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

Naomi Campbell for Katharine Hamnett Spring 2004 / Image: Getty

Naomi Campbell for Katharine Hamnett Spring 2004 / Image: Getty

tFS: Who did you imagine wearing the shirts?

KH: I never really thought that they were going to sell. It came from the time when I was feeling particularly … we were under Margaret Thatcher, we were feeling voiceless. We were feeling as if democracy had slipped through our fingers. So I thought, Well, if I wear them, that's fine. I didn't imagine that so many people would want to wear them; it was hugely life-affirming for me. So instead of feeling alone, you start to realize that a lot of people feel exactly the same way as you do.

So I was surprised that they were taken up. And incredibly surprised that they have the longevity that they have, because they're still around. People are still asking for them constantly. So it's been pretty amazing. Now, whether they've actually done any good… They were designed to be seminal, to make people think and then hopefully act. So it's hard to measure the effect they've had, if they've had any effect.

I suppose governments take them quite seriously. I've actually got my own personal T-shirt law, which is Article 13 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2003, which says that it's illegal to put a contentious political message on a T-shirt in the UK. If you did something like "Free Tibet," the person wearing it could go to jail, the person who made it is going to jail. I take that as a compliment. I take that as indication that, if the government is afraid of them, they must be doing something. 

[Ed. note: We could not verify Hamnett's claims about the T-shirt law. There does not appear to be a 2003 edition of the UK's Prevention of Terrorism Act, although a political protester was detained by a police officer in 2005; the officer listed "T-shirt with anti-Blair info" and "terrorism" as grounds for stopping the protester. As the Guardian put it, "For the Sussex police, at any rate, an anti-Blair slogan is a ground for suspecting terrorism."]

tFS: How did the law come about?

KH: It was Tony Blair. Around the time of the illegal invasion of Iraq. I did a -shirt that said 'Jail Tony.' I know he saw it, because we put it on the catwalk of the fashion show and he was very, very angry. A friend of mine's friend's father was actually having lunch with him at Chequers, which is this big country house, on the Sunday after the fashion show. The photographs of these two shirts at the end of my catwalk show were all over all the newspapers and he was absolutely furious.

Apparently he launched an investigation into my financial affairs, which is the way they get you. They find a few diddles and da-da-da-da-da-da. So that's all I know. But the law is there. 

Katharine Hamnett Fall 2003 at London Fashion Week / Image: Getty

Katharine Hamnett Fall 2003 at London Fashion Week / Image: Getty

tFS: Has anyone been arrested?

KH: I don't think so. I mean, I tried but…

tFS: You've described how you composed the first 'Choose Life' slogan — and also the one for the illegal invasion of Iraq. How did you compose the others? What's the typical process?

KH: The first T-shirts were anything you wanted to put on your chest. It was 1983: 'Worldwide Nuclear Ban,' 'Save the Sea,' 'Save the World,' 'Stop Acid Rain,' 'Education Not Missiles.' So it was all pretty anti-war, anti-nuclear, pro-environment. I think those were the seven that we started off with.

I've been doing them off and on ever since. If anything comes up which I'm particularly upset about, I will do one. But a lot of governmental organizations approach me and ask me to do one.

We just did one recently for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) which says, 'NHS Not Trident.'

'NHS' stands for the National Health Service, which is being cut hugely, drastically, and yet they're still intending to spend $100 billion on refurbishing the Trident nuclear warheads and we can't really understand the sense. Who are we going to bomb, are we going to bomb the French? Are we going to bomb the Chinese? Don't be ridiculous. You can attack us. We're an over-populated island with poor skills, a declining population and very little natural resources. It's outrageous. We can't really understand the logic of it.

That T-shirt is actually really popular. Someone was wearing it in New York, at a gig! Why they'd want to wear it in New York, where no one knows what the NHS is. Or Trident! Anyway, I'm very flattered.