The designer talks activism, rebellion, slogan tees – and why she was ‘the original spoilt brat’. Bel Jacobs conducted the interview.
Katharine Hamnett sits in her London studio, wrapped in one of her own recycled-polyester parkas, recounting – with some scepticism – the bidding war she claims is currently taking place over the original 58% Don’t Want Pershing T-shirt. “Several museums want it, including MoMA and the Metropolitan, so I’m just going to sell it to the highest bidder.” “How do you feel about that?” I inquire. “Good!” she exclaims. “I’m surprised it’s lasted this long, but it’s still here – and the price is rising.”
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Perhaps it isn’t as surprising as she thinks. Ordinary citizens are becoming increasingly politicised and vocal in these turbulent times, as evidenced by international school climate strikes and the UK’s Extinction Rebellion. Hamnett’s anti-nuclear-missiles T-shirt is the original cri de coeur in this context. It was worn by Hamnett when she met then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 and is now a piece of history. And Hamnett, an irascible national treasure and one of the first fashion figures to raise the alarm about fashion’s hellishly destructive impact on the planet, is in higher demand than ever. She has spoken at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, Business of Fashion Voices, Copenhagen Fashion Summit, and Frieze Academy in the last year alone. Hamnett launched her brand in 1979, fresh from Central St Martins art school, combining designs based on a sexy utilitarian chic with her now-famous slogan tees. She began with Choose Life, a central Buddhist tenet inspired by her friendship with Lynne Franks, and added Education Not Missiles, Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now, Peace, Save The World, Save The Sea, Clean Up Or Die, Save The Future, and Vote Tactically to her repertoire. Notably, the majority still sound quite relevant.
I was the original spoilt brat… we were just having a lovely time but, in actual fact, we were all guilty – Katharine Hamnett
The collection was sold in 700 retail outlets in 40 countries in 1984. Hamnett, dubbed a “bad girl with integrity,” became the first person to be named British Fashion Council’s British Fashion Designer of the Year. Mick Jagger, Liz Taylor, Princess Diana, Boy George, and Madonna were among the many fans; George Michael wore the Choose Life T-shirt in the video for Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Influential photographers Ellen von Unwerth and Juergen Teller shot early campaigns in moody monochrome.
The Hamnett brand had a multi-million pound turnover by the 1990s. Those were heady times. “It was so much fun, so fantastic. “Fashion shows, the best hotels in the world, flying everywhere,” Hamnett says. “And I was the first spoiled brat. I just wanted to make clothes that were exquisitely beautiful, regardless of the material. It was a period of complete innocence – and, yes, ignorance. We were just having a good time, but in reality, we were all guilty.”
The tipping point came in 1989, when Hamnett, then 42 and at the pinnacle of her success, launched a study into the impact of her industry on people and the environment. “The results were devastating, a nightmare tsunami,” she recalls. “Every single material and process had a negative impact – synthetic fibres, leather tanning, viscose, dyeing, and finishing. Thousands of deaths as a result of accidental poisoning from conventional cotton agriculture; desertification and long-term aquifer contamination.”
Disgusted and enraged, Hamnett attempted to lobby for change by using her collections as platforms for issues that were important to her and badgering licensees to reduce the impact of the collections. But it was all pretty hopeless, and Hamnett soon stepped away from fashion to focus on activism and charity collaborations. It was a completely different landscape when she relaunched the label in 2017, with re-issues of archive pieces and unquestionable ethical and sustainable credentials.
“I’d been campaigning for years, I’d been successful before, I’d seen the way forward,” she says of her decision to re-launch. “I just got tired of it; it’s all about show, not tell.” Kanye West came to her aid, requesting that her archive be photographed and published as a reference for the Yeezy shoe collection that he endorses for Adidas.
You can’t not read what’s written on a T-shirt… once you’ve read it, it’s in your brain – Katharine Hamnett
Slogans are still an important part of the brand’s DNA. Fashion Hates Brexit and Cancel Brexit are the result of Hamnett’s anti-Brexit stance, while Global Green Deal Now and Save The Bees are for those with ethical and environmental concerns. “You can’t not read what’s written on a T-shirt,” she said in 2018 to The Guardian. “There’s no filter that stops the slogan – three words and lettering you can read from a long distance away. It’s in your head now that you’ve read it.”
A mercurial presence strikes you as you watch a 1985 interview with Hamnett on Thames TV’s Reporting London. Hamnett is an angular beauty in an emerald-green turban and matching shantung silk top, with huge, soulful eyes – and a biting demeanour. When asked if Princess Diana would wear one of the outfits she’s showing, she says languidly, “I’d rather see her in that than quite a few of the other things she chooses.”
Today, the 73-year-old designer is interested in discussing solutions, such as hydrogen. “There’s a hydrogen revolution going on right now as a replacement for fossil fuels,” she exclaims. “It’s pretty much the only thing that gives me hope. When hydrogen is burned, all that is produced is water vapour. How can we keep the planet cool? We increase cloud cover, which is made up of water vapour emitted by photosynthesis in micro algae and trees. So, you know, transportation could actually help to cool the planet.”
And her enthusiasm for organic cotton has only grown. Hamnett visited cotton farmers in Mali with the charity Oxfam in 2003, and the memories linger. “In some French colonies, farmers were stopped from growing food, and forced to grow cotton instead. People were starving in one of the Mali villages we visited, despite being surrounded by this perfectly fertile soil. Organic cotton uses 91% less water than conventional cotton and is better for biodiversity, but it accounts for only 1% of cotton used. We require radical change.”
Current initiatives, including the recently announced G7 Fashion Pact, leave her cold. “[The companies] are large and powerful, and they want to appear to be so. It’s a sham for the masses. If they mean what they say, they should include the following clauses in their purchasing contracts: labour standards, health and safety, zero hazardous chemical discharge, and zero carbon emissions by 2030.” Legislation, she believes, is the answer, because brands will never do it on their own.