Kaffee Fassett is a one-man kaleidoscope, and your mum’s knitting ain’t got nothing on him. Wonderland interviewed him at the launch of A Life In Colour, his new exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum.
Born in San Francisco, Fassett (above) grew up in a artistic community of Big Sur, California, before hopping across to pond to make his fortune as an artist in London during the swinging sixties.There, his intuitive grasp of colour and willingness to bend the rules of traditional knitwear and textile construction launched his career as one of the most creative and out-there practitioners of the craft, and got him noticed by print-loving labels like Missoni.
A Life In Colour is Fassett’s first exhibition since a retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1988, features over 100 works within a dramatic installation designed by Sue Timney. Rugs, blankets, dresses, shawls, cushions – name the knitwear, and chances are Fassett has put his own acid-coloured spin on it. Below, Fassett tells us more about his illustrious career.
This is an amazing exhibition, could you tell us more about it?
It is 50 years of work in this exhibition, starting from my very first sweater – all the colour explorations through knitting, needlepoint, patchwork and quilt. Basically, what I’m always doing is trying to understand colour and trying to make it more vibrant, sexy and juicy. Interestingly, when I first started to paint, I was always doing white paintings – everything was monochrome. But I grew out of that and fell in love with Indian prints and Persian miniatures: the little flowers against paisley, against stripes, against checkerboards… All of that really appealed to me. When I look at a fashion designer like Kenzo, he has the same feeling and aura – and Christian Lacroix, he loved romantic patterns and so do I.
So besides colours, what else inspires you?
Patterns! How else are you going to organize that colour to make it exciting? I look to old Roman mosaics and ancient Japanese kabuki costumes, things which have these fantastic scenes of patterns.
You once collaborated with Missoni, what was that like?
Fabulous! When I first took my first piece of knitting (a sweater) to British Vogue, they said that it was beautiful and very unusual. The editor then, Judy Brittan, said: “One day you will be designing for Missoni”. The very first garment I had in British Vogue was photographed by David Bailey, and when Vogue came out, I got a call from Missoni the next day. They understood my sense of colour and their colours are absolutely beautiful and immediately, I was not nervous ’cause I knew they spoke my language!
Do you experiment with different techniques to achieve the colours and fabrics you want?
Absolutely. When I started to knit, I was known for mixing things that I shouldn’t – man-made fibers with old scratchy yarn that was used from carpets. I’d take silk and chenille and mohair and mix it all up. Nobody did that in the early 70s. Everything was by hand and of course I had to get fast.
You seem to treat your craft as a friend, almost like a lifelong companion.
It’s my solace. I use to be very social, but when I started to knit, all of those that just fell away. I was on fire, I had all these ideas and I wanted to stay home and get them done. I wanted to knit the next big throw for my bed, the next big coat, the next big fabulous dress, I couldn’t stop. It made me realize I’m happy with my own company and there’s not many things in the world that can make you that way. So when people say knitting has changed their life, I know what they mean!
The last exhibition you did was 25 years ago. What made you do another one?
It was during my autobiography. It took me three years to decide how to write my own biography, what stories am I going to tell, what am I going to leave out. The book contains 500 pictures of my work and I thought that people should see the actual thing, so I called up the museum.
Do you still get inspired by the language of fashion?
Occasionally, if I see something that’s colourful. I’d like people to be more adventurous with colour; I’ve travelled to Japan, India, Guatemala and Africa, where they love colour. I often don’t agree with fashion; it’s sad when fashion tends to be grey, which it has been for quite a while.
Words: James Lennon Tan