Pioneering ethical and environmental fashion with Katharine Hamnett

Pioneering ethical and environmental fashion with Katharine Hamnett

This interview appeared in Volume 12
of SUITCASE Magazine.

across the threshold of Katharine Hamnett’s house in
Hackney is to step into another world. “I’m trying to imitate
Picasso’s studio in Paris – you know, all covered in mirrors and
trees,” she says, standing in her dressing gown. Her Yorkiepoo
Arthur accompanies us as we pass three studio assistants dressed in
white T-shirts with WORLD PEACE NOW printed in black across the
front. One of them brings a fresh pot of coffee to us as we sit
down in Katharine’s garden patio, which is wild and brimming with

It is easy to forget, as Katharine gently welcomes me into her
home, that this is one of the fiercest women in fashion. The
British designer is now 68 years old, a pioneer of ethical and
environmental fashion and the inventor of the slogan T-shirt as we
know it. She was awarded a CBE in June 2011 for services to
fashion, and has been described as “the most copied designer in the

“It’s much easier now, as people understand that sustainable
clothing shouldn’t look any different to normal fashion,” she says
of her work, before adding: “In the beginning it was a lot of
people with huge hearts, but no fashion training.”

Katharine began studying at Central Saint Martins at the age of
18. She launched her eponymous brand in 1979 and made her first
slogan T-shirt – CHOOSE LIFE – in 1983. A year later, she turned up
at Number 10 Downing Street wearing a T-shirt that read: 58% DON’T
WANT PERSHING, and was photographed shaking hands with then-prime
minister Margaret Thatcher. (The slogan referenced polls showing
public opposition to the deployment of US Pershing missiles in the
UK at the end of the Cold War.)

For some time in the Eighties, Katharine Hamnett could do no
wrong. Her designs became cultural signposts for contemporary life
and were copied all over the world (Frankie Says Relax, anyone?)
“We were massively successful, selling in 40 countries and 700 of
the best shops in the world,” she recalls, saying: “The worse we
behaved and the naughtier we were, the more everyone loved it.” It
wasn’t until 1989 that ‘bad behaviour’ took on a new dimension of
meaning for Katharine, when she researched the impact of the
clothing and textiles industry. With an awareness of the damage
inflicted upon humans and the environment by the widespread use of
pesticides, she decided that things had to change.

The worse we behaved and the naughtier we were, the more everyone loved it

“I’ve got a very murky past,” says Katharine flatly, the way she
says everything. She puts down her coffee cup and looks me in the
eyes as she continues: “I invented stone washing, which sucks up
rivers.” Katharine goes on to explain that she pioneered distressed
denim, stretch denim and lycra, all of which have damaging
environmental effects. “I used to design fur coats before I had
children. Then I realised it was really cruel and I stopped doing
it. I think a lot of people say they get interested in the
environment when they have children.”

Not one to sit and patiently wait for tides to change, Katharine
quickly cleaned up her practices. Her Autumn/Winter 1989 Clean Up
Or Die collection used organic cotton and sustainable fabrics, and
in 2005 she designed organic cotton T-shirts for Oxfam’s Make
Poverty History campaign. According to Katharine, the true price of
cotton is paid in human suffering by the people at the bottom of
the supply chain.

“Cotton accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s agriculture.
Switching to organic not only improves farmers’ lives immeasurably,
allowing them to feed and clothe their families, educate their
children and afford healthcare, but its impact on the climate and
environment is also massive.” According to Pesticide Action Network
UK, cotton is responsible for the release of 16 per cent of global
insecticides, more than any other single crop.

She explains that the onus falls upon consumers to inform
themselves and demand sustainable clothing. Shopping more
consciously not only does justice to those further down the
production line, but also has a positive effect on the buyer.
Katharine explains: “T-shirts are okay for PR, but how many slogan
T-shirts do you have in your wardrobe and how often do you wear
them? Actual clothing, made responsibly, is a nice thing to put on
in the morning. We’ve been doing organic cotton T-shirts, and
people tell me they feel different when they wear them. It’s nice
wearing something with a clean conscience.”

Referring to the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh, in which over
1,000 garment workers died when the building that housed their
factory collapsed, she continues: “We’re the ones who bought those
T-shirts that were too cheap to believe. It’s easy to think, “Oh
it’s the brands that should pay the compensation.” The true price
has been paid in human suffering and we should send that money
ourselves. Send the £10, £20, £50 that was missing off the price of
that T-shirt to the Rana Plaza compensation fund. We are
responsible as well because we bought the clothes that were too
cheap to be true.”

Katharine speaks in long, multi-clause sentences, revising and
editing ideas from the course of her career. She is so opinionated
about such a range of topics that it can, at times, be hard to
figure out where her focus lies. Our conversation moves from
fracking to women’s magazines to direct democracy (Katharine was
going to start her own political party before the UK General
Election based on the Swiss government, because “we’re not living
in a democracy; we’re living in a two-party dictatorship”.) “I’ve
always been kind of scattergun about anything that bugs me,” she
admits. Does she thrive on being provocative? “No, no,” she says,
averting her eyes, leaning back slightly in her chair and reaching
her hand up towards a vine dangling from one of her many
overhanging plants. “I’m totally lazy. I want to be a gardener. I
just want to do some flower arranging.” Then as I stand to leave
Katharine’s own oasis, a wry smile flits across her face, and she
leaves her answer hanging in the air.