says. “The astronauts who saw this moment spoke about a shift in consciousness, realizing that the planet was actually a single organism.”

Throughout the collection, van Herpen incorporates the concept that people are part of nature, existing within a complex ecosystem. In a video created to unveil the collection, the gowns make the models look like they are blending into the landscapes behind them. “Everything is interconnected,” van Herpen says. “Everything on this planet depends on everything else: We are actually a single being.”

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A model wears a short white dress covered in delicate feathering that seems to mimic patterns in the rocks and mountains behind her. Another wears a gold and cream dress covered in a lace pattern suggestive of the clouds floating in the background. Another wears a blue dress with a pattern made of scales that you might see on a lizard, making her look perfectly situated among the craggy terrain.

Creating Lace From Plastic

Van Herpen points out that people have caused so much harm to the planet that this delicate ecosystem is now out of balance. And indeed, if we don’t act soon, many aspects of our planet may be on the verge of collapse, from polluted oceans to fire-prone land. Van Herpen chooses to tell this part of the story through the materials she uses. Each of the gowns is entirely made of plastic waste fished out of the ocean.

Last year, van Herpen launched her first collection using Parley’s Ocean Plastic, a collection of dresses in bright colors that were inspired by the idea of rebirth. This time, she was eager to find new ways to use the material. “I really believe in long-term collaborations,” she says. “The first time, we were exploring the material, but working together for the second time allows you to evolve the knowledge.”

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Van Herpen partnered with a British artist, Rogan Brown, who is known for hand-cutting paper to create structures that look like objects found in the natural world, like coral, seaweed, or fungus. They discovered that they both find inspiration from scientific illustrations. So they worked together to cut the plastic fabric both by hand and by laser to create lace-like designs that are reminiscent of patterns you might see in nature. “The designs are meant to feel familiar,” says van Herpen. “But they’re designed to suggest nature, rather than to directly imitate it.”

As she explored the ocean’s plastic material, van Herpen discovered that it offers many benefits. For instance, when you try to laser-cut lace patterns on organic materials like cotton or silk, they tend to fray. But this doesn’t happen with synthetic, plastic-based materials. “The textures were so fine that the materials had to be very resilient, but also had to be soft and thin,” she says. “This is how we could create something as delicate as traditional lace. I think the collection serves to show that you can create something valuable and beautiful out of trash.”

[Photo: Courtesy Siermond & Nicholas Fols]

Fashion On A Fragile Planet

Van Herpen spends a lot of time thinking about how the fashion industry can stop causing so much harm to the planet. Experts believe that the sector is responsible for 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions, which accelerate climate change, and the equivalent of one dump truck’s worth of clothing burned or thrown in a landfill every second.

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She has ultimately chosen not to create ready-to-wear collections because she believes they cause too much waste, from excess fabrics that go out of style before you can use them to entire garments that get thrown out because customers don’t want to buy them. She has come to the conclusion that couture is the most sustainable approach to fashion because it is made on demand and it involves a lot of craftsmanship—and given its price point, you are unlikely to throw it away, but rather pass it on to the next generation. “Of course, not everyone can afford to buy couture, which is effectively like buying a piece of art,” says van Herpen. “But the systems we create around couture can be instructive to the rest of the fashion industry.”

She points out that for most of human history, clothes were very valuable because fabric was expensive to make. So people owned a few garments that they carefully cared for. They might take the time to embroider these pieces, and they would repair them when they broke. Van Herpen says that in some ways, couture carries these traditions from the past by focusing on craftsmanship and embellishment. But she believes both consumers and brands could shift their thinking to return to owning fewer clothes but ensuring they’re both beautiful and durable. And this doesn’t have to come at an exorbitant price point.

“I think people around the world are beginning to reevaluate how much they need things, and how they make them,” she says. “We only have 10 years to make big changes before we will begin facing terrible consequences on the planet. This is a very short time to reverse the whole system of mass production in fashion.”

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The full collection is on display on Iris van Herpen’s website. She makes bespoke pieces for her clients.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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