She’s the outspoken designer who fought for legislation with slogans during the tumultuous Thatcher years and now, as the political climate takes another turn, Katharine Hamnett is back. Her first collection in 15 years, Spring/Summer 2018 is as iconoclastic as ever: a wardrobe of fluid – and that includes gender –, utilitarian pieces, spun from organic and sustainably sourced textiles. Following her exclusive preview presentation in-store, we caught up with Hamnett to discuss the role of fashion as a catalyst for change.
What sparked your interest in fashion design?My family were crazy about fashion. They were pretty chic and very competitive. They had their clothes made or made them themselves, we used to go to Liberty for fabric. I was in charge of getting the right colour sticking cotton. I discovered the power of clothes.
You were at Central Saint Martins during the 1968 student riots – what impact did this have on you?Actually, it was quite irritating and disruptive. The fashion course I was doing was fantastic, all I wanted to do was get on with my studies, then get out and conquer the world - but all my friends were Lefties and they opened my eyes politically. I became a Lefty too.
“T-shirts give you a voice because you can't not read them even from 200 yards and once you've seen them they're in your brain”
How did the idea for putting your politics into your designs come about?In the ‘80s under Thatcher, we had no voice. Democracy had slipped through our fingers - awful things were happening. T-shirts give you a voice because you can't not read them, even from 200 yards, and once you've seen them they're in your brain. Hopefully you'll think and do the right thing. Also, we were getting copied a lot and I wanted to make something that would get copied that would make me happy – strong, social, environmental and political statements and messages on issues that desperately needed addressing.
The silk T-shirt you wore to a meeting with Margaret Thatcher in 1984 has since been voted one of the most iconic moments in fashion. How do you remember it?Everyone in the industry was invited to the party at Downing Street. A lot of us didn't want to go because we hated her and what she had done to Britain. Jasper Conran said, "Why should we share a warm glass of white wine with that murderess?" But mid-afternoon that day, I realised it was an incredible photo opportunity I couldn't miss, so we knocked up the T-shirt very hastily that afternoon as best we could. I covered it up when I went in to Downing Street and revealed it just as I was shaking her hand. An early killer selfie.
You were British Fashion Council’s first ever Designer of the Year. How did it feel to receive the award?It was a lot of fun. I wanted to make 1984 my year and I did.
At what point did sustainability become a focus for you?On a successful roll but slightly bored with how easy it had become, I thought I'd check if we were in line with the Buddhist principle of ‘Right livelihood', so I organised research into the environmental and social impact of the textile and clothing industry – thinking I would find little wrong. To my horror, it revealed a living nightmare disastrously impacting the environment with virtually every material and process, with thousands dying of pesticide poisoning and starvation, not to mention suicide, in cotton agriculture, and millions of garment workers working in conditions worse than slavery. A completely untenable situation..
How did you go about changing the outlook of your business?Declaring I only wanted to make clothes ethically from now on as sustainably as possible and preserving traditional skills. Using and abusing media coverage, speaking at conferences, talking to suppliers and licensees. Showing them the evidence, trying to get them to change the way they were making clothes. T-shirt campaigns, collaborations with the likes of Tesco, M&S, Co-op Italy, getting them to use organic cotton and make sustainably. I don't think I was wildly successful, still only maximum 2% of cotton used in clothing is organic.
“Consumers are hugely more informed and are actively looking for ethically and sustainably made clothing - especially the younger generation”
Why did you decide to bring back your mainline collection now?I was given the opportunity to relaunch my brand on my own terms. It's an offer I can't refuse, so here we are!
And why look back to the archive for the designs?I had huge peer pressure to reissue some archive pieces and working with Kanye West and his team made me realise that some of it was still relevant today. I always try to design clothes that were fashion now but withstood the test of time so hopefully they have. .
Has the landscape changed since took your hiatus?Massively - there is a paradigm shift. Consumers are hugely more informed and are actively looking for ethically and sustainably made clothing - especially the younger generation. Reports from huge accounting companies say go sustainable or lose your business.
Are there differences in the relaunched collection today?Some styles have been refitted and there are some new relevant pieces added to the collection.
Where do you see the future of fashion?Fashion will exist forever, it's part of human biological programming to attract a mate or imply our status. It's moving increasingly towards sustainability and transparency. Legislation will come into place that only allow goods in to developed economic blocs that is made outside them but to the same certified social and environmental standards that exist within them, thereby protecting the workers and the environment globally and also making clothing manufacturing in the developed world more viable.
Discover the men’s and women’s collections in-store now.