‘The most significant thing about Dutch designers is that they dare to think freely and venture off the beaten track,’ says José Teunissen, a fashion lecturer at the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem, which trains many of the Netherlands’ most successful names in fashion. Notable for its artful simplicity, innovative craftsmanship and conceptualism – ‘design from an idea, not a human perspective’, as fashion expert Bastiaan van Schaik puts it – Dutch fashion is indeed a feast for both the eye and the mind.
The annual Dutch Fashion Awards ceremony serves as a platform to celebrate and encourage innovative design. A jury of national and international judges from the design world selects five nominees, one of whom will ultimately emerge as that year’s premier creative force, paving the way for other Dutch designers hoping to make their name in the international fashion industry.
The 2010 winner, Iris van Herpen, is currently setting the tone and has been showing her collections on runways in Paris and London for the past few seasons. Van Herpen’s designs teeter on the brink between art and fashion: to wear one of her pieces is to experience something unique, part of a process that continues beyond the point of production. ‘By not delivering a ready-made product, I try not only to give, but also to receive something,’ van Herpen says.
This emphasis on conceptualism touches on the core values of Dutch design, but what sets the latest generation apart is the artistic freedom with which they are interpreting these values. As Teunissen points out, the latest wave of Dutch fashion talent works without any pressure to pursue instant recognition in Paris – a level of conformity that was a prerequisite for success among previous generations. ‘In Iris’s case, this resulted in some very artistic work,’ says Teunissen.
Marcha Hüskes, a nominee at the Dutch Fashion Awards, is another designer who relies heavily on conceptualism, but with very different results. Hüskes has been gradually building her label since 2003, with luxurious yet wearable dresses that are minimalist in design, but opulent in detailing and in the choice of material. This may not be apparent at first glance, however: Hüskes goes to great lengths to incorporate functional elements so that they are not instantly noticeable. She subtly integrates certain elements, such as zippers and elastic bands, in ways that do nothing to obstruct her clothing’s clean lines.
In contrast, fellow nominee Claes Iversen’s attention to detail does the exact opposite, by playing with visual perception. ‘I’m always experimenting, looking for innovation in craftsmanship. When I research a collection, nothing is impossible and everything is allowed,’ Iversen says, picking up a sequined clutch that was made with a price-tag gun. Iversen graduated from ArtEZ in 2008, but is already offering made-to-measure services, as well as an exclusive ready-to-wear collection, in his Amsterdam studio. Iversen’s craftsmanship possesses a certain intimacy: he will always include an element of surprise in a garment, which only reveals itself on close inspection, such as the careful construction of a lining or a little visual pun in his detailing.
Despite the diversity that exists within contemporary Dutch fashion design, on an international scale, Teunissen says, it still tends to be perceived as too artistic and not commercial enough. This relationship with the wider fashion industry remains a tricky one, because recognition outside the Netherlands is seen as a measure of success and brings opportunities to develop even further. ‘If I want to become a big label, I need to do so internationally,’ says Iversen.
Which is not to say that conceptualism and innovation cannot result in global success. The triumph of Viktor & Rolf, another pair of graduates from ArtEZ who are renowned for creating extreme yet wearable clothes, is a prime example. If aspiring designers need to go to London, New York, Milan or Paris to achieve international fame, says Van Schaik, then the new generation of Dutch fashion talent will do just that – but perhaps via the road less travelled.