In the 1980s, way before designers became celebrities, Katharine Hamnett was a household name. Her clothes sold around the world; The Beatles, Mick Jagger, Princess Diana and Madonna were customers. Campaigns were shot by Ellen Von Unwerth and Juergen Teller; Claudia Schiffer, Kate Moss, Nadja Auermann and Milla Jovovich – all at the cusp of stardom – modelled in them.
But in the 1980s something began to shift. In 1983, Katharine launched her first slogan t-shirts including ‘Choose Life’, ‘Preserve the Rainforests’ and ’Save the Whales.’ From the guts of a decade famed for its hedonism, the t-shirts were a reminder that our self-obsession was taking its toll. When Katharine wore the ‘58% DON’T WANT PERISHING’ t-shirt to Downing Street to meet Margaret Thatcher, her role as a pioneer of ethical, environmental and political fashion was set.
Katharine has gone to become one of the world’s most committed voices against injustice and environmental destruction, teaming up with NGOs such as Oxfam, EJF and The Pesticide Network to create powerful campaigns. In 2011, Hamnett was given a CBE for services to the fashion industry – but it could as easily have been for drawing the world’s eyes to the its most pressing issues.
This September saw the launch of Katharinehamnett.com, with a range of ethical slogan t-shirts, both classic and new. There’s more to come in early 2015: both Katharine Hamnett London, a collection of archive styles, and HAMNETT, a diffusion line of organic jersey and sweats will launch. I speak to Katharine about what continues to drive her.
Bel: Do you think of yourself as a designer or a campaigner?
Katharine: I’ve mutated from a designer to a campaigning organisation using fashion to try to save the world, with my notoriety chucked into the pot. The world is in chaos. It’s hard to think about anything else.
Bel: How do you pick your slogans?
Katharine: They’re harder than you think. Sometimes, they’re cheeky – like when we did ‘Use a condom’ and ‘Feel yourself’ about testicular and breast cancer. Do you want to see our ideas? [flips open her folder] Somebody told me to do ‘Fuck off’ but I’m not sure about that. ‘I will be heard’ – that’s the democratic one. For Kids Company, we did ‘Love’. I wanted to do something like ‘Troops out of Iraq’ but actually it should be ‘Drones out of Iraq.’ So maybe ‘Get out of Iraq.’
Bel: You now look at so many causes but the earliest one was cotton farming …
Katharine: I can’t leave organic cotton alone: 350,000 cotton farmers a year die from accidental pesticide poisoning. That’s 1,000 a day. It’s bigger than Syria. It’s this butchery going on by agro-chemical companies. It impacts on climate change, on health issues among the communities, on the future of the soil. It exterminates everything. Yet flip it round and you can use fashion to save the world. If farmers farmed organically, they’d have to rotate the crops to include food so the first thing you get back is local food security.
Bel: Democracy, politics, political voice – they’re important for you too.
Katharine: Everything’s politics. It’s your money killing children right now. And mine. Do we want this? No. I want my money to be saving kids’ lives. I was part brought up in France and I suspect the barricade mentality in my make up comes from there. They don’t take shit.
Look up the direct democracy models in Estonia and Switzerland. They have a small representative democracy like us but then they have referendums about everything. They have political parties and MPs who arrive on bikes and desk share. There’s no lobster subsidised canteen. And they’re very chary of the electorate. Petitions and marches great but you need the add-on of endangering your MP’s ability to get re elected.
Bel: Do you think fashion designers have a political voice?
Katharine: Ridiculously, yes. Somebody said that now God is dead, we have fashion designers. It’s scary the way fashion design is so aspirational. Even people like Victoria Beckham, rolling in money, with a star husband, has to be a fashion designer. Why? Somebody said fashion is the mirror of society. I think the fashion industry is a mirror of the world we live in. It’s a microcosm of what’s happening. It’s got all the abuses, all the motivations, the complexity. It’s completely globalised. What’s wrong with fashion is what is wrong with every form of manufacturing. But we need clothes. Fashion is one of the world’s largest industries. We have to feed ourselves, shelter ourselves and clothe ourselves.
Bel: Do you ever feel overwhelmed?
Katharine: You get burnt out. I’ve been feeling that a lot, like we’re losing. Then my son went to the Tibetan border and saw the image of the last reincarnation of Buddha. In the picture, he’s fixing hell. And I thought, actually, that’s where we are and that’s what we have to do.
Bel: Are you hopeful?
Katharine: If there was a place to could run away to, believe me, I’d run away. So, if you can, you have to get involved. I get terribly depressed. So then I think, I’ve got to find a way to do this because I want to shove this stuff out. The social media thing is fantastic. I don’t tweet but I have people who tweet for me. If we don’t do something now, we’re all dead.
Bel: Are people getting more or less aware?
Katharine: Less. They half read the newspapers and half read things online.
Bel: How do you find joy?
Katharine: Look, what can you see? [She points to a bird taking flight on the canal] Life. Life is amazing. We have another T-shirt: ‘Sod space travel. Save life on earth.’
Bel: People either engage – which can be depressing – or they shut off.
Katharine: The last time I was in New York, I realised all my friends, people with quite high flying jobs, were on medication. People are medicating themselves not to face up to the fact that things are completely wrong and we need to turn the ship around. People think their lives are meaningless. You’re not allowed to believe in God so I made a t-shirt saying ‘Bring back God’. I really love God – in a non-organised religious sense. Love exists, friendship exists. It annoys me that we’re not allowed to believe in anything.
Bel: Except consumerism.
Katharine: Have you read women’s magazines? I have to read them for my job once a month at the hairdressers. By the fourth magazine, I’m in torture. The stuff’s rubbish. It’s an insult. One of our biggest problems now is that the media patronise the consumer.
Bel: Do you know anyone who’s ‘turning the ship’?
Katharine: There are a lot of NGOs that are trying really hard. The Pesticide Action Network UK are fantastic. They’re brilliant at research but crap at fundraising. I’ve been supporting them since the early 1990s. Environmental Justice Foundation – incredible. They campaign through film and they change laws. It’s an incredibly efficient use of funding. War on Want are amazing. The most exciting online organisations have an amazing potential to change everything: 38 degrees, change.org, Avaaz have 39 million members now. It’s an incredible base of people who care.
Bel: What gives you the energy to keep going?
Katharine: I’ve done the entire circuit of the world of fashion. Forty five years. Where did it go? If you do a catwalk show in Paris, all you think is ‘phew, thank God that’s over’. But getting NGOs to work together gives you an immense blast of personal satisfaction. As a child, you’re told ‘Virtue is its own reward’ and you think ‘shit, I can’t eat chocolate’. But, in actual fact, [virtue] is extraordinary. Money can’t buy that feeling. There’s a happiness in helping someone. As a hedonist, I’d say it was a top kick. It’s an absolute top high. There’s nothing better.