In the past couple of years, fashion designers from Prabal Gurung to Valentino have created costumes for New York City Ballet galas. But none quite approach the sheer surrealness of Dutch couturier Iris Van Herpen’s plastic outfits for Benjamin Millepied’s untitled new ballet, premiering at the fall gala September 19. Ballet and couture have something essential in common, Van Herpen says: “A very old, beautiful world where a lot of tradition comes to speak. But I also like to break traditions and give it a new mood.” Her outfit for lead ballerina Sterling Hyltin is, she says, “almost the opposite of a pink tutu.”
Van Herpen met Millepied in Paris and then listened to Nico Muhly’s score. “With Benjamin, his music is his guidance,” Van Herpen says. “I listened to the music a lot, and that’s how I started to draw. He just gave me an atmosphere.”
Van Herpen, who is known for her fantastical, sculptural designs, danced ballet from age 4 to 18. “It’s beautiful to see the girls onstage, but the pain and effort that goes before it—it’s a different story,” she says. The sock accentuates the ankle, “the point where all pressure comes together.”
Costume director Marc Happel worked with an architect to translate Van Herpen’s sketches. Hundreds of translucent plastic chips—each only .03 millimeters thick—were sewn onto a stretchy tulle. “They all catch the light differently,” such that when the dancer moves, “it will look almost stroboscopic,” she says. “If you put a blue light on it, the whole thing looks blue; in a white light, it looks almost silvery.”
“For me, ballet is really about the beauty in shaping your foot,” Van Herpen says. The sock—which zips up the back and is sewn to the pointe shoe itself—accentuates the S-form created by the arch and calf, “the ideal shape of the leg, if you are a ballet dancer.”
A typical tutu is “a straight horizontal line cutting off the top and bottom of the body.” Van Herpen’s rounded skirt is meant to be “a bit more feminine … making the curves even more curvy.”
Click the image above to zoom in close on Hyltin’s costume. Photograph by Henry Leutwyler
This article originally appeared in the September 23, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.