Innovation through tradition. This description perfectly summarises the creations of knitwear designer Carlo Volpi.
Born in Italy, but based in London where he studied fashion and where he developed a passion for knitwear that lied dormant in his mind and heart since his childhood, Volpi currently creates knits characterised by multi-coloured patterns, graphic moods and unusual stitches.
While at times he favours flat effects and a more linear approach, quite often his creativity explodes in a riot of colours and he proceeds by accumulating extravagant ribbed motifs, three-dimensional elements or thick and complex formations on the body of the wearer to protect, morph or alter it in surprising ways.
This dichotomic approach to knitwear is the result of his "divided soul", of his background and his encounter with the clubbing culture in London, an experience that deeply transformed his personal approach to fashion and style, but to life as well.
In Volpi's designs the classic Italian knitwear tradition is therefore mixed with crazy colour combinations, the result of the designer's incursions into the realm of ugliness and of his experiments with innovative techniques. Volpi is indeed also a passionate knitwear and yarn researcher and has been developing in the last few seasons the samples displayed in the research area of the Pitti Filati yarn fair.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
Carlo Volpi: I was born in Empoli and I lived in a small village near there until I turned 18. I used to dream about living in another place, maybe going abroad and move to a big city, as I didn't like the place where I grew up. I always wanted to live in the UK and learn English, so I studied languages. After finishing school I worked for a year, saved some money and, in 1998, flew away to London. It seemed like the perfect place to go and I used to love going to clubs. I would live just to go out at the weekend and spend my week sewing garments for my nights out. Unfortunately, nobody had ever prompted me to opt for a creative career while I lived in Italy, but this new interest pushed me to pursue a part-time course in sewing, then a foundation course in textiles and fashion, followed by a degree and a master in the same subjects! The most important lessons I learnt here in the UK is to keep your mind open to lots of things, and that opposites - such as good and bad/beauty and ugliness - are very subjective ideas, so you can find inspiration in everything, especially in ugly things.
Who inspired you to become a knitwear designer?
Carlo Volpi: I actually grew up surrounded by knitting machines since the area around Florence used to be an important centre for the Italian knitwear industry and both my grandmothers worked in a small factory in my home town. As a child, I would try and get my hands on some knitting needles and I used to be able to knit a little bit as well, but I never thought that knitwear would turn into a job, also because at the time not many young men were suggested to go for that career. Our parents wanted us to become lawyers or doctors, but certainly not knitwear designers. I stumbled upon a knitting machine when I started studying at Goldsmiths and suddenly many childhood memories came back to my mind and everything made sense. I never stopped creating since then!
Your knitwear is characterised by a very colourful and passionate vision, are you inspired by any artists or disciplines?
Carlo Volpi: Colours are my favourite weapons, I love unusual clashes and contrasts, especially "ugly" ones. I love the idea of taking inspiration from things that people usually define as "ugly" because ugliness is a virgin land – it's waiting for you to discover it! I think that my bright palette derives from the fact that I miss a lot the sun of my home country, but I also love Pop Art. I've always liked Keith Haring for example for the honesty, simplicity and spontaneity of his work. I could list a lot of artists who fascinate me: I love for example Martin Creed's brutality and Mike Nelson's narrative language, but also Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol. I like the fact that Hirst always manages to piss somebody off just by getting one of his assistants to draw a circle on a piece of paper. I like music, but the artists I listen to do not reflect the moods of my designs: my favourite artist has always been Diamanda Galas and I like bands such as Christian Death, Death in June, Current 93, Suede and Tom Odell. I'm maybe not that up to date when it comes to music, but I usually like things that cause strong reactions, and I'm always surprised when something like an image or a slogan enrages people. A while back I was walking around a tiny village in Mongolia and I saw a young man in the street with a giant swastika printed on his T-shirt. It actually wasn't a religious symbol as in Hinduism and Buddhism, but it was a Nazi swastika, yet over there nobody said anything about it because of the religious connections with this symbol. As a designer I'm attracted by such ambiguous situations that allow you to juggle with the meanings we attach to a symbol or an image in one culture or in another and I always do hope that in my designs I can do that - question such issues and topics and play around with preconceptions.
Is there a knitwear designer you particularly like?
Carlo Volpi: I usually find a lot of things I love when I leaf through magazines or look on the Internet, but I never manage to keep in mind the name of this or that particular designer. I guess that happens because I'm more interested in the actual design than in who designed it. I actually think that nowadays fame turns designers, artists and actors into minor Midas figures. So if a jacket was designed by, say Karl Lagerfeld, it must be fantastic no matter what. That said there are quite a few designers I like, among them James Long, Mark Fast and Sibling.
Do you prefer hand-knitting or working on the knitting machine; and in case do you have a favourite machine?
Carlo Volpi: It depends. There are times when I do not touch the needles for months and times when I do not use the machines for a long time. It is always a pleasure to go back and rediscover a machine or various hand-knitting techniques. I love home machines such as Brother's because they are versatile, but I also like Passap machines (the most hated and less known brand!) and Dubied for finest gauges.
At the moment there is a wide interest in technological textiles: in which ways can we apply technology and innovative processes to knitwear?
Carlo Volpi: Technology is a further development of our desire to satisfy our creativity. There are researchers out there studying how various textiles can help us improving our lives, such as fabrics that can release insuline for people suffering from diabetes. Technology is helping me developing ideas that would otherwise be inconceivable or impossible to make. For example for the project Moda Futuribile in collaboration with Dyloan Studio I wanted to question the ways society reacts to technology. We always hear these discussions and debates about social media ruining our society and, if you think about it, 20 years ago mobile phones were blamed for destroying human relationships. This emphasis on the past being better than the future has always made me ponder about how there is always a part of the world or of our society that changes very quickly and another part that doesn't want to acknowledge the change. So for that project I employed techniques inspired by methods and techniques that already exist such as weaving and stained glass windows, but I tried to use them not just in an aesthetic key, but also in a conceptual way, wondering if these methods were good enough to represent sacred icons. I wanted to prompt visitors to think about "prohibited" or "unacceptable" connections, because this is what technology should do in my opinion.
Do you work with any Italian knitwear or yarn companies?
Carlo Volpi: Unfortunately not on a creative level, even though I would love to. I'm proud of being an Italian knitwear designer working in Great Britain as my country built a solid reputation abroad when it comes to this industry. The Moda Futuribile project gave me the chance of working with Dyloan Studio - one of its founders, Loreto Di Rienzo, is actually among the few visionary minds left in Italy - and with Clouds, a knitwear company near Assisi. Both were patient enough to make my ideas come true with astonishing results. I do know Italian yarns because I write reviews of the Pitti Filati fair for an English speaking site - Knitting Industry - and because many of the yarns I use are made in Italy.
Talking about Pitti Filati, how did you start working for the research area?
Carlo Volpi: I met Nicola Miller while I was still studying. Some of the designs of the Research Area at Pitti Filati were developed in collaboration with the Royal College of Art for several seasons. It was a real honour for me working on such a project. I kept in touch with Nicola and then I also met Angelo Figus. When I finished my studies, they asked me to make some designs for them, and that's how it all started. As time passed the assignments increased and now I also help Nicola and Angelo with their research and the project presentation to the mills, and I make some of the final swatches for the fair. I do feel that the work I do for the research space is the one I prefer because it gives me the opportunity to use my creativity at its best and get to know a lot of different yarns by various mills. Besides, working with Nicola and Angelo is always a pleasure as both of them have a great passion and they respect creativity and knitwear. At the same time, we have developed an informal and pleasant working relationship that also helps us in our collaborations.
Among the trends presented at the "Made in" Research Area at Pitti Filati 75, which is your favourite one?
Carlo Volpi: I made five trends for this space - Made in Blue, Grand, Steppes, Highland and Stone - with the help of a small team of designers based here in London and I had the opportunity to get to know each theme pretty well. Angelo and Nicola researched in-depth all the trends, giving us precise inputs for each swatch, but also leaving us free to interpret their inspirations. This sort of synergy between us is the key point behind our collaborations. Maybe the theme I prefer is "Made in Stone" I love its simplicity and minimalism, plus the soft and light, almost ethereal colours that we juxtaposed to the thickness of the yarns and the solid and compact structures.
What plans do you have for the immediate future?
Carlo Volpi: I would like to develop further my online shop and I'm also working on building a network of online stores and boutiques interested in stocking my collections.
Image credits for this post
Carlo Volpi's designs: photographs by Tracer Ital, Alexei Izmaylov and Aaron Tilley; Image 11 by Carlo Volpi.