27 November 2019 From Courier Issue 32 (Dec/Jan 2020)

A portrait of designer Katharine Hamnett

The legendary designer shares why her brand is finding favour with a younger generation.

Starting out, Katharine Hamnett loved designing clothes that other women loved to wear. It was all quite simple. She founded her eponymous brand in 1979, going on to build a British fashion empire based on modern workwear, military styles and slogan t-shirts with phrases like Choose Life emblazoned in huge block capitals. ‘When you make the words that big you can’t not see them,’ she says, ‘and it becomes impossible to filter them out of your brain.’

But in 1989, long before ‘eco’ and ‘green’ were buzzwords, she started looking at her brand’s manufacturing practices and commissioned a study into the social and environmental impact of fashion. Back then, her business was growing fast – with a £100m-a-year turnover in Japan alone – and she didn’t think she would find anything wrong. ‘But, sure, everything was wrong,’ she says. ‘The thousands of deaths from accidental poisoning in the cotton industry, working conditions worse than slavery, soil being turned into desert due to pesticide use – it was all vile.’

She stepped away from catwalk fashion and ramped up her activism – think of it as the second act of her long, meandering career – and started producing only low-environmental-impact clothing. No longer did she produce the kinds of ‘very fetish’ collections in black leather she did in the beginning; instead, she switched to organic cotton to create her easy-to-wear staples, avoiding materials made using toxic chemicals such as polyester, and moved her production back to Europe to ensure workers were being treated ethically.

Speaking about the collection of eco-friendly clothes she released, Clean Up or Die, she says: ‘Nobody cared. People buy clothes not out of pity but because they are desirable. They want to feel excited about themselves. I thought everyone would want to fix the industry but they didn’t give a flying fuck. They just wanted the clothes.’

She went ‘on and on’ about sustainability but knew ‘the fashion industry would only change if someone put a gun to its head’. The industry-wide lack of interest in sustainability, she says, led her to shutter the company in 2004.

‘I used to think I was better suited to politics than fashion, at least until the times caught up with me. Years later, and I realised it was possible to make them both work at the same time.’

Her return to fashion – act three – only happened thanks to the unlikely intervention of Kanye West. The story goes that the US rapper was in a vintage shop outside Milan when he came across some original Hamnett designs. ‘Every single piece I saw, I connected with emotionally,’ he told the Business of Fashion. ‘She created something that I thought was relevant to where we are today.’

In 2017, at West’s request, Hamnett let him borrow 300 garments and had her archive of almost 1,500 pieces photographed and self-published as a reference for a Yeezy collection he was working on with Adidas. Around the same time, the London-based brand YMC approached her to work on a capsule collection of her classics.

Both projects gave Hamnett the confidence to relaunch her brand. ‘I suppose I have Kanye to thank. In some ways he woke me up to my potential as a brand. I remembered that I’d built brand-name recognition around the world. So he kind of gave me an opportunity, and it made me realise what I should be doing in this stupid bloody business – and the power of reissue.’

Now, in her early 70s, she is making clothes again.

Peak relevance

Hamnett’s return comes at an apt moment. After all, her newfound relevance coincides with the vastly increasing number of fashion brands putting out eco-friendly lines and claiming they are sustainable.

Between cigarettes in the pretty courtyard of her spacious white studio, tucked away off a quiet street in London Fields, east London, Hamnett says, ‘I know there are 18-year-olds trawling eBay for some of my older pieces, because they like clothes to be well made, and that’s very nice. But do they like my new stuff, too?’

They do. For the London-based fashion journalist Grace Cook, a central part of Hamnett’s appeal is down to her authenticity. ‘She’s not jumping on a bandwagon,’ Cook explains. ‘So many brands release sustainable capsules or recycled capsules rather than overhauling their entire business practice – like Katharine did 30 years ago. Younger people especially are staging a backlash against fast-fashion because they are so anxious about the climate crisis. And Katharine speaks to that sustainable demographic.

‘She was also one of the first designers to use her voice and brand to make political statements,’ Cook continues. ‘Now everyone is doing it – from Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior putting We Should All Be Feminists on the front of t-shirts, to nascent labels like Ashish making statements about Pride, Brexit and immigration. She paved the way for brands to stand up for what they believe in. And there’s something appealing about someone in a commercial industry who has been true to herself since the beginning.’

Staying independent

From the beginning, she has remained independent. Today, she employs a team of six people in her London studio. ‘Keep it small. Keep it tight,’ she says. ‘It’s the only way I’m happy. Whenever I try to work with other people it doesn’t work out very well.’

She also likes to keep a low profile when possible, unlike all her shouty slogan t-shirts. ‘I like to be invisible. I hate all photographs of me,’ she says. ‘I always think I’m much more beautiful in real life.’

Today she is very beautiful, her bluntly-chopped bob is dark and wavy and she wears a long jacket and big scarf, all navy blues and blacks. ‘I like simplicity. I hate any unnecessary detail,’ she says, momentarily leaving behind any talk of sustainability and stroking her dog, Arthur, who is wearing a Hamnett-designed puffa jacket made from recycled polyester and goose down with Love in big white letters across it.

Hamnett herself isn’t wearing her signature sunglasses. ‘Big glasses are useful. I wore them throughout the 80s,’ she says, lighting another cigarette. ‘That fame thing is really horrible. One of the great things about being photographed in dark glasses all the time is when you take them off people don’t recognise you.’

Hamnett is powering ahead with both business and campaigning – one of her recent slogan t-shirts, which is selling like crazy (still), reads Cancel Brexit. She has also just been made a visiting professor at Open University to teach students about sustainable fashion. ‘Tomorrow I have a lesson in Zoom [the video communications platform]. Video conferencing is the way forwards. I’ve started stopping attending conferences.’

The day before this interview, in fact, she decided at the last minute to cancel her flight to Japan for a fashion conference. ‘I’m in trouble,’ she grimaces.

Not that she particularly cares. The planet is more important, of course, and she has been fiercely outspoken all along. In the space of two hours, she covers more than a lot of ground. For example: catwalks and fashion seasons should be ‘scrapped’ to reduce carbon emissions. ‘Think of the thousands and thousands of flights people make because of fashion shows,’ she says. ‘It’s a disgrace. Everyone should film their collections and put them out online. Simple, hey?’

Then she describes recent proposals by British MPs to combat fast-fashion by imposing a 1p-per-garment fashion tax on the industry as ‘stupid’. ‘The industry would just end up paying workers less to absorb the impact of the tax,’ she says. Instead, she’s in favour of EU legislation making it mandatory for goods from outside Europe to meet the same standards required by the region.

Although she says she is ‘disillusioned’ with fashion, she acknowledges there has been a massive shift over the past couple of years. ‘Consumers are more informed, hugely so in fact, and looking for ethically and sustainably made clothing. And there are lots of reports coming out from huge accounting companies saying brands must start being sustainable or in a decade from now they’ll lose their business.’

As Courier leaves her studio, she suggests a final philosophy all young designers starting out should keep in mind: ‘Before making a piece of clothing, do your fucking homework. Please.’

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