News & Runway

Ethical Designer Katharine Hamnett: ‘In Fashion, It’s Easy to Get Rich and Famous by Being a Bad Person’

tFS: One of the things that strikes me about those shirts is that they have an anti-fashion feel. They're so slouchy and sort of uniform, with the big block letters. And they're political, and fashion is so often apolitical. But throughout your professional life you've been ingrained in the fashion industry, from attending Central Saint Martins to showing as part of the Fashion Week schedules. Do you think of yourself as anti-fashion in any way?

KH: I don't like clothes that are made horribly but I'm super fashion, fashion's my blood. For me, it's about making fashion look beautiful.

The shirts weren't all huge. They were initially huge because we were printing them on silk, and you had to be able to put them on over your head with your arms in, and silk has no stretch in it. We had to make it possible to get on without the natural stretch of jersey. But we've done them with the fashion fit.

You could see them as anti-fashion but, when we sent them to Japan — we did a lot of work in Japan right through the Eighties — and I had them all translated into Japanese. And sent them, because I thought, well, we've got a huge market there and they should have them in all the stores. And they said, "Thank you very much," but they wanted them in English. Because they saw them as fashion statements. So they also have their fashion element.

tFS: So even when someone wears the shirts as a fashion element, do you think it's unintentionally a form of political activism? Or do you think a slogan tee can ever be a form of activism? Is making one a kind of activism?

KH: It's a form of activism. It's lovely that people wear them. Because they care. Somebody said, "Civilizations fall apart when we stop caring for our fellow men." And so people putting on the shirt, it says that the message is something that they think is important, that they have no interest in, financially. It's something that they care about, I think it's really good. It's healthy. 

tFS: Do you think of yourself as an activist? 

KH: I'm a campaigner, I'm an activist. I'd change everything if I could. 

tFS: So in terms of the newest crop of slogan tees, the jokey —

KH: Oh right, 'Feline,' all of that. They're a pun on the designer brands, and yeah they're really good. 

tFS: Do you see your work as precedent to them?

KH: No, because they use the typeface of the brand. I put text on clothes, it's social and political activism. These are jokes, they're witty puns, on the brands' names. And they're kind of laughing slightly a people that are obsessed with brands. They're not the first people to do that though, there were people doing that in the Eighties. They did things like, "Jean Paul Gotcha." "Come On Mes Garcons." They're cute, but that's about as far as I'll go. 

Naomi Campbell for Katharine Hamnett Spring 2004 / Image: Getty

Naomi Campbell for Katharine Hamnett Spring 2004 / Image: Getty

tFS: I wanted to ask about runway diversity; Bethann Hardison's new Balance Diversity campaign has really brought a lot of attention to the issue. And you've been outspoken on the subject for years. Why do you think people have only started to pay attention to the issue now? 

KH: Maybe they just weren't aware of it. We're very lucky in the European clothing industry, because there's certainly every body of every color, of every sexual persuasion. There's a huge amount of homosexuals in the clothing industry — but probably more gay men than women — and they're utterly accepted.

And also women are treated as equals in the clothing industry in a way that they are not in many other industries. Government, politics, financial services, banking … I think women have a very tough time. In the clothing industry, it seems to be an equal amount of men and women in very very senior posts. But on the other end, it's filled with a huge amount of women making the clothes, garmenting. So it's great that it's highlighted because anything that's unfair needs to be addressed. 

tFS: And finally, could you tell me about what your business structure looks like today? I know you're doing some e-commerce, what does your stockiest situation look like? And you no longer put out traditional collections, is that right?

KH: We've worked with licensing for about the last twenty or thirty years. And we've been doing bits and pieces, but it's very hard to find a partner who genuinely cares about this, who shares the same philosophy. Because people look at it as an addition of costs and therefore keep their minds on the profit. So at the moment we haven't got any collections out. We're doing some things with Coop Italy, but we don't have collections out. We've got a new contract which just started, but that's not going to have product out in the stores until …  Spring/Summer 2014, Autumn/Winter 2014.

I'm taking the position: I'm not prepared to make clothes at the expense of other people. So I'd rather not be making clothes and not making the money than making the money at the expense of other people's lives. So that's the situation we're in at the moment.