December 19, 2011


Katharine Hamnett is most famous and recognized for her slogan t-shirts that became wildly popular in the 1980s, bearing slogans such as “Choose Life” and “58% Don’t Want Pershing” (missiles). The statement t-shirts became so widespread that they were copied by nearly everyone in the industry. Perhaps surprisingly, Hamnett welcomed the imitations.

Katherine Hamnett British Environmental Designer
Photo by Alex Sturrock

Aside from standing up for her beliefs, Hamnett is also a visionary, credited with discovering the iconic photographers, Ellen von Unwerth, Juergen Teller, and Terry Richardson. Take a look at the archives on her website to see innovative and timeless campaigns from the 1980s, and 1990s.

At the height of her incredible success, Hamnett decided to inspect whether her company was in-line with what Buddhists call ‘right livelihood.’ She discovered that the working conditions and the resulting environmental issues that stemmed from production in the fashion industry were abhorrent.

Now Hamnett’s line is as sustainable as possible right down to details such as transporting by sea rather than air, using only organic, completely sustainable cotton (see her organic cotton campaign), seeking out recycled steel zippers, and even hanging the clothes on completely recycled hangers. She is a renegade in the fashion industry, and with hope other designers will begin to follow her lead. Besides her current clothing line, she is promoting campaigns on concentrated solar power, organic cotton, Free Burma, and banning nuclear weapons.

What originally led you to become a fashion designer, and who were your earliest influences?

I didn’t actually want to be a fashion designer at first. I originally wanted to be a trapeze artist, followed by archaeologist, actress, and then film director. In those days there were no woman film directors, so my parents told me that I couldn’t be a film director. They said you’ve got to earn your own living. And so, I slightly picked fashion out of a hat because I thought there are so many stupid people in the fashion industry that there must be a low ceiling for getting rich and famous very quickly. As for early influences, I’d have to say my mother and her family were very much into fashion; on my father’s side there were mostly academics. I was kind of brought up on Vogue, and people used to make their own clothes out of haute couture patterns. My mother used to make our clothes as children, she made us these English smocks. You would be intimately involved in making the dresses. My job was to get the matching cottons and threads, it was pretty good training. My family then moved to Paris when I was about five, everything was glamorous, even to a five-year-old. And I used to love fabrics, you know, we used to go to France on holiday, and I used to collect fabric that I didn’t want to leave behind. But as a child I also loved insects, fossils, and ruins, so, obviously being in France played a huge part, as well as my family. But you know, I really kind of picked it out of a hat at first.

What part of the design process did you most enjoy when you started out as a fashion designer, and what part gives you most joy today?

I love all of it really–the concept stage, the pattern cutting aspect. With fashion and clothes, I can’t explain it but you can bring out a person’s intrinsic beauty.

You’ve mentioned before that if you were not a fashion designer that you would be a filmmaker or an archaeologist. What kind of films would you have written and directed?

Well, I think just fabulous stories. I just saw Animal Kingdom. Beautifully told, fascinating stories, you know, I don’t like violence, but, I think I would have liked to do something grand, like D.W. Griffith, with 10,000 extras.

The photography and photographers that you’ve used throughout your career have been incredible, filmic and timeless. Can you share some of your favorite memories from the shoots, and the photographers that you’ve worked with such as Juergen Teller, Ellen von Unwerth, and Terry Richardson?

I had my eye well-trained because of the history of art courses that I took at University. We were looking for new people, and we had a limited budget. And so we had to pick stuff that really stood out, and fashion photography, yes, it’s fashion, but, it’s also about an actual timeless image. Ellen was lovely, fun to work with and had amazing timing. She can get the situation, the lighting, the mood in a short period of time. I love Terry and I love his work. I actually took my son to one of his shoots recently, on Coney Island, and afterwards we went go-carting, he is just lovely to work with.

As a true visionary, you began to research the impact of the clothing and textile industry on the environment back in 1989, and your current line is as sustainable and ethical as possible in this day and age. What course of events prompted you to shift your awareness toward having a more ethical and sustainable company? After having such great success, what led you to decide that your company, and even the fashion industry itself, should become more sustainable?

Everything was almost going too perfectly. We were on a roll, and you know, you can get bored with success actually. I was always interested in Buddhism, the philosophy talks about Right Livelihood, and so I thought we should just check to see if what we were doing was in line with Right Livelihood. I thought we wouldn’t find anything wrong. Then we discovered ten thousands of people dying per year, poisonous pesticides, horrible working conditions, sexual harassment, discrimination, and so I thought, I either have to change careers, or completely change the way I run my business.

Do you see yourself as an activist? Do you find the fashion industry to be a difficult platform for advocating sustainability and fair trade?

Not really, I am just a normal person doing my job. Aristotle said, “If you know something is wrong and you don’t do anything about it, you are inconscient.” I asked a friend that is an academic what that word means and he said that it basically means spineless, so I mean, if something is wrong and you don’t do anything about it, it’s like you are a wanker, you know?

On your website, you have a lot of information regarding concentrated solar thermal power. It is: safe, simple, clean and cheap–and it could be generated by less than 1% of the world’s deserts to supply the entire international energy needs. What is going on currently with the research regarding this type of clean energy?

Amazing things. There is a really good site called DESERTEC, and you can see what is happening. In the United States you actually had a great concentrated geothermal site, called Kramer Junction, and it was one of the first things that the Bush administration closed down because it was seen as a threat to oil. We were obsessed with it when we did a campaign on concentrated geothermal energy.

Currently, on your website you are highlighting Prospect Burma, which focuses on giving young Burmese people ac- cess to education; how dear is this cause to your heart?

Education is our way out, it’s our only way out. It’s the only way you can get to stand on your feet and understand exactly what is going on around you. As they say, ‘knowledge is power.’ There are a lot of problems now in the U.K. with education; it used be free, and now you have to pay, and I mean, I owe so much of my success because of being able to have had an incredible public education in Britain.

If you would be given one wish, what would your WILD wish be?

Well, it would be for the world to come to its senses, working together, with cooperation as a species.

text by: Maria La Cava

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