Consummate British designer, icon, and political activist Katherine Hamnett had fame, fortune and the fashion world under her thumb – only to risk it all by challenging the industry and championing controversial environmental and human rights causes. A fashion superstar of the 80s, Hamnett conceived some of the most plagiarised designs of the decade including her famed politically driven slogan t-shirts – one of which was the ubiquitous ‘Choose Life’ tee which spawned countless imitations, one worn by Wham! in their ‘Wake me up before you go go’, clip.
Aside from popularising slogan tees, Hamnett is accredited with inventing stone-washing, distressed and stretch denim, coining the term ‘Power-dressing’ with her ’86 collection of the same name, discovering renowned photographers for her campaigns including Ellen Von Unswerth, Juergen Teller and Terry Richardson and being awarded the first ever British Fashion Council Designer of the Year Award in 1984. That same year, she made waves and global front-page news when she met then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wearing a, ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ t-shirt – a statement echoing the British public’s response to Thatcher’s support for American Pershing missiles on European soil. While throughout her career she’s shown alongside Jean Paul Gautier, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons, partied with The Slits, introduced condom pockets on boxer shorts and had fans in everyone from Adam Ant, Mick Jagger and Madonna to Gwyneth Paltrow, David Bowie and Princess Diana, her most important contribution to fashion is her use of clothing, and her success as a designer, as a vehicle for political and environmental change. In the leafy surrounds of her Highbury, London studio, Indigo Clarke sat down with Katherine Hamnett and discovered the history and future of her ethical and ecological crusades.
Oyster: Where did you grow up Katharine?
Katharine Hamnett: I grew up all over the place really because my father was in the airforce. We were posted abroad quite a lot, and so we moved to France when I was five, then to Romania and then Stockholm, I went to Boarding School in England from age eight onwards, which was pretty grim…
Oyster: So it wasn’t like an Enid Blyton midnight feasts and lashings of ginger beer boarding school experience?
KH: I wish. No it wasn’t like that at all, it was more like Auschwitz. It was quite tough and very dictatorial, and they wanted everyone to conform to a mould… but because I’d been schooled in France from ages five to eight, I’d learned to take no shit, so the mould was set, I was different to the other English girls.
Oyster: And were you always interested in fashion?
KH: Well, I was always interested in art, and generally interested in the creative field. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school, so I thought I’d like to be a film director, archeologist, marine biologist or a… you know, have a proper job. Once I cast my eye around I thought, ‘fashion looks like its really pretty stupid’, I thought it’d be easy to get rich and famous.
Oyster: So, was it easy to get rich and famous?
KH: Yes, in a way. We were on a massive roll from the early 80s on, we were just so successful it was a joke. We did brilliantly – it was an out of control success by the time I was 21 – I was just out of college. I started the label with a college friend right after we graduated, we didn’t know anything about the industry… we dove in, we made and cut patterns, designed the garments, made the samples, took the orders, co-ordinated production entirely on our own, packing, shipping, everything. From an early age we had to learn to handle all aspects of the industry. And it’s important for designers to do this, to retain independence. We never had backers – we’ve always managed on the money we’ve made ourselves. If you’re independent no-one can tell you what not to do, you’re free – I mean if I’d had backers I would never have been able to make the slogan t-shirts – I would never had been able to campaign on the issues and say the things I’ve been able to say.
Oyster: And without that freedom, you may not have had the success you’ve had.
KH: Well yes probably not, because we were originators – we were starting a trend. If we’d had a backer they would have seen this as a risk and put the breaks on it. By the time I was 25, we were getting four or five pages in Vogue each month, so I had a chance to check out what ‘success’ was really early on, and could evaluate what being successful really meant. I see success as being happy – and finding happiness through doing what you believe in.
Oyster: What was it like to work in the 70s and 80s - a time of social and political upheaval in the UK?
KH: The 70s were fun, I was on the edge of punk. Punk was great, I had a flat below The Slits – they were all quite fun and off their head on speed all the time, they used to have great parties. I didn’t ever dress the slits, but I did dress Adam Ant and nutcases like that. Wham and Frankie goes to Hollywood copied our t-shirts – Wham ripped off our ‘Choose Life’ t-shirt to make a ‘Choose Wham’, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood made a slogan tee saying, ‘Frankie says Relax’. It was quite irritating really, we tried to be philosophical about it and think, ‘emulation is the highest form of flattery’ – but you can’t eat it, emulation doesn’t pay. Right now we’ve created a ‘Choose Love’ organic-cotton tee for Tesco, and other labels have already made non-organic knock-offs they’re selling for more.
Oyster: I heard your ‘Choose Life’ slogan was hi-jacked by the Pro-Life American anti-abortionist league…
KH: It was a Buddhist philosophy that was stolen by the Pro-Lifers in America – but I’ve taken that slogan back because fuck ‘em, I disagree, I’m Pro-Choice. All the other t-shirts we’ve done are coming from that slogan, that’s what they’re all about. Why don’t the Pro-Lifers go and do something about the enforced abortions in China – and get their own slogan while they’re at it.
Oyster: I read that you started to get bored with making slogan tees because you felt that people wearing them was an excuse for inaction.
KH: Well, yes demonstration is one thing but the purpose of demonstration is to affect change. Wearing a t-shirt or marching has its place but nothing will change unless we harass our MP’s, our government, and tell them that we won’t vote for them again unless they represent our views. People are very apathetic about democracy, we’ve forgotten that millions of people died for us to live in a state of freedom. If we don’t get in there and grab back our democracy, we will lose it forever.
Oyster: What was it like to meet Margaret Thatcher and flash your politically resistant chest at her?
KH: It was rather funny… she didn’t talk, she just squawked like a chicken. I’d had my ‘Anti-Pershing’ slogan t-shirt hidden under my jacket when I met her, I only revealed it when photographers were shooting me shaking her hand. I’d been invited to a dinner party for her through my father and didn’t want to go because I thought she was just dreadful – I mean what she did to this country is just despicable. When she shook my hand she noticed I had something blazened across my t-shirt, she said, “oh, you seem to be wearing quite a strong message,” then as she read it she actually squawked. There was no way in her wildest dreams she thought someone from the fashion industry was going to sabotage her party, but it was a photo opportunity and a way to abuse the media. I saw her again recently and said, “Hello, I’m the girl that wore the t-shirt,” she replied really unimpressed, “oh yes, that must have made you very happy.”
Oyster: When was it that you began responding to political, environmental and social issues in your work?
KH: So we were very successful, I’d been doing political tees since about ’83 but not devoting myself completely to the issues. Then it hit about 1989 and I was bored with success but hated failure. I’d been really interested in Buddhism as a philosophy – thinking about the actual effect of behaviour. So I thought I’d check that everything was fine – I didn’t think I could be doing anything wrong by making silly frocks. And of course I found that 20,000 people were dying a year from pesticide poisoning in cotton agriculture, which causes long-term land contamination. Every week you can find new illnesses and birth defects massively increased by people exposed to pesticides – they are 45 times more likely to get illnesses like Parkinsons disease. The big issue for me though, was the cotton farmers who are in an untenable position, so I did my best to alert the industry to the situation by abusing the media coverage we were getting.
Oyster: What was the response from the fashion industry?
KH: The response was along the lines of, ‘don’t care’, ‘can’t be bothered’, people were too lazy and indifferent. I battled for about 17 years, I tried to appeal to the industry’s netter natures – but I don’t think they have better natures. In ‘02 and ‘03 I went to Mali in Africa with OXFAM to help highlight the plight of the farmers that are starving to death and being poisoned at the same time. I decided to concentrate on promoting public awareness because industry doesn’t give a shit. Consumers don’t have to buy what industry sells – consumers, whether they realise it or not, are running industry. Industry listens to consumers in a way that government doesn’t at all – and industry is running the world… so I figured I’d go to the source and speak directly to the consumer, to the public.
Oyster: Why do you think it is that so many labels, knowing the benefits of using organic cotton, will still get their garments produced without ecological considerations?
KH: Because there’s just so much more money to be made that way… obviously it’s going to cost you a lot more if you’re actually paying people to make your clothing than if you’re getting them for virtually nothing. If you pay for organic, non-sweatshop produced clothing you’re paying people actual wages – holidays, healthcare.
Oyster: All the things that we expect and demand from our workplaces…
KH: Exactly, but unfortunately so many manufacturers are just interested in making as much money as they possibly can, and will pay the cheapest making price possible regardless of the human rights issues involved. We won’t make anything in China, we won’t source anything from China and we won’t sell anything to China because of their human rights violations – to start off with, there are absolutely no trade unions.
Oyster: What issues have you been actively involved in from the 80s through to today?
KH: The first one I was ever involved in was getting lead out of petrol, obviously the ‘Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now’ which isn’t doing well, ‘Sanction South Africa’ which was against the Apartheid, ‘Sanction China’ for human rights, ‘Preserve the Rainforests’, ‘Education not Missiles’ which speaks for itself, ‘Stop acid rain’ because we had a lot of problems with sulphuric acid in the atmosphere, organic cotton of course, ‘Danger GM Food’, the ‘Stop the War’ and ‘Stop War Blair Out’ campaign in 2003, and today I’m really focused on ‘concentrated thermal solar power’ – which is my next range of slogan tees. Solar thermal power is a relatively new technology, which has already shown enormous potential. It has few environmental impacts and is a massive resource, offering a comparable opportunity to the sunniest countries of the world, like Australia, as offshore wind farms are offer to European nations with the windiest shorelines.
Oyster: Recently a lot of labels have released slogan tees with the influence being directly attributed to you – how do you feel about this revival?
KH: It’s fine, my slogan t-shirts were designed to be copied – so that the trickle down effect would promote various causes. I just wish the new t-shirt statements were a little less frivolous.