‘Katharine Hamnett is famous for getting issues off her chest. To the observer, Hamnett seems a peculiar mix of enthusiasm and cynicism. Well informed and hugely opinionated, she drops statistics like a cabinet minister; and gossips about nations and governmnets as if she’s talking about a bunch of D-list celebs. But at 57, Hamnett still has the revolutionary spirit which once saw her bring a blush to Margaret Thatcher’s chest.
It was this encounter with the Iron Lady, at a government reception in 1984, that many attribute Hamnett’s transformation from fashion designer into political provocateur.
When Thatcher came to shake hands with Hamnett, the designer opened her jacket to reveal a T-shirt, emblazoned with the slogan “58% Don’t Want Perishing”. This created a storm of controversy, and the press went wild.
“[Thatcher] read the T-shirt and went, ‘Aaagh!’ like a strangled chicken..She was very upset..but she rallied with the retort: ‘At Last. An original.’
“I don’t think she expected it from the fashion industry” Said Hamnett, “But then she was probably quite right. They’re a bunch of halfwits.”
Twenty one years later, Hamnett can still take pride in the fact that her Pershing coup was one of the biggest direct political statements in the history of the British fashion industry.
Her actions inspired a whole slew of slogan T-shirts, including, “Stop War/Blair Out” and “Use a Condom”, and hundreds of subsequent imitations.
But Hamnett is more rueful than bombastic about her success. “What did they achieve? Nothing changed.”
So Katharine has come up with a new plan of attack.: A sustainable collection Katharine E Hamnett, E standing for Ethical and Environmental.
For Hamnett, this collection marks the apotheosis of more than 15 years’ commitment to changing the way we make clothes. In 1989 Katharine commissioned research on the fashion industry’s impact on the environment.
She discovered that there are “400 million cotton farmers and about 316 million farmers are exposing themselves to pesticides, and they are nerve gases, you know?”
Initially, she tried to change the industry from within, addressing the UN in 1991 and asking her existing manufacturers to adapt and work with organic cotton. Most of them refused.
“To industry, ethical is inconvenient and hard work..The whole thing is directed towards growth, growth, growth, and I think maybe we’ve hit a ceiling on growth. We should be looking at sustainability now.”
For her part, Hamnett tries to be “as ethical and environmental as possible.”
However, Hamnett feels like she has achieved nothing. She says she might finally be happy when she gets Katharine E Hamnett up and running, because “for every thousand pairs of trousers we sell, another farmer can convert to organic.”
“It’s good motivation. Because you think: “Oh, it’s only bloody clothes. They’re nice, but it’s a big world and I’ve got 20 years left if I’m lucky. This will make it worthwhile.”
Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope and..these ripples build a current which can sweet down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. (J F Kennedy quote)
“Top totty,” Hamnett says, “I mean, that’s really good, isn’t it?”
From the Independent, Life and Culture, Monday 2 May 2005, Interviewed and written by Kate Finnigan.
Katharine Hamnett’s Organic Cotton T-shirts, available now at: katharinehamnett.com