Katharine Hamnett Wants You to Get Involved
The fashion pioneer talks protest, politics and environmentalism.
For a full decade, Katharine Hamnett ruled the world. Her eponymous clothing line’s slogan T-shirts defined the larger-than-life attitude of the ‘80s, with phrases like “CHOOSE LIFE” and “WEAR A CONDOM” executed in enormous, bold typeface. By the ‘90s, however, Hamnett had realized the destructive nature of the fashion industry, wholly devoting herself to activism. As the Western world slowly awakens to the horrors of institutional racism, systemic injustice and climate change, the fashion industry still remains several steps behind Hamnett.
Though her brand found quick success (it was available in in 700 stores in over 40 countries within six years of its founding), Hamnett wasn’t content. Inspired by Buddhist teachings, she began conducting research into the far-reaching effects of the garment business to fully comprehend the damage wrought by pesticide-drenched cotton and sweatshops. The results horrified her, spurring the designer to begin a one-woman campaign for sweeping change, which was roundly rebuffed by the powers that be. Frustrated, Hamnett shifted away from the industry for several decades, only relaunching her label in 2015 under strict ethical standards in line with fellow fashion upsetter Vivienne Westwood.
It seems like every year the industry realizes Hamnett’s radical ideas are necessary for positive change, but 2020 is a year unlike any other. Global initiatives like the Black Lives Matter movement follow in the footsteps of civil rights activists, with the slogan-bearing T-shirts and banners to match. Elsewhere, fashion brands are finally starting to publicly address ethical and sustainable concerns, though identifiable change is slow to arrive. HYPEBEAST caught up with Hamnett as she self-quarantined in Majorca and espoused no-nonsense assertions in line with her recent Extinction Rebellion post: “We need a modern approach to dealing with our waste recycling. We are in the dark ages. “
What makes a good T-shirt slogan?
It’s got to be powerful. It’s got to be short, like four words maximum, with only four-letter words. The fewer words, the better. The good thing about English is the short words are the stronger ones. You know, “God,” “F*ck,” “Death,” “Save,” “Love,” “Choose.”
Slogans are great, T-shirts slogans are wonderful. They just get into your brain. There’s just nothing you can do once you’ve seen one; you’ve read it and it’s there, it’s in your brain.
But they don’t change anything. The only thing that changes politician’s minds is something that affects their ability to get re-elected. It’s much less glamorous and fun to write to your elected representatives and say, “If you don’t represent my views, I’m not going to vote for you next time and I’m going to be watching how you vote.” It’s just not sexy like making a T-shirt or a placard and joining your friends marching. You know that wonderful feeling you get, that “Oh my god” of making change and believing the same thing.
But they don’t change anything by themselves. Everyone needs to write to their congressmen and senators by hand.
You’re an authority on activist causes. Any advice on maintaining momentum when seeking actionable change?
Well, it’s like what Greta Thunberg was saying, you know, “I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to act.” We want things to change and the actions that we’re taking aren’t changing them fast enough. And they’re coming at huge personal costs to really good people that we want on the ground and fighting fit — I mean, people are losing eyes.
Enough’s enough, Everybody’s got to write to their representatives and say, “We’ve had enough.” But the trick is, what are you going to ask for?
Is there anything else that you recommend activists do?
You have to get the politicians to be involved in [your causes]. It’s difficult. You have to form pressure groups to get these people that you elect to represent your views.
It’s a completely faulty, defective process. I mean, I think it’s pushing toward reforming the American political system. The amount of voter suppression that’s already going on in this election is terrifying. Everybody should be petitioning to be able to vote online. And, you know, however boring it is to make a demonstration in the face of your congressman or senator that they could lose their seat if they don’t represent your views on, say, how to reform the police for instance, it’s the only thing that’s going to make any difference.
“[Slogans] don’t change anything by themselves.”
People get this feel-good factor from marches but look at all the marches, all the conferences, all the things that people thought they’ve won. And they get quietly swept under the carpet. [The establishment’s] just gonna steal it from you later. You have to push your representatives into a corner and make them vote the right way on issues that come up. And tell them that if they don’t we’ll put somebody else in.
It’s about the only thing we’ve got, and it’s kind of use it or lose it because people are losing their votes all over the place as we speak. It’s so blatant. It’s unbelievable. You thought they’d do it in some sneaky way. but they’re doing it blatantly and in the full knowledge that they get away with it
Switching gears to another subject you’re well-versed in, what are your thoughts on the fashion industry’s current sustainable efforts?
It should be much more radical. You think we’re gonna get reform and we’re gonna change and we’re gonna get out of the fossil fuel industry and then things suddenly get worse. We’re in the all-time crisis now. This is crunch time. Either we change the way we live or we change the way that we spend. We must start looking at all the myriad brilliant alternatives that have been sitting there or it’s over. It’s like, too little too late.
It’s very difficult because the basic principles of capitalism — buying labor cheaply and selling it dear — created the extreme where we’re seeing people earning less than $1 USD a day. I mean, with Rana Plaza they still have to be compensated by the big brands that’ve been making.
“It’s like, too little too late.”
It’s disgusting and the brands don’t have the imagination or educational intelligence how to spend the money properly. It should be earning less and sharing more. They should be making less profit and paying their workers properly. We’ve got to re-examine this whole gross model.
All these conferences you go to on sustainability, it’s a load of — those big brands should be leading the way, what are their excuses? Why aren’t all their clothes made with organic cotton? It’s better than conventional cotton because it’s not subjected to chemicals. It’s grown in a healthier manner and it absorbs dye better which probably makes it slightly cheaper.
Legislation is on the European environmental and labor standards because they could generally be the [most stringent]. Europe’s a big trading bloc, it’s like 550 million people. So, Europe could actually do something like [raising standards and producing domestically] versus outsourcing production. It would raise the prices of goods and kind of level the playing field for Made in Europe. And exporting that would actually stimulate domestic manufacturing. So that could even up the wealth but then again, are people gonna admit how much profit they make?
What’s keeping this disparity intact?
What else could it be [besides greed]? They just want to make more money.
It’s the CEO, it’s a management decision. I’ve got friends who were there when buyers were in factories in India and Southeast Asia. They were negotiating them through the floor on prices of the product. It’s a whole culture. It’s like the police force in America, just completely rotten. And they don’t care about environmental degradation. It’s this obsession with success, more, more, more.
They’re all in complete, willful ignorance of the living conditions. I was in Mali in West Africa at the farms with Oxfam and they were trying to highlight the plight of cotton farmers. We met farmers and their wives who had lost babies at the breast because they were starving and couldn’t make enough milk.
The French businessmen had gone in — it’s an old French colony — and they’d stopped the farmers from growing more food. They told them to grow cotton to get money to buy food. We went into the market to get some food for the farmers and it was incredibly expensive. They showed me how much they had to eat in a day, it was like nothing.
It’s iniquitous. It’s a completely untenable situation. Supply chains must be disrupted. It’s down to consumers: how we shop decides the future of the planet, how we spend our money.
How were you introduced to these issues in the ’80s?
There was a lot of stuff going on in the ‘70s after the hippy and environmental movements, all the newspapers, The Guardian were all doing stuff. Also, I was always really interested in Buddhism and they talk about things like the Eightfold Path, meditation and earning your living without hurting anything.
In the ‘80s [the Katharine Hamnett brand] was on such a roll. We were incredibly successful worldwide at one point and it was just too easy. We just did whatever felt like fun. Had some great parties, all that.
I decided to check and see if we’re in line with Right Livelihood. So I got this research done on the environmental and societal impacts of the clothing industry at that time, thinking they wouldn’t find anything. I just thought, “It’s not like we’re making military hardware.”
The guy came back and I said, “How is it? It’s all fine?” And he said, “No, I’m really sorry but it’s not,” and laid it on the table. “Oh, my Christ.” We found that we were surfing on the crest of this wave of toxic sewage and radioactive waste.
“How we shop decides the future of the planet.”
But we need clothes. You need to clothe yourself, shelter yourself, feed yourself, educate your children and afford health care. It’s up there with the big five. and clothing isn’t going to go away. We need to start making them environmentally.
What can a consumer do at a ground level?
It’s really good to start looking at secondhand and vintage clothing because it’s cheaper and better for the environment, but really we need legislation.
But the governments are complicit, they’re in bed with Monsanto. I did a protest campaign against [Monsanto herbicide] Round Up in Hackney and we had the most amazing evidence that it caused 31 different diseases, including Hodgkin’s lymphoma, birth defects, kidney failure. We got 3,000 signatures on a 30-point condition. It actually represented a population of Hackney, which was something like 150,000.
And it was completely ignored. They stonewalled us and I just couldn’t believe it. I put up posters, personally tied them to trees and railings because I saw these young people sitting on the grass picnicking in London eating with their hands inches away from the wildflower meadow that had been sprayed with Round Up. There was no better way of ingesting herbicide than just drinking it straight out of the bottle.
If you want transparency: demand to know how were the living wages calculated, how much the garment workers get paid. The brands could even have like a barcode or QR code with all the information on it.
With designers, the environmental impact of the product is decided in the design stage. But the wages that are paid for labor, that is the CEO or management’s decision. All designers need to be sharp.
How can people tell that clothing is quality?
You need to look at the stitching. People bother more about the outside than the inside. Have a look at the clothing inside out. How good does it look? Does it have ends hanging off? Are the seams finished? How are they stitched up? Is it neatly done with the lines straight? Is the stitch size the same? You’ve got to feel the fabric too, but it’s hard to describe what a good fabric feels like. Check how the label’s stitched in too, that’s a good giveaway.
As for the weight of fabrics… You can have beautiful quality heavy, light, thick, thin anything. You can have this incredibly fine linen and it’ll be divine. Or you can have super fine wool that feels like a very nice cashmere scarf. What matters is that it’s beautifully made. Then it could last 50, 60 years, depending how it’s worn.
What are some of the better-known sustainable textiles?
There’s tencel, this Austrian viscose fabric made with the Lenzing process. It’s good because [when utilized by] forest stewardship-certified [producers], the wood is copied and replanted. It’s not deforestation, though cheap viscose can cause deforestation.
Tencel is a funny fiber though. It’s not as lovely as linen or cotton. It’s a bit sloppy but it’s good for making certain things like tees, dresses. I’m never a huge fan of synthetics even if they’re derived from natural materials. I prefer the traditional ones. But that’s just me, they are useful.
Wool has got a big question mark over it because of the deforestation that comes with a lot of sheep. Plus they have to be relocated. And then there’s a process after this. They use chlorine treatments to make the wool machine washable, which is ghastly. A huge amount of that waste goes into the atmosphere and ultimately the water supply.
I had a real problem with wool because there’s no way to wear it if it doesn’t have all of these processes. It’s scratchy. You’ll f*cking hate it.
And leather’s a nightmare unless you put chrome in it to get that beautiful, soft, Italian leather [unless you vegetable tan]. Forget about it.
Bamboo! It’s such crap, oh my god. It’s one of those viscose that’s produced unsustainably [causing deforestation]. Bamboo is absolute bullsh*t that’s plugged as a hugely environmental material and it’s just simply not.
It’s either the end of the world or the dawn of a golden age — two options. If we’re going to go with the latter, that means everybody getting up off their ass and working together.
Capitalism in fashion means that you don’t show people what you’re doing. You don’t share your secrets, you don’t share your research. That must become old-fashioned.