“Life enhancing”. Those are the words that Kaffe Fassett repeats the most during the interview. And it does not come as a surprise since the knitwear designer is extremely devoted to enhancing his and our lives through the use of colour.
His passion began on a train ride back from Scotland where he was taught how to knit by a stranger. Then came his first design, that graced the glossy pages of Vogue, at a time when, in his own words, “the industry was more adventurous than it is now” and he was “very free and loose”. He was encouraged by his friend, the then art director Barney Wan, whose team would send the garments to big photographers such as David Bailey.
In 1969 the Missonis contacted him and invited him to work with them. I naively ask if they made him stick to certain assignments or let him improvise, and he bursts out laughing saying “Darling! It’s me! They had to let me improvise!”, which really summarises his free creative approach. He lovingly describes the tones he first worked with, sophisticated plums and blacks, and how he created Biblical stripes that then made it into jersey dresses. After that he thought of the colour grey while talking with Rosita Missoni and they came up with a grey collection inspired by a book he had seen about Afghanistan. He was very prolific and provided them with many designs before moving on.
Since then he has designed ballet outfits, gardens and theatre costumes and sets, as well as travelled the world teaching in knitting and patchwork workshops. He gets emotional remembering his first big scale piece, a huge quilt hanging from a tower in Holland and how “the colours melted with the bricks of the tower”. This is his new ambition: going big.
But if something really triggers his emotions, it is proving how life enhancing colours are. In dark times, like the current economic situation, we could do with some Fassett therapy. As he has observed, the most colourful places in the world are usually incredibly poverty-stricken, so if they can “put on magenta, yellow, sky blue and step out into the world making everybody else feel good”, why can we not do the same?
His next exhibition, “Kaffe Fassett - A Life in Colour”, will run from the 22nd of March until the 29th of June in the Fashion and Textile Museum, London.