Katherine Hamnett – Iconic Green Designer
Protests, slogans and the fashion revolution
Katherine Hamnett (1947). Her father was in the R.A.F and she lived in France, Sweden, Romania and England and studied fashion and textiles at Konstfackskolan Stockholm and at Central St. Martin’s college in London. Proud mother of two sons (one is an artist, the other does political satire – works for Channel 4 and The Guardian), she has revolutionised wardrobes across the world. Her customers have included The Beatles, Princess Diana, Faye Dunaway, Madonna, George Michael and Norman Foster, to name but a few.
Slogan T-shirts are back in fashion and H&M launched a Katherine Hamnett design for H&M to support Climate Week.
A Fashion Victim is someone who’s dressed really stupidly but farmers, microorganisms, oceans and the atmosphere etc. are also fashion victims. We turned it into a campaign that was funding itself through T-shirts. The price is a bit more – not a lot more – because you’re paying the farmers a fair price and a living wage for the cotton instead of using slave labour. We’ve been copied a lot but if they have environmental messages, it makes me happy.
In the 80s you were the first designer to launch protest T-shirts, and chosen as Designer of the Year by the British Fashion Council and invited to Downing Street to meet Margaret Thatcher.
I wasn’t going to go because I couldn’t stand her, didn’t understand the Falklands War and all the other things she’d done. Jasper Conran asked me: “Why should we have a glass of white wine with that murderess?” But we went as it was an opportunity. I wore this slogan T- shirt at the last minute that said, “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING”. My father was a defence attaché with the Embassy so I’d been used to going to that sort of party. I had to cover it up to get in. When I got to Thatcher I revealed it without making it look as if I was doing anything. When I came in she said, “At last a true original”. Little did she know! Now, it’s a historic photo.
You had massive influence on celebrities and pop stars.
Pop bands like Duran Duran and Wham! adopted our slogan T-shirts. The techno group Frankie Goes To Hollywood was the first to copy our T-shirts. My 80s fashion campaigns were the first for Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer, Nadia Auermaan and many others. I’ve worked with the Environmental Justice Foundation, Pesticide Action Network, and African anti-gun organizations. Celebrities wearing your clothes attract tons of attention. Models like Naomi Campbell have appeared in our T-shirts bearing slogans like, “USE A CONDOM” and “PEACE” and Jodie Kidd was in a photo wearing a “STOP WAR BLAIR OUT” T-shirt which was exhibited at the Imperial War Museum.
Which came first for you, ecology or fashion?
I left St. Martins in 1969 and with my friend Anne Buck set up a business called Tuttabankem that became pretty successful selling to top stores in America and Europe but then we fell out. I went freelance for a while in Paris but I had a baby and no financial support and I decided to get into manufacturing again launching my Katherine Hamnett label. I’d learned a few tricks from the French about how to attract customers. Rapidly, KH doubled its turnover every year for five years selling all over the world. Fashion wasn’t my first career choice – I would have liked to be a film director but my parents (Stone Age) said there are no women film directors. I’ve done a couple of films for us instead of doing a fashion show.
Why did you start using organic cotton?
I lived the good life for a while. I used to be driven about in a 1973 green Lincoln Continental (that belonged to the Duke of St. Albans) with a Givenchy interior and a black driver called Joe wearing a uniform. It was fun but I realized I wasn’t prepared to earn my living knowing what was going on at the bottom of the chain. I went to Mali, met farmers’ wives who’d lost children at the breast because they were dying of starvation due to American cotton subsidies and the fact that they were forced to sign contracts using pesticides in order to get the contracts to sell their cotton.
How can you make sure it’s organic?
In India they worked out a way by rotating the cotton with medicinal herbs by means of an organic system and they increased their produce by 500% but the problem is India’s ayurvedic demand exceeds the amount of organic land that exists. Everybody should be fed organic, though. If pregnant women eat food with pesticides in them it lowers their child’s intelligence by five IQ points.
What is style for you? Who do you like to dress?
I like to do clothes that don’t date and yet they’re in fashion. What I’m wearing was designed in 1983. Clothes that you can wear to all sorts of occasions, even to go fishing in the same dress that you go to a cocktail party. I like to dress anybody, babies, old people, 17 year olds who are very conscious – it’s about a state of mind.
What attracted you to Fornalutx?
My house was an impulse buy and it’s the best thing I’ve done for myself and my family and friends. It had no electricity, no running water except a spring. In the end, I got electricity and telephone for the sake of my kids. I was so annoyed because it changes everything. But I thank God for having this touchdown in Paradise. I’ve been coming to Mallorca for 29 years. I have 2.5 hectares and I’m planning a butterfly garden. I love the feeling of community here. We should keep it that way.
I re-launched KH menswear and womenswear including slogan T-shirts made with organic cotton available from selected retailers worldwide. There’s an increasing trend for consumer driven ethical and environmental purchasing.