Making Moody Lei for Strange Times with Noah Harders

Noah Harders

Maui floral artist Noah Harders uses petals, leaves, and lichens to make wearable art that is part mythology, part haute couture.

Text by Shannon Wianecki
Images by Bailey Rebecca Roberts

In lush Waikapū, Noah Harders’ open-air studio resembles a haberdasher’s closet, only all of the embellishments are made of living materials. Snippets of fern and seedpods litter his workbench. The shelves above bear vases and dried vestiges of projects. His current fetishes are masks, and horns—great, curvaceous ram’s horns that he fabricates from finely trimmed dracaena leaves. If Maleficent were looking for a dazzling headpiece to wear to the Kentucky Derby, she might call on him to create it. 

“I really love symmetry,” the 25-year-old says, sorting the foliage he collected this morning into tidy piles.

On walks, he scours his central Maui neighborhood for natural patterns, deep-hued blossoms, and leaves with strong structure. He has an artist’s obsession with pigment and texture. Where other people see wildflowers and weeds, he sees the raw materials for his craft.

“I use whatever I can find—little vines or crazy imported stuff,” he says. “You can make something out of anything.”

If Maleficent were looking for a dazzling headpiece to wear to the Kentucky Derby, she might call on him to create it. 

In 2014, Noah started out as a delivery boy for a local florist. He knew how to string lei, so the owner asked him to make lei and boutonnières. Before long, he was managing invoices and orders.

Next, he worked for a wedding coordinator helping brides pick out bouquets and centerpieces. Now, he runs his own company, NkH Design, offering floral artistry, photography, and graphic design. 

Embracing the Dark Side

Noah’s aesthetic is the precise opposite of the tropical shabby chic that has dominated Hawai‘i’s wedding industry for decades.

“My style is dark, moody, and mysterious,” he says. “I can’t do the whole bright cheerful thing—sorry!”

Fantastic, feral, and little bit macabre, his ornate headpieces are something you might expect to see at a Venetian carnival. He starts by sculpting forms out of chicken wire or tightly curled paper and then meticulously layers them with petals or leaves using floral tape and a glue gun.

His “Medusa” crown defies gravity: interlocking ropes of ruby-colored petals coil snakelike above a matching mask.

Another dramatic headpiece features a deconstructed fan lavishly adorned with cymbidium orchids and spray-painted gold.

Noah gravitates toward saturated, dark hues that look as if they’re aglow in moonlight. His masks often obscure or reinvent the human form, evoking creatures that gather at the edge of dusk to whisper secret invitations.

His floral arrangements are moody, too: bouquets with autumnal tones and unexpected accents like kauna‘oa, the tangled beach dodder that grows wild on Maui’s coastal dunes. His stylized, asymmetrical wedding arches have become signatures of NkH Design. You can see his stunning designs on his Instagram feed.

My style is dark, moody, and mysterious. I can’t do the whole bright cheerful thing. Sorry!

Pushing the Limits

“Clients familiar with my work will ask for more outrageous designs,” he says. “Before, traditional was the way to go: regular centerpieces and a tight little bouquet that you hold. Nowadays people want to be subtle but different. I’ll read the client, and if I feel like they’re open to more unusual ideas, I’ll pitch something that I’ve been wanting to do and they will love. I try to push it out of the box.”

In January he created costume pieces for a fantasy drama funded by Jason Momoa and shot at Kualoa Ranch on O‘ahu.

Noah holds a little owl eye mask he made for the movie. It’s an immaculate assemblage of tiny spikes: 3,000 bamboo skewers individually sharpened into feather-like tips.

Another headpiece he crafted onsite takes the form of a massive tree and was built out of bark, moss, and shelf fungus. “It matched the scenery perfectly,” he says.

The job was a delight for the artist who rapturously loves science-fiction and fantasy.

“My favorite movie of all time is Avatar—the blue people, the flowers in the nighttime … everything glows.” Alexander McQueen is another inspiration. “One collection that he did with insects and moth patterns … when I saw the symmetry of the wings, I said: ‘Oh my gosh, that’s what I want to make!’”

Noah’s journey into his own fantasyland started innocently enough: with a single lei. While stringing plumeria together for customers at the floral shop, he began envisioning how to replicate traditional Hawaiian lei hulu (feather lei) with flowers. He experimented with layering leathery red ginger petals onto twisted raffia.

The result was a stunning, luxuriant scarlet garland with the texture of snakeskin. Working on the piece renewed Noah’s respect for his Hawaiian ancestors.

“If that lei took me eight hours to make with petals,” he says, “it probably took them months, even years, to collect thousands of feathers and tie them together. There was no glue gun! It really makes me appreciate the artistry that our ancestors had.”

I’m the most self-conscious person ever. But in a mask, I turn into this other person. I feel super confident and bold.

Becoming Another Person

Noah’s family has lived in Waikapū for more than 100 years. Most of the people who live on the narrow road that reaches up into the valley are his relatives.

They’re getting accustomed to seeing their young cousin stalking the roadside for supplies or suddenly appearing in a mask with massive horns.

“I’m the most self-conscious person ever,” he laughs. “But in a mask, I turn into this other person. I feel super confident and bold.”

He holds a spray of pink flowers up to his forehead. Squinting into the mirror, he studies how the blossoms drape against his face.

“I’m going to keep this loose and whimsical,” he says, fastening the sprig onto a wire form. This headpiece is for his sister-in-law, a model and makeup artist with whom he often collaborates. “I’ll probably attach some petals beneath her eyes as eyeliner,” he says. “And earrings. I always make earrings to go with the masks because it’s a little more extra.” 

Noah only recently started posting photos of his wilder creations online.

When the Covid-19 pandemic first reached Hawai‘i, he posted a series of face masks he fashioned out of dark purple orchids, staghorn ferns, and silver tendrils of Spanish moss. Each organic mask epitomized a breath of fresh air—something the world desperately needed.

“I had to build up the courage to share what I love,” he confesses.