Could there be more apt juncture for the return of Katharine Hamnett? Back and firing on all red-hot political cylinders, Britain’s elegant firebrand of the early ’80s is staging her independent re-entry in a time of peak relevance. All lined up and ready to go today on her website is the first tranche of the re-release of the casually sexy low-maintence cotton drill and parachute silk pieces fans have been scouring the internet to get their hands on for years.
Up the stairs in her spacious white studio, tucked away in an unobtrusive street in London’s East End, the woman who set her stamp on a youth movement of anti-war, anti-nuke, pro-environmental fashion, a supporter of gay rights in the time of AIDS—is ready to share what she’s learned, what’s changed, what’s worth fighting for now, and how she woke up to taking action on sustainability. And not only all that, but also exactly what happened on the legendary day she confronted Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street.
Katharine, tell me about the effectiveness and validity of wearing a protest t-shirt?
Make the words so big you can’t not see them, from a distance. Then when you read them, you’ve had it. The words are inside your brain, and you’ve got no defenses.
Your boldface lettering set the graphic standard for protest t-shirts for evermore. How did you come up with it?
I thought, what’s the best legibility you can have? It hit me walking along looking at The Sun newspaper tabloid hoardings in the street. I thought, “That’s it!”
What was the first t-shirt you made?
The first was CHOOSE LIFE. It’s the central tenet of Buddhism. My sister introduced me to it. We thought—we’re going to change the world! Of course—how wrong can you be? It got different, and worse. But people are fighting back now, thank god. I think Trump has galvanized America. I mean, the Women’s March! I’m addicted to the Amy Goodman [Democracy Now!] show. It was great that people had suddenly woken up, got out of bed, and said, “We can make a difference. ” From having been so apathetic.
You made political history in 1984 when you wore your 58% DON’T WANT PERSHING t-shirt to confront Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street, protesting the installation of US nuclear warheads on British soil. How did you pull it off?
It was London fashion week, and we designers were invited to a reception at 10 Downing Street. I couldn’t stand Thatcher, and I wasn’t going to go, because of what she’d done to the trade unions, to schools, and because of the Falklands War. But I then I thought, “Oh hell, it’s stupid not to do something, at least it’ll be funny.” I did think it was an opportunity—one of the original selfie photo-ops, I suppose. But I literally wasn’t going to go until that afternoon.
You made the t-shirt at the last minute?
Yes, and there were none of those instant t-shirt printing places in those days. So I had to go do the graphics, get it exposed onto linen graphic paper, and stitch it onto a silk t-shirt. I knew what it would be like, that they’d want to check your coat at the door; so I played it that I was “awfully chilly,” and kept my jacket on. When I got up to her in the receiving line, I thought, “now’s the moment,” and opened my jacket as I was shaking her hand. She’d turned to the cameras. They all went crazy.
What did she do when she realized what you had on?
She bent over, read it, and squawked. Then, quick as a flash, she said, “Oh, we haven’t got Pershing here, my dear. We’ve got Cruise. So maybe you’re at the wrong party.”
Yikes! What a put-down.
It was an unbelievably good come-back (laughs). But I got it!
They didn’t eject you?
No! Well, I’d been invited, hadn’t I? I went and had a glass of champagne. It was quite nerve-wracking. My hands were shaking. Everybody at the party ostracized me except Jasper Conran. Then I thought, ”I’m going to pursue her.” I was the last person to leave, so I went up again and asked her about acid rain. She said, “Oh, we don’t know what causes that.”
Did you anticipate that the picture would travel the world?
Honestly, I thought it would be something for the family album. I had no idea it would be picked up everywhere, globally.
The nuclear threat—in the stand-off with Russia—was a hot issue at that time. Feminist anti-nuclear protesters were camped out at the Greenham Common US base where Reagan’s administration had installed American nuclear warheads on British soil. Did you go?
I did a load of US GO HOME t-shirts. I remember Joseph was selling our clothes like crazy at the time, but he returned them. So my PR Lynne Franks and I drove out to Greenham Common—in a white Mercedes—and started to try to give them out. The women were suspicious there was a catch at first, and refused to take them. When they realized there wasn’t a catch, towards dusk, people started handing them around. They circled the perimeter fence, and they started singing. The soldiers came out, and just stood there, facing us from the other side of the fence. It was unbelievable.
You’re making a huge stand now against Britain leaving the EU with your CANCEL BREXIT t-shirts. What steps do you believe can realistically be taken to reverse the referendum to leave the Europe?
It’s terrible. So many of my European friends are leaving London – it’s shocking. The stupidity of it! Even the CBI (the Confederation of British Industry), who I don’t like at all, have come out and said it will be economic suicide. There is a march on September 9. I am planning to speak.
But will marching really change anything?
No, it’s not enough. Marching with like-minded people feels good, but it only gives the illusion of empowerment, unless you follow it up. Simultaneously, we’re campaigning for people to show up all over the country at the local offices of members of Parliament to tell them how they feel. The one thing politicians are terrified of is that they won’t be elected. They should be pressed. I see it as a cross-party issue. We need a mass show-up. We need to up our game, to use democracy. I believe in Jeremy Corbyn, but the Labour party still has to change on Europe. Tell them. Drop the idea. Do the math!
You were one of the first designers to speak up about sustainability. Was there a moment when you becoame conscious of the damaging consequences of clothing production?
I was riding high, driving around in a Mercedes all the time, it was parties all the time. I was getting bored with success. Then it just crossed my mind in 1989 to have someone check out that what we’re doing is in line with Buddhism—the principle of doing no harm. Immediately it was uh-oh! I learned of the tens of thousands dying of pesticide poisoning as victims of the cotton industry in India and Africa. About farmers and their families being forced into pesticide debt, being made to sign contracts to buy chemicals before they can farm on their small holdings. In turn, that means they stop being able to grow their own food, and they’re meant to buy it with money instead—but when they can’t, people starve. There are climate change consequences—huge amounts of nitrous oxide being released. Desertification. People ending up fleeing and dying in the Mediterranean. But if cotton is grown organically, crops must be rotated, people can grow food during the in-between times, and that has huge positive knock-on benefits, from the ability to be self-sufficient, to schooling to health. Now, organic cotton agriculture can produce a very good living. It takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And it’s lovely to wear!
You’ve made many attempts to change policies on sustainable and ethical sourcing in various collaborations with mass companies, but with little success. So you’ve decided you’ll do it yourself. How can you do it better now?
I tried it every which way. But, I decided: You know, when I was successful in the past, I was independent. Now we’re in the enormously privileged position of having a brand which is recognized across the planet, and we can now do it ourselves without any bricks and mortar through the Katharine Hamnett website. There’s been a huge change since the ’80s. Back then, when you’d get organic cotton, it was like hardboard. Now we can get it from Swiss mills, in beautiful quality—indistinguishable from what we used to make. I’m using organic cotton, silk and recycled polyester, though at the moment the silk is only pesticide-free.
Your designs are reproduced from your original patterns?
Yes, if we have them, or I’ve traced them and remade them from the archive. Except we’ve got a new giant padded onesie I couldn’t resist making.
Some believe that the only way of being 100 percent sound would be not to produce anything at all. What is the justification of continuing to make clothes?
I mean, we have to wear clothes. We can’t go round naked.
Yet! But what are your personal strategies for living in a low-consumption, environmentally responsible way?
I have a compost heap. I recycle. I walk to work, I have a hybrid car, use green energy, all the usuals. I get my clothes mended. Why throw your favorite things away if have a little hole in them? My local dry cleaners are brilliant at fixing things. I love them. But you know, I really need a posh coat this winter.
When I look around, it’s obvious that all the most vocal activists on sustainability in British fashion are women—you, Vivienne Westwood, Livia Firth, Stella McCartney. Do you think motherhood is somehow a common denominator?
The second you have a baby in your arms, you wake up and realize there are things that can harm it. You know, Aristotle asked, what is a good life? You can live a good life, and have good death—but what good is that if you damage generations to come?