At Dries Van Noten Los Angeles

Len Lye and Viviane Sassen’s Chromatic Movements

by Emma Reeves

Words by Emma Reeves

In October 2020, a quiet moment of optimism came to Los Angeles as the Belgian designer Dries Van Noten opened a sprawling boutique on La Cienaga Boulevard in West Hollywood. Surrounded by palms and lush greenery, the first Dries Van Noten store in North America occupies a former 1940s office space opposite the Futurist ‘Googie’ style diner Norms – a far cry from the neoclassical Het ModePaleis flagship in Antwerp or his quay-side men’s and women’s jewel boxes in Paris.

With Van Noten’s fashion collections in full time residence in the city of angels, a rotating series of exhibitions, installations and interventions offers further stimulus for regular visits, and a dedicated space on the ground floor is currently home to an exhibition celebrating the inspiration behind the SS 2021 collection that brought his men’s and womenswear together for the first time. This co-ed collection was first showcased in a beautiful short film directed by the Dutch artist Viviane Sassen, who also photographed the accompanying stills.

When I first viewed Sassen’s film, I was struck by the bursts of projected colour, abstract patterns and occasional words projected onto the garments. These painterly expressions seemed to be layered into the actual films, flickering across the models as they move to the strange electronic musical pulses of produced by Belgian musician Lander Gyselinck AKA Hihats in Trees. On closer scrutiny, the title sequence of the film credits revealed the projections as the work of Len Lye (1901-1980), an extraordinary New Zealand-born artist whose pioneering work straddled experimental filmmaking, kinetic sculptures, poetry and painting.

L: Len Lye, courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation.
R: Dries Van Noten SS 2021 by Viviane Sassen, film projection by Len Lye.

In the LA exhibition space, four plinths have embedded screens that showcase both the film by Viviane Sassen as well as a loop of very early polychromatic films Lye made in the 1930’s during his time living a bohemian life in London. Lye made the films by painstakingly painting directly onto strips of celluloid, partly due to the fact that he was too broke to rent a camera. The films are examples of this technique that also incorporates filmed imagery and painted abstract patterns inspired by Lye’s time living with indigenous Samoans. In these original films, the abstract imagery is sequenced to the strains of swing jazz musicians such as Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. They are simply mesmerizing, and the result of an intense artistic process. As Lye wrote in a letter to his mother back in New Zealand, “…it takes two months to do one minute of drawings…”. These ‘film drawings’ are often cited as the forerunners to music videos, and Lye celebrated as a visionary modernist: both the forefather of Op Art and psychedelia.

In the retail areas of Van Noten’s LA store, the SS 2021 collection on display beautifully incorporates the abstract colours and patterns from individual frames of the Lye films. Splashed across some silhouettes, Lye’s solarized portraits known as ‘shadowgraphs’ and motifs such as palm trees are applied to light weight fabrics, at times layered with heavenly organza and simple embroideries. Known for his exquisite work with patterns, Van Noten applies these outtakes fluidly, with a painter’s touch. Van Noten has acknowledged that the collection was purposefully simplified and straightforward but with a commitment to glorious optimism, alongside an unexpected dialogue between the mens and womenswear – collections conventionally produced with separate sources of inspiration. In this instance, Lye’s patterns are mirrored in their application across both collections. Similar materials are used in both but a thrilling use of organza is more prevalent in the womenswear, with a stunning use of colours that froth over the layers of ebullient material.

Lye was particularly obsessed with movement and kinetics as a creative trope, something that he applied to sculptures later in his life, and it is a trait that Van Noten undoubtedly shares. One particularly simple but beautifully tailored dress in the collection has been printed with the words of an academic essay that Lye wrote on the subject. Movement is captured in beautiful large format prints of photographs by Sassen that are also part of the exhibition.The photographs are all brought together in a beautifully produced catalogue for this collection, a collaboration with London-based designer Jonathan Ellery at Browns. Movement and colour are signatures within Sassen’s work too, and her involvement completes a perfect trifecta.

Scroll below to read Emma Reeves in conversation with Dries Van Noten…

What a pleasure to discover the artist Len Lye through the brilliant exhibition installed in your Los Angeles store. When and where did you first come across his work? 

Dries Van Noten: The enormity of the cloud that is COVID-19 was new and dark in our lives when we began to conceive of this collection. We were all in lockdown at home; working by Zoom. Our collective instinct was that our work needed to be very simple, fresh, and optimistic. I was seeking inspiration from a beauty devoid of nostalgia, an energetic and optimistic beauty. We looked at a lot of works, lights, colours, and movement.

At first, I did not know much about Len Lye’s work. When I was researching related ideas online, Len’s name came up often and so we looked deeper into his work and found it was exactly the mood we wanted to express and share.

The use of colour and patterns is such a leitmotif in your work.
Were you first drawn to the idea of incorporating the colour palette and motifs of the films of Len Lye into a collection? And how did you apply them? Was it complementing previous ideas for the show or was it the basis itself? 

Dries Van Noten: Well the two approaches convene and clearly propel each other. We really tried to capture the powerful essence of his work. We contacted the Len Lye foundation in New Zealand, and they were very open to working together. It really was about embracing the full breadth of Len’s vision. The craft of how he created prints directly on the celluloid, the scratching, the stencilling, and painting on the film. I was also fascinated by his essays on the art that moves. We were allowed to make different colour combinations, whilst still respecting his atmosphere and signature in combining colours. The Foundation provided us with great support, trust and flexibility, which was of huge value.

Reading about Len Lye I got such a sense of his joyous bohemian sensibility and rich enjoyment of life. It reminded me of what I know of the personality of Verner Panton, who you also honoured with a recent menswear collection.
 Both of them are pioneering modernists! Are your collaborations also a celebration of the personality of the artist as well as the art? 

Dries Van Noten: I like to pay homage to pioneering artists and their influential work. The work is the powerful expression of their vision and that is often sufficient. Though I am certainly interested in the life of the artist it is not always easy to get a full grasp of their character through work, especially posthumously. Len Lye knew so many different people and lived in so many different cities and yet at the end, he and his work was not so well known. He dedicated his career to affect people physically and emotionally and I think that is something we have tried to perpetuate and share. Assuring the transfer of the power of artwork on fabric is also an important consideration in respecting an artist’s character and vision.

The catalogue and postcards featuring the photographs of Viviane Sassen associated with the collection are so well designed and beautifully produced. Am I correct in thinking that the use of the spot varnish throughout is in homage to the medium of celluloid film that Len Lye worked directly with to produce his experimental films? 

Dries Van Noten: Yes, indeed! Light reflected and refracted expressed in a close and tangible way in the book through the use of the varnish, as well as a play on darkness, colour and brightness, was a reference to celluloid and projection. It imparts thé impression of movement on paper. We sought to engage these contrasts. The book provided a valuable opportunity to allow our collection to pay homage to both Len Lye and Viviane Sassen’s influential work both individually and together.


Len Lye and Viviane Sassen is on show at Dries Van Noten LA until June 20, 2021

Films below courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation

Colour Flight, 1938
courtesy Len Lye Foundation and Nga Taonga Sound & Vision

Colour Cry, 1952
courtesy Len Lye Foundation and Nga Taonga Sound & Vision

A Colour Box, 1935
courtesy Len Lye Foundation with kind permission of the Postal Museum

Rainbow Dance, 1936
courtesy Len Lye Foundation with kind permission of the Postal Museum

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