Katharine Hamnett on her thrilling new campaigns

Katharine Hamnett highlighting the plight of cotton farmers in Mali. Picture: Michael Dunlea
Katharine Hamnett highlighting the plight of cotton farmers in Mali. Picture: Michael Dunlea
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SLOGAN T-shirt doyenne Katharine Hamnett reveals why she is buzzing about her latest campaigns

KATHARINE Hamnett wants to talk about bees. The British designer and pioneer of ethical and environmental fashion, whose slogan T-shirts have made her a household name, has a bee in her tee about the use of pesticides and their effect on the insects. And when she’s not talking about bees, it’s MPs that have got her buzzing, with a new campaign to make them accountable to their constituents. For Hamnett a new campaign means a new T-shirt, launched this month in Dundee with the slogan mymp2015.org.uk.

Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett deliver a petition to 10, Downing Street. Picture: Getty

Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett deliver a petition to 10, Downing Street. Picture: Getty

She’s just back from walking Arthur, her Yorkiepoo, on London Fields and raging about the use of pesticides on the grass. “I set up a petition Kick Herbicides Out Of Hackney and I’m trying to get a meeting with my MP, Diane Abbott, but I’m being stonewalled. It’s not good enough. Ask people what they care about in the UK and in the top four is bees.”

Hamnett announced her support for the mymp2015.org.uk campaign when she appeared at the Chiasma innovation event hosted by Design in Action at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design last week.

“Mymp2015.org.uk is about making MPs vote the way their constituents want, not the whips. When we elect somebody to represent us that’s what they should do. They have a petition and I’m going to do one in Hackney. It’s leaderless, digital and viral. It’s so exciting we have to do it. MPs don’t like it at all. The only thing that affects a politician’s behaviour is something that affects their ability to get elected. They will never change behaviour, but if people write to them and tell them they won’t vote for them, they might,” she says.

Ever since she shocked Margaret Thatcher in 1984 by turning up at a 
No 10 fashion bash in a ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ T-shirt in protest at nuclear weapons in Europe, Hamnett has been trying to change the world, one T-shirt at a time.

Fashion designer Katharine Hamnett holds her Commander of the British Empire (CBE) medal. Picture: Getty

Fashion designer Katharine Hamnett holds her Commander of the British Empire (CBE) medal. Picture: Getty

“It was empowering to think you could get away with it and it was funny to take the opportunity. The ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ T-shirt was all about democracy and it’s still about that. Now is the time. I’m doing a T-shirt with the slogan mymp2015.org.uk to get the message out there and they’re launched this week [on Tuesday].”

Hamnett has campaigned tirelessly on political, environmental and social issues, with the mission “to produce ethical and environmental clothing on a large scale, alleviating poverty, and preserve traditional skills”. She’s been voted Britain’s No 1 Ethical Hero by New Consumer magazine and the Guardian described her as “the most copied designer in the world”.

“There are huge problems in the way clothing is manufactured that destroy lives and the environment, impacting and contributing to global warming and climate change,” says Hamnett. “We need to toughen up our act to achieve the change we need.

“Sustainability is also about how you earn a living. Just as if you’re a feminist you should be boycotting brands and standing shoulder to shoulder with our sisters who are making clothes in other parts of the world in appalling conditions without health and safety. Every day should be International Women’s Day.

“We should be writing to those brands who exploit workers, telling them why we won’t buy their clothes. They just don’t care, but they do care about consumers. The workers can’t afford to send their kids to school, they have no health and safety, it’s criminal, just boycott them. Stop buying their clothes and write telling them why.

“We have to wake up and take control of the situation because we are the ones that buy what they make. We are the ones that can change their behaviour. The fashion industry is waking up because consumers want to know the story behind their clothes.”

Hamnett has been a rebel ever since she started school in France at the age of five without knowing the language and had to sink or swim. “I had to learn French in three months or die. Then I picked up that French thing of ‘don’t take any shit’,” she says.

When her diplomat parents were posted to Romania she was sent to boarding school in England, at an establishment she has compared to Auschwitz. “I hated it. I tore a map out of my geography book and ran away. I had five frontiers to cross to get to Romania, two of them mined, but they caught me not far from school and took me back. My father was in MI6, he was a military attaché. He used to run the taps in the bathroom so no-one could hear what we were saying, and one time he came home with broken ribs and bullet holes in the windscreen. But he never discussed his work. He was dead by the time I went to Downing Street but I don’t think he would have approved.”

He would, however, have approved of his daughter being fashion Designer of the Year in 1984, the same year as her Downing Street outing and the success in the fashion business that saw the Queen of Green awarded a CBE in June 2011 for services to fashion.

Graduating from St Martins in 1989 she launched the first of her block-capital slogan T-shirts with the words Choose Life, World-Wide Nuclear Ban Now, Preserve The Rainforests, Save The World, Save The Whales and Education Not Missiles. Included in the wholesale price was a charitable contribution, the first time this had been done.

The following year saw the Pershing shirt, then after 9/11 came a series of shirts against the invasion of Afghanistan; No War, Stop And Think and Life Is Sacred. The Iraq war prompted Stop The War and Stop War Blair Out while 2010 was all about Save The Sea.

Hamnett’s environmental conscience was pricked when she did an audit of her business to check it was conforming to the Buddhist principle of Right Livelihood. When she discovered the impact of the clothing and textile industry on the environment – according to Hamnett conventional cotton agriculture is responsible for 350,000 deaths a year from accidental pesticide poisoning, the production of greenhouse gases, desertification, contamination – she launched the Clean Up Or Die collection.

A visit to meet African cotton farmers in Mali with Oxfam in 2003 saw her return determined to champion the organic cotton farmers and help them trade their way out of poverty. That’s why her slogan T-shirts are as ethically clean as possible, produced in a Soil Association-certified supply chain, in a state-of-the-art, climate-neutral factory in India, shipped by sea, printed in the UK and distributed via a Soil Association certified warehouse, with £5 going to each of the charities aligned to each slogan. No More Fashion Victims is more than just a slogan on a T-shirt. For Hamnett it’s a mission statement.

There’s no doubt she could have made a lot more money had she not had such a conscience but Hamnett has no regrets about how her career has developed. “There’s a saying: ‘If you lose your money you haven’t lost anything, you can get it back. If you lose your health you have lost something but you can recover. But if you lose your character you have lost everything.’”

Alongside the Katharine Hamnett London collection, a collection of archive styles will launch later this year and a diffusion line, HAMNETT, a range of organic jersey and sweats, will launch this winter.

Hamnett, who is “67 or 68, I can’t remember. I was born in 1947”, and a mother of two boys now in their thirties, has no plans to retire.

“Retire from what? I love the fashion industry because it’s given me a platform. I don’t have any clout apart from a track record in shooting my mouth off. But if you see something wrong you have to try to fix it. I love clothes but they take up two per cent of your brain. It’s about thinking, about being a whole human being. Design is about problem solving and you can apply the same process to a political system. You can turn things into a very nice outfit called direct democracy.”

Or, indeed a T-shirt.

Twitter: @JanetChristie2

mymp2015.org.uk, www.katharinehamnett.com

Design in Action is a Knowledge Exchange Hub for the Creative Economy based primarily at the University of Dundee and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Creative Scotland. www.designinaction.com