A colourful collaboration

Do you remember the electric sparks in your brain the first time you experienced a Len Lye artwork? Lye’s remarkable use of colour and movement – a riot onscreen or in sculpture – was decades ahead of its time and he holds a legacy as one of New Zealand’s most innovative and loved artists, as well as being internationally respected for his pioneering work. This special reputation was recently at the core of a collaboration with another cuttingedge creator, Belgian fashion designer Dries van Noten.

Van Noten’s spring/summer 2021 collection saw him working with the Len Lye Foundation to interpret and reimagine the work and feeling of Lye into a light and fresh clothing range. Speaking with VIVA’s Dan Ahwa, van Noten said, It was about the whole idea of Len’s mind, the craft of how he created prints directly on the celluloid that scratching, stencilling and painting on the film for me was so important.  

Viviane Sassen fashion shoot image
Photography by Viviane Sassen

Noted for his own extensive use of colour and pattern, van Noten’s attraction to Lye’s work seems a natural fit. Once we saw Len’s films, my first thought was these originated from the 1960s psychedelic movement You quickly realise it’s not the 60s, it’s actually the 30s,’ says van Noten in VIVA.   

Lye began making films in the late 1920s and was active until the late 1970s. Their timeless nature – being unique and often unplaceable in an artistic scene – aligned well with van Noten’s wish to create a collection of timeless pieces. 

As van Noten and his team researched further, they got in touch with the Len Lye Foundation, whose trustees are based around New Zealand. Andrew Clifford was the Foundation lead trustee on this project and was very pleased with how things turned out. The initial contact came early in 2020 – ‘It was quite a surprise in the middle of lockdown!’ Clifford told Ngā Taonga – and has led to a stunning finished product. This project has exposed Len’s work to a whole new audience, especially internationally and in the fashion world. 

The Foundation worked with van Noten’s team to supply films, reference artworks and documentaries.We wanted to make sure they had a good appreciation of the breadth of Len’s career, including his writing and ideas, says Clifford. This ensured the range wasn’t simple prints or copies, and that an inspired collection shone through. 

Operating half a world away from each other, misunderstandings could have been easy. The collaboration however was very fruitful and Clifford describes how ‘We agreed the van Noten team would give us regular updates on progress, and on that basis we could allow some flexibility in how they would interpret the material to create something exciting and new that would equally represent both artists. We were impressed with everything they showed us and very happy to endorse the direction they were taking. 

Van Noten agrees: ‘The Foundation provided us with plenty of support, information and flexibility, which was a true collaboration. 

Viviane Sassen fashion shoot image
Photography by Viviane Sassen

The work was unveiled at Paris Fashion Week in October 2020. Due to pandemic restrictions, most shows were launched online. Van Noten worked with Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen to capture the range, with coloured lights and vibrant backgrounds adding texture to the shoot. The release caused quite a stir when it came out. Who would have thought Len would be cited alongside major fashion houses as one of the highlights of Paris Fashion Week?!’ wonders Clifford.  

Van Noten’s work is entirely ready-made – made to be worn, not just seen on catwalks. This range is now available in stores and will ensure that Lye and his legacy continues to send electric jolts out to the world.

Feature image: Photography by Viviane Sassen.

Ngā Taonga newsletter

Sign up for our regular newsletter about projects we're working on and fascinating items from our collections.