If any designer defies the notion of clothing and thrusts the rag trade fiercely into the future, it’s Iris van Herpen. The Dutch couturièr’s creations are closer to hallucinogenic 3D sculptures than apparel, evoking the fierce animalia of H.R. Giger against the sinuous architecture of flora. Her fearless concepts are executed with delicate exactitude.
Using the extended wheelbase version of the already gargantuan Rolls-Royce Phantom as bedrock, van Herpen’s haute couture-inspired Phantom Syntopia is hailed as the carmaker’s most technically complex commission to date. Unlike recent special projects like the Boat Tail, which was executed thrice by the Rolls-Royce Bespoke Collective team (one of which was rumored to have been commissioned by Jay-Z and Beyoncé), the Syntopia is a one-of-one. It presents the nearly unobtainable opportunity of being singular.
Four years in the making, the central tenet of the one-off collab is a weaving water theme recalling the designer’s 2018 collection. The approach invokes biomimicry, in which handmade objects echo forms found in nature. Van Herpen’s team traveled to Rolls-Royce headquarters in Goodwood to work in consort with the automaker’s creative and engineering teams to take on the puzzle of building a vehicle that was both aesthetically inventively and functionally viable.
Syntopia’s details are endlessly intricate. The cabin’s leather headliner is a single sheet that was pulled from a selection of over 1,000 hides, and takes on a three-dimensional appearance from woven nylon fabric layered beneath precisely shaped cutouts. Adding yet another layer of complexity are 162 petals of glass organza, which ornament the starlight headliner’s 995 fiber optical pinpoints like a reptilian skeleton. The lights illuminate in a rear-to-front sequence to create a sense of movement. The headliner required some 700 collective hours of work to create.
Because high-quality textiles have traditionally been viewed as a more luxurious alternative to leather—Queen Elizabeth’s limousines famously featured fabric on the rear seats and leather on the fronts— the Syntopia takes the same tack through a specially formulated silk blend fabric upholstering the rear seats. While the front perches are finished in Magic Grey leather, the aquatic theme is invoked out back in a textile pattern that mimics light reflecting on a body of water at night. The textured, glistening look is created through a tufting technique where the backside of the material is embroidered, creating a smooth outer surface with a similarly celestial pattern that lends the illusion of miniature topography. The Phantom’s so-called Gallery— a dashboard area which serves as a canvas for artistic expression—incorporates 85 petals and required 60 hours of labor to complete. Picnic table and panel surfaces are finished in lacquer and paint mixed with .9 percent glass particles, about a tablespoon’s worth for the entire car. The formulation required nine trials to perfect.
We could summon thousands of words describing the lushness of the Syntopia’s interior, but the car’s uniquely designed fragrance takes on a more subjective cast. Rolls-Royce has finally developed an in-vehicle scent-releasing system (a technique already pioneered by Mercedes-Benz), but in this application the system diffuses fragrance from the headrests. Using a development process that took two years, a unique scent was created using a fragrance expert that incorporates a base of cedarwood sourced from the client’s homeland. Additional notes include iris, leather, mild lemon, and rose from Patagonia, adding another dimension to the sensory experience of this nearly 3-ton sedan.
As textural as the cabin may be, the exterior offers just a bit more of a nuanced treatment to the Phantom’s otherwise monolithic body. An insectoid-like iridescence was achieved through a new technique that overlays solid black paint with a pigmented clearcoat, which required 3,000 hours of testing and validation to meet the carmaker’s standards. While the finish’s purple, blue, magenta and gold hues create an inscrutable impression, the love-it-or-leave-it feature is yet another ‘weaving water’ motif that applies a subtle wavy gravy pattern to the center section of the bonnet. The touch is a tad psychedelic, a bit optical illusion, and entirely avant-garde.
If you’re having as much mechanical fomo as we are for this groundbreaking one-off, the ultimate knife twist comes with the fact that the lucky client who commissioned this Roller will have a matching couture garment fashioned by van Herpen to complement the vehicle. With apologies to John Lennon’s counterculture Phantom V, the Syntopia might just be the most imaginatively executed bespoke Rolls-Royce in the company’s 119-year history.