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

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.

Katherine Hamnett in 1987 / Image: Getty

Katherine Hamnett in 1987 / Image: Getty

A few years after Katharine Hamnett (one of the designers nominated for the Tiffies category, Honorary Award for Ethical Fashion) launched her own label in 1979, she adopted an ethical philosophy which put her in the vanguard of sustainable fashion.

The political beliefs which first guided her business practices were soon literalized in Hamnett's designs: In 1983, Hamnett created a silk T-shirt printed with big block letters which read: Choose Life. The move was essentially a stunt, but the shirt proved to be immensely popular. Hamnett continued designing variations on the slogan tee over the course of her career, (perhaps inadvertently) branding herself as fashion's most political designer. 

We spoke with Hamnett about her political awakening, the original thinking behind printed slogans on oversized tees, and whether she sees the shirts as a form of activism or purely a fashion statement. 

theFashionSpot: Could you outline the ethical philosophy behind your business practices?

Katharine Hamnett: It originated from the concept of 'right livelihood,' which is about earning your living without hurting any living thing, for the good of all living things. So it's quite a tough call. And originally when I went into the clothing industry, I was deeply interested in Buddhism, but I didn't think we were doing any harm. In the late 80s, we did some research to make sure…

I think the challenge is, in fashion everybody wants to get rich and famous and it's easy to get rich and famous by being a bad person. But the challenge is to achieve your goals — whatever they are — while staying a decent human being. That's where it came from.

Anyway, we did the research in the late 80s and found that far from being an innocent profession, it was a nightmare. I've been battling ever since, to change the way we make clothes. On every level. From the farmers, all the way through the supply chain, including, obviously, the workers. The impact of cotton agriculture globally is just phenomenal — it's 10% of world agriculture and 25% of pesticides. It's hard to know how many deaths there are, because they happen in countries where there are few doctors, let alone hospitals. 

tFS: With outsourcing and globalization, the picture has become progressively worse over the past few decades. Has your message changed at all since you became interested in the ethical dimension of the fashion industry?

KH: The message hasn't changed. This is wrong. I don't want to make my living when the price is being paid in environmental degradation and human suffering.

The outsourcing has grown. There are 3 or 4 million women, mostly, in Bangladesh employed now in the clothing industry. I can't imagine that was the case 20 or 25 years ago. Human outsourcing has been a bad thing all the way around, because it's taken away jobs from countries where human rights and minimum wages were observed and controlled, and put the jobs in countries where unpaid overtime and child labor are common.

So it's been a double tragedy. It all stems from allowing China into the World Trade Organization without first addressing its human rights violations — or even its artificially deflated currency. It's very much big business, brand-driven World Trade Organization decisions which is making it disastrous for everybody. 

tFS: How did the idea for putting your politics into your designs come about? Those slogan tees…

KH: It came again from Buddhism. A friend was organizing an exhibition, trying to get out a Buddhist message and so the central message of Buddhism is 'Choose Life.' We put that on a T-shirt and it's now been appropriated by the anti-abortion lobby, which is pretty annoying. Because I think women should have the right to choose…

I was frustrated because it's such a powerful message and yet I didn't see it anywhere. I love those big dense letters. If you put it with giant letters on a T-shirt, you can't not read those messages.

We were very successful in our ready-to-wear, were being hugely copied and I thought, Well if people copy this… I kind of designed the shirts to be copied, back when they were copying everything we were doing. And I thought, since they copy everything, they might copy these messages related to political, social and environmental issues that need to be addressed. I thought that would actually be a good thing. It's quite Buddhist, to turn a poison into a medicine.

We had fashion shows in London and Paris, everywhere. We were getting a huge amount of media coverage. And I thought, well if we appropriated that media coverage and used it for putting out social and environmental messages, that would be … not a waste.