Sadly I didn’t get to the opening of, Kaffe Fassett – A Life In Colour, at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London last night. Mr Fassett is an incredible mixed media artist who crafts and constructs colourful knits and textiles along with mosaic and painting. Born in San Francisco in 1937 he arrived in the UK in the 1960s and began his career collaborating with Bill Gibb and Missoni. His work is now collected the world over. In 2008 while I was researching, Bill Gibb: Fashion and Fantasy (V&A Publications), I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with Mr Fassett in his home, a world away from the greyness of North London, every surface decorated and bedecked by his own hand. I was totally smitten, not least because Mr Fassett is a dashing silver fox. The following is edited from the original interview…

KF: When I met Billy…I felt fashion was very uptight and very rigid, and at the Royal College of Art I met Head of Fashion, Janey Ironside, who said, ‘There is going to be no embroidery or embellishment on fashion. It’s going to be a liquid that you pour into a form and it will pop out and that will be it, there won’t be a seam or any little bit of interest’, but we were completely going the other way. We were looking toward wonderful rich Indian saris, embroidery and sequins and jewels and textures and embellished colour. Of course, it was the hippie time so all the kids were saying this is what we want. Their mothers were dressing like Courrèges but the kids were going down to the market and taking an old bedspread and a piece of embroidery from the Twenties and something else from somewhere else and sticking it all together and we were delighted and doing the same thing ourselves. You’d even buy a dress and turn it into a shirt, so it was very free and expressive.

IRW: You had a bedsit in Notting Hill. Bill’s look was definitely a precursor of the bohemian Notting Hill look.

KF: I moved there on a Thursday, renting a grand room with a little balcony and a marble fireplace, wonderful wooden floors and big French windows. It was really fabulous. I would wander down to the market in Portobello Road and I just couldn’t believe it. This gypsy encampment had arrived that morning and set up these fantastic stalls. I knew nothing about as I was from America, so I instantly discovered that you could buy Chinese embroideries and African robes and fabulous historic pieces at a song. People were just throwing stuff out and nobody valued anything that was embellished in those days so I dragged Billy down when he came to stay with me. Then we travelled on a train through Morocco and loved the way the peasants would put on the most amazing shimmery evening clothes to go out and work in the fields – silver, brocades and fuchsia and all these colours and very evening gossamer kind of things with plastic shoes, working in the fields. That kind of combination absolutely fascinated Billy and he wanted to do something with that kind of strange mixture. Notting Hill Gate was kind of like travelling the world in the sense that everything was there in great piles, you had to dig through these piles of rags to find the goodies but we were both very good at that.

IRW: So you loved travelling and history and meshed the two things together.

KF: We took a fantastic trip across America. Bill loved that the earth was this wonderful rusty red colour. He saw a couple of barns or houses painted a sort of grey green and he latched onto those two colours and made this little dress with a border of rust on the grey green dress and that year Yves Saint Laurent picked those colours for his colours and we were like ‘Oh my God!’ We had just spotted them on things and thought they looked good, and that’s when we began to realise this amazing thing about fashion colours being in the air, that you just sense it. So the travelling was fabulous for that and we both, we could go to the most dire places that nobody else would find amusing in the slightest bit but we would see something like an old black woman going down the street with a great turban. There was always something to see and use, and it was exciting because you felt like everything you found in those days was useable. It was sort of like the music industry. It was wide open. Every little idea that you had was precious because somebody would respond to it somewhere and turn it into money.

IRW: It seemed like a time of tremendous possibility? A lot of businesses didn’t last long but burned bright. It was a moment to be creative.

K: I took my first sweater to Vogue and it was a complete rag. I put twenty colours in it and it had all these hairy bits hanging out because I didn’t know how to do my ends in. I had just barely learnt to knit and cobbled this sweater together and took it straight to Vogue and said, ‘What do you think?’ I had this fantastic confidence and Judy Brittain at Vogue looked at it and said, ‘This is where knitting is going in the future.’ It was just like that, and then she said, ‘One day you’re going to be designing for the Missonis’, and I said, ‘Who are the Missonis?’ and she said, ‘They are just the best in the world!’ And she published this thing that she had commissioned me to do and the first call I got was from Rosita Missoni asking me to come and design for them. It was just like that. We were on waves of confidence, because you were confident you could just do these things, and it was just fabulous.

Photographer: Steve Lovi
British Vogue, August 1982

Kaffe Fassett – A Life In Colour, Fashion and Textile Museum, SE1 3XF, 22nd March – 29th June 2013



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