“Fashion is worth more to the UK economy than the car industry,” Natalie Massenet – chair of the British Fashion Council – remarked at the opening of London Fashion Week, a week and a half ago.
The comments were part of a speech that saw Massenet call on politicians to “see the crucial impact on the economy the industry has and the endless job opportunities it provides.” She had a point.
Fashion traditionally has a bad rep as being shallow and exclusive: it’s not feminist, it’s not racially diverse, it presents a negative body image, it only serves capitalism… The arguments are varied and plentiful.
Incidents like the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 – in which an eight-storey building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,129 and injuring over 2,000 garment workers – don’t much help matters. (It has been described as “the deadliest accidental structure failure in modern human history” according to its Wikipedia entry).
But there is plenty to be positive about, from the essential jobs Massenet mentions, to the genuinely creative minds that find a home in the industry, and the relationships formed on the basis of sartorial like-mindedness.
Plus the fashion industry has Katharine Hamnett. Made famous in the 1980’s for her bold slogan tees with strong political messages, the beginning of the decade saw her dressing Wham! – ‘CHOOSE LIFE’ – while later in the decade she would join prime minister Margaret Thatcher at a Downing Street reception, her outfit an anti-nuclear protest announcing, ‘58% DON’T WANT PERSHING’.
She won Designer of the Year at the first ever British Fashion Awards, and in 2011 was awarded a CBE. 2015 sees her release Hamnett by Katharine Hamnett, in what is the latest of several archive revivals.
“We found someone who was prepared to make it ethically and as environmentally as possible,” the designer responds when Clash asks her why – aside from frustration with copycats (noted in previous interviews) – now was the right time for Hamnett, the diffusion line.
“They are designed to be seminal, they give you a voice. You can’t not read them, once you have seen one it’s in your brain,” she asserts of the power of slogan tees to engage and start conversation. “Hopefully it makes you think, inform yourself, act, do the right thing. It’s a no brainer. People will always ask you why you are wearing it.”
Since 1989 the Katherine Hamnett label has focused its attentions on producing clothes with an ethical conscience, a practice that has seen the designer dubbed ‘the pioneer of ethical and environmental clothing’.
26 years later and the list of prominent names within the same arena isn’t long. Did she imagine more would follow? “It is pretty disappointing,” she recognises. “1000 cotton farmers die everyday from pesticide poisoning or suicide debt, that is more deaths per day than in all the wars going on across the world put together, and it doesn't even show up as a blip on the media anywhere. I thought everybody would think the same as me and fix it. Have they no pity? Have they no shame?”
She reserves praise instead for social media, describing the various platforms as amazing: “We can all be in touch with each other at slightly less than the speed of light. It is a human evolutionary step.”
The label itself – worn above by the DJ and sometime model, Larry B – mirrors the messages Hamnett has been advocating for years with slogans such as ‘Save The World’, ‘Make Trouble Question Everything’, ‘Save The Future’ and ‘World Peace Now’ joined by the culturally relevant ‘Use One’ and ‘Don’t Shoot’.
“I want to get the message out to as many people as possible,” Hamnett offers of the high street outlets stocking said tees (ASOS, Topshop, Topman, Urban Outfitters).
“I want to sell as much organic cotton as possible because this helps the farmers. If they can sell organic cotton rather than conventional, it improves their lives immeasurably as they don’t have to spend all their money on chemical pesticides and fertilisers and can finally afford to feed, clothe, house their families, educate their children and afford healthcare, which is not the case if they farm conventionally.”
Marketed as a streetwear brand – it's worth noting that Hamnett first made an appearance in the 90’s – Katharine herself aligns it with the notion of “cool clothes that anybody would want… At a price a lot of people can afford.”
A one of a kind/exclusive/limited edition drop this is not. There’s too much work to be done for that.
Words: Zoe Whitfield
Portrait: William Pine