Kaffe Fassett was born in San Francisco and grew up in Big Sur California. He first landed in Bath around 1964, so it is appropriate that he should stage a major retrospective at the American Museum in Britain on the outskirts of the city. This forthcoming exhibition promises to showcase all elements of work by the renowned knitwear designer and textile artist from his needlepoint, beading and quilting to mosaics, paintings and drawings. In 2007 I had the pleasure of meeting with Fassett when I was penning a biography dedicated to fashion designer Bill Gibb. The interview took place in Fassett’s home in London, an almost mind-blowing milieu where every surface is touched by the artist’s hand. I left genuinely energised by the clash of pattern, texture colour but mostly I was seduced by Fassett’s remarkable verve. And in his seventies, the man is still as a handsome as his work is colourful.
Here are edited highlights of that interview. 19th April 2007.
‘IT WAS LIKE A LITTLE THEATRICAL EVENT ALL IN ONE DRESS’
IRW: Tell me how you met Bill.
KF: We were both just cruising around the scene I suppose in the late 1960s. I was always going to little clubs on the Kings Road and he was just one of the characters I saw quite often. It was at the Gigolo club. I just got chatting to him and we hit it off immediately, he was very funny and had that fantastic Scottish voice of his and he was dressed in a kind of old sailors pea coat. I asked him what was his profession and he said ‘Well, I’m kind of interested in costumes, sometimes I design costumes,’ but was very vague about it and, of course, I found out later he was a fashion designer and was quite shy about it. But the funniest thing about meeting him is that a few days after we got to know each other he went into a phone box and called up his aunt and spoke to her in the ‘brogue’ and it was just extraordinary, to hear this voice and he put the phone down when he had said goodbye to her and said, ‘Alright, do you still want to be friends with me? That’s the way I talk!’ It was so funny and, of course, I was like Wow! this is so exotic, so wonderful.
IRW: That period was a moment of escapism. Zeffirelli directing Romeo & Juliet, people looking to travel to exotic destinations?
KF: Absolutely. I was about twenty nine when I met Billy so I had lived a few years but I felt fashion was very uptight and very rigid, and at the Royal College of Art I met Janey Ironside who told us that there was going to be no embroidery or embellishment on fashion, it was going to be a liquid that you poured into a form and it would pop out and that would be it and we were like, ‘Oh no!’ We were completely going in the other direction. We were looking at wonderfully rich Indian saris, embroidery and sequins and jewels and textures. And embellished colour, richness of colour and, of course, it was the hippie time so all the kids were saying this is what we want and their mothers were dressing like Courrèges and the kids were going down to the market and taking an old bedspread and a piece of embroidery from the 1920s and something else from somewhere else and sticking it all together and we were delighted and doing the same thing ourselves. We’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?
KF: I moved there on a Thursday. I had this wonderful, grand room with a little balcony, a marble fireplace, wonderful wooden floors and big French windows, so it was really fabulous. I was wandering down to the market into Portobello Road and I just couldn’t believe it, it was like this gypsy encampment had arrived that morning and set up these fantastic stalls. I 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 and we found all these things that we wanted like guardsman’s uniforms, stuff that we could turn into our clothes. 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, fuschia pink and peach and very evening gossamer fabrics worn with plastic shoes, working in the fields. That kind of combination absolutely fascinated Billy and he was going to do something with that kind of strange mixture, but 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. I’m so disparaging about fashion nowadays because you spend a fortune and you end up looking like an unmade bed, because I like the embroidery, the colour and the fantasy.
IRW: You both loved travelling and history and the two meshed together.
KF: We took a fantastic trip across America and what was interesting was he noticed that the earth is this wonderful rusty red and I loved that, and he saw a couple of barns or houses painted a sort of grey green and he latched onto those two colours, rust and grey green. When he came back he made this very Courrèges-like dress with a border of rust on the grey green and that same year Yves Saint Laurent picked those same colours and that’s when we began to realise this amazing thing about fashion colours being in the air, that you just sense it, you know, that you could be flipping through an old book of ancient paintings or you can be looking through a fashion magazine and if something stops you, you know that your eye is in, that you’re responding to that, so the travelling was fabulous for that. We could go to the most dire places that nobody else would find amusing in the slightest bit but we would see something, an old woman going down the street with a great turban, there was always something to see and use. 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: At that time there were a lot of possibilities, but a lot of businesses didn’t last long, they burned bright, had their moment being creative.
KF: 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 stitch my ends in. I had just barely learnt to knit and cobbled this sweater together, took it straight to Vogue and said, ‘What do you think?’ It was this fantastic confidence and Judy Brittain at Vogue looked at it and she said, ‘This is where knitting is going in the future. Do something for my fabulous knitting book’. It was just things 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 told me they were 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 if I would go and design for them. So it was like that, we were on waves of confidence and because you were confident you could just do these things, and it was just fabulous. It was kind of like the Beatles bursting on the scene. These days people sit down to do research and they get the cutest boys together to make a boy band. They say, we have to get this and we have to have that to make sure the girls are going to love them and everything else, all this crap. I mean, The Beatles would never have had a chance or The Rolling Stones, but people had this confidence, it was an amazing time. You just made it happen.
IRW: Tell me about how you collaborated? The process?
KF: It was an interesting process. I always felt that I had a lot of influence on Billy, for instance he really wasn’t that cognisant of Indian or Persian paintings and he was a little bit nervous about pattern on pattern. He loved the structures, which had always been an anathema to me, because I love the surface pattern and the colour, that’s what I’m after. I was out looking for that and he was the one who was going to take that pattern and make it into something. I’d give him a knitting design and he would turn it into the most amazing leg-o-mutton sleeve, things that no one did in knitting, just bizarre and wonderful sort of stuff. I dragged him along to see these Persian paintings and said, ‘Look at the way they put a flower print on top of stripes on top of checks and then they stand them against the wall that has the same things going on,’ and that was my job really. A lot of times he would ask if I had any ideas for the season, so I’d say, ‘Yeah I’ve been looking at some cave paintings in Turkey that are very bold and interesting,’ and I would go home and knit a little swatch and bring it back and he would be interested and we would discuss colours. We would just play that way, but once you fed him those ideas then that incredible architectural mind of his took over.
IRW: The look was all about those layers. Bill didn’t really design things to be worn separately? It was the union of things, not just physical layers but also layering of ideas.
KF: Often a dress would have several different patterns then it would have embroidery and then it would have ribbons. He was building up a patina. It was like a little theatrical event all in one dress, it was very exciting.
IRW: There was also a painterly thing going on, that play with texture and colour.
KF: In the beginning it was a lot of my influence but after a while because I was never paid I just got busy with other things and so we didn’t really meet and talk so much after the first few collections. I would just do some knitwear for him and take it down. But in the early days it was really exciting just to sit down with prints and think about how you could use this and that and going to the showrooms and looking at the fabrics. I really loved all that.
IRW: I’m not a very spare time person, always seeing things, always working?
KF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think he was always working and even if he was out at a nightclub or somewhere he would be looking at people’s shoes, the strange way those stockings went with that skirt. He was always on, which we all are. I never turn off either.
IRW: Bill was one of our unsung talents. Why do you think he disappeared from fashion?
KF: You know the fashion world, it’s just ball-breaking to keep up with it, collection after collection, I think anybody gets tired, you’re very attracted to the whole razamatazz and the applause and the excitement but it’s also terrifying, are you going to get it again? Are they going to be just as excited next time? Invariably somebody says, ‘Oh, I liked your older stuff so much better!’ It’s just that treadmill. What was it, three collections a year, all the stuff that goes into it, the craziness.
IRW: You were both at odds with the industry? Bill was more of a craftsperson, not wanting to do things that were different every season, not new, new, new. He liked to make thing and evolve things.
KF: He liked developments. When he got into knitting almost nobody was doing knitting then, so to do it on that level and with that panache was very exciting for both of us, but it was tough going actually just to find a manufacturer who would see the point. [Harry Green of Gould’s in Leicester is said to have laughed when he first saw Kaffe’s samples but eventually enjoyed the challenge] I was producing one-off garments that had two hundred colours in a garment and I went up there and they said, ‘Oh you’ve put twelve colours in this garment couldn’t you take it down to six because we’ve got a wonderful machine here but it only takes six colours.’ I was like, ‘What?’ So then I started to get space-dyed yarn so I could get a little more mileage out of colours. That’s tough when you find things and you want to develop them. I certainly feel that in my own world, I like things to go slowly and develop and if I love something I want to use it again and again. I loved Jean Muir saying, ‘If I find a colour I just love it’ and she did that wonderful plum colour and she used it for years.
IRW: So Bill was as much an artist as a fashion designer.
KF: Yes, I would say that, I do think he had a very artistic vision, definitely I was a painter coming to this with a painter’s eye, but I would say that Billy had the same sort of passion. Maybe most designers would say they had that same thing but when he would create an outfit he could see it entering a place, or how it would look in his fantastic shows, so to me that’s like, seeing theatrical possibilities that’s where he was like being an artist.
IRW: It’s really great that young designers are still excited by the work you did together. Are you still excited by the work?
KF: Oh definitely. I just remember one collection, we did a little kind of palm tree shape motif that we used in the knitwear and it was because when we were travelling through Morocco I saw this little boy who had to sit and patiently hold the threads while somebody was doing a braid in the market, and I was looking at him and he had this sweater on that had these little kind of palm trees on and it was so charming and I just took that idea and there it was on the catwalks in London. I am full of the memories of the sort of things that we were doing, and so it does excite me because it was a very creative life and you put your finger on it, it was a time when you just had the confidence to step forward and say your smallest wish and it became an idea that was born in the world so it was very lucky for the both of us. Billy adored his grandmother and that’s part of why he was so magical and special because she was definitely magical. He would dress her up in fantastic outfits and she would just let him, she was like a big lioness and she would sit back and he would put all these things on her. That had a lot to do with his development, like he went to an ordinary school and the teacher looked at his drawings and went straight to parents and said this boy should go to London and be at art school, he doesn’t belong here.
IRW: Being out of sorts in your environment you create your own fantasy world.
KF: You have to bloody well believe in yourself because these thick heads around you aren’t going to and you learn to be tough because you are going to get called everything under the sun and you just have to find a way to be proud of that, whoever you are, it’s a great school of toughening people up.
IRW: Bill was the quintessential British designer. That sense of fantasy, romance and escapism. Transporting people with the clothes.
KF: Sure, I’m a great believer that we’re born with these visions and these possibilities and what he had was, he was so confident, in just the same way that I was confident in what I had. I had a similar background. I was raised by carpenters, foresters, all these tough guys and I just couldn’t make them understand me and yet they kind of liked me. You find a way of being funny but you are lonely because you are not going down the same route as all these guys who are getting married, drinking beer and talking about girls legs. You’re off on your own trip and you can’t share it with anybody. You very rarely find anybody of like mind so I was quite lucky because I had a lot of artists that my mother liked and knew. And I’m sure Billy’s grandmother made him realise that there was a world outside.
IRW: And then coming to London, heading to somewhere where you find people to share your ideas.
KF: And people not going, “Wooooaaaw!’ It’s a terrible thing, you have this wonderful dream and people just think you are nuts. Absolutely. I think it sounds like the three of us were thrown back on our own loneliness and so you do build that fantasy world. It’s nurturing time that you give to yourself. But he would just be a smash hit now.
KAFFE 2014: The Colourful World of Kaffe Fassett, The American Museum in Britain, Claverton Manor, Bath, BA2 7BD. 22 March – 2 November 2014.