ARTIST INTERVIEW: Jo Abellera of KKIBO
Working with fiber and textiles in much the same way a sculptor might work clay, designer Jo Abellera approaches KKIBO – her line of clothing, accessories, and homewares – with an inspired artisan’s eye. Natural fibers (cotton, wool, alpaca, jute and hemp) are transformed into work that exudes a deep individuality and an easy, sensual beauty.
Trained at Parsons School of Design, Abellera’s debut line was initially inspired by the writings of scholar Joseph Campbell and the birth of her first child. “I came across a book by Joseph Campbell,” Abellera remembers, “filled with these incredible images of young women in ceremonial costumes made of bark. I started making sweaters inspired by these images.”
Naming both her child and her new company after the Japanese word for ‘hope’, Abellera’s line is now known for its thrilling mix of primitive, organic forms and a thoroughly modern approach to sustainable, ethical design. Made largely in Los Angeles and her studio in the San Bernardino Mountains, from time to time Abellera also works on special projects with artisans in other parts of the world, including Bolivia and the Philippines. “I think the core mission of KKIBO is to make thoughtful, unique and beautiful things that reflect the natural world,” the designer explains, “using traditional techniques – knitting, crochet, weaving, and macramé – in a new way.”
Describe the path that led you to the work you do now. Did you take any big risks to get where you are?
I’ve always known I wanted to pursue something creative in design and the arts. However, when I was applying to college, my parents saw my creative leanings only as a hobby, not something from which I could make a living. So, instead, I studied English Literature and then went on to get Law degree. I was about to take the bar exam in two states, when I realized how profoundly depressed I was. I was not living my life for me. I stopped everything and moved to San Francisco to live with my sister. I worked at a restaurant, took acting classes, drawing classes, guitar. I started dating an artist at Berkeley, who was on his way to study in New York City. I followed him there. While living in New York, I realized that it was Fashion Design that I wanted to pursue. I studied at Parsons; every class was a revelation: pattern making, draping, tailoring, knitting—I realized how important it was for me to work with my hands. I felt finally, I was on the right path.
After graduating from Parsons, I worked in the fashion industry in New York and then Los Angeles for about 10 years. Working in the industry, I felt I was getting closer to my dream; but working for other companies and other designers left me feeling dissatisfied. When I became pregnant in 2009, I knew that once I had the baby, I was ready to start something new, to finally start making my lifelong dream a reality. Leaving behind my would-be career as a lawyer and leaving behind my path working for big companies and other designers in fashion—both junctures were big risks for me personally, financially and creatively. I’m so grateful that I summoned the courage to make my own work and follow my heart. It hasn’t always been easy; but I feel alive, I feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to do with my life.
How does practicing your art or craft impact your life or way of thinking?
I started KKIBO as a line of chunky handknit sweaters 5-6 years ago. It has evolved since then, and now includes hand and machine knits, ready-to-wear wovens, macrame bags, homewares, collaborations with other artists and artisans, and teaching. Starting the line was a leap into the unknown, based only on desire to make beautiful things with my hands. Having a creative practice is for me a practice of seeking beauty, leaning into uncertainty, pushing out of my comfort zones, trusting my gut instinct — learning and growing as an artist/designer/maker and as a business.
When I’m working with my hands, I’m doing the same things over and over again—in the repetition, I see new patterns, and new ideas for techniques, shapes and silhouettes emerge. I find the process very calming, intuitive, nurturing and meditative. In fact, I feel like something is missing in my day if I don’t work with my hands. It’s absolutely necessary to my sense of well being.
Are you inspired by the environment around you? How does the home/city/nature you live in affect your work?
I moved to Los Angeles in 2003 from New York City. I have always been inspired by the energy of the city, with the influence of so many different cultures in both LA and NY. I love people watching too—I am constantly inspired by women and how they express themselves through what they wear, and how they wear it.
Recently, my husband and I bought a beautiful W-frame house in the mountains, about an hour and a half east of Los Angeles, in Lake Arrowhead. Living in a small town, being surrounded by Nature is inspiring in different ways. Spending our first winter here has shown me how and where I feel cold in my body. I am now designing and making things reflecting these new experiences with the cold!
And now that it is Spring, I am able to set up my studio outdoors facing the forest. All around our house are many tall old pine trees and giant sequoias. It’s absolutely beautiful. The trees, the songs of the birds, the wind, the changing seasons — I find it all of it very nurturing, grounding and creatively inspiring.
Did you have any artists in your family, mentors, or other important creative influences?
My husband Guillaume Wolf is and has been an important creative influence in my life. He has been a constant supporter — encouraging and challenging me to keep growing, evolving and expressing myself through my work. He has had his own decades-long creative practice as an art director, illustrator, painter, photographer, and now writer and teacher. We are each other’s sounding boards. We are constantly in dialogue about our ideas, creative processes, respective businesses and creative/professional paths.
What are your artistic goals for the future? Next week, or next year, or 20 years from now?
I grew up surrounded by Philippine craft and textiles — capiz shell lamps, handwoven baskets and hats, hand carved wooden sculptures, my mom’s pineapple fiber blouses and dresses. It has been an artistic goal of mine to be able to connect to my roots, by working with artisans who have been making these beautiful handmade objects and textiles for generations. With my friend and collaborator Emilyn Eto of Cloth Object, I am working with artisans in the Cordillera mountains of the Philippines making basket bags, hats and clutches from wild bamboo and palm. We are excited to debut these beautiful pieces at the Echo Park Craft Fair.
For the future…I’d like to teach more and write a macrame/craft book. I’d also like to make both large scale art pieces that combine knitting, crochet, and macrame. I’d love to explore painting textiles, different dye techniques, and making my own prints. I aspire to have a creative path like that of ceramic artist Beatrice Wood, who made her best work well into her 80s and 90s. I hope to keep growing and evolving my craft and design sensibility for many years to come.