The Rise and Rise of Katharine Hamnett

Draper’s November 2017

After 40 years after first breaking into (and disrupting) the fashion scene, British design legend and activist Katharine Hamnett has returned. And in full force at that, with no punches drawn or hidden. The relaunch of her independent namesake brand comes into light at a moment of peak relevance capturing the l’air du temps of, especially youth movements who are angry at the development of current events. Catapulted to fame through her bold political t-shirts in the 1980’s, she is back to make a statement; to share her message in motivating action. With for example the house of Paul Poiret relaunching next month at Paris fashion week and Hamnett’s iconic pieces now available for sale, it is interesting to note the current revival of influential brands who made fashion history to be introduced and enjoyed by a new generation.

Her Spring 2018 collection was presented at the Liberty London department store, followed by an enticing “in conversation with” lead by Vogue chief critic Sarah Mower. The collection was understated and casually cool, featuring those famous parachute-silk pieces and other celebrated designs reborn from the archive. There was a satisfying friction between the lofty silks and the utilitarian silhouettes, nurturing an overall feeling of urban refinement. The colour palate was mostly muted: dark greens, navy, tan, save from a couple red pieces adding a spicy punch. Especially the t-shirt pronouncing “Protest and survive” – the mantra for this season. Of course next to her studio collection those iconic t-shirts are also up for offer, now revamped with appropriate messages including “Stop Trump” or “Cancel Brexit”. Hamnett stated, “Brexit is the stupidest idea that ever happened (well since we invaded Iraq).”

Katharine Hamnett SS18 | photo author’s own


Katharine Hamnett SS18 | photo author’s own

Through fashion, Hamnett hopes to inspire action although she shared her disappointment with the lack of progress by resistance. “We have to up our game. Marches and t-shirts aren’t bringing much. 30-40 years of activism and we’ve achieved bugger all… Marches and T-shirts they have no teeth.” Instead, Hamnett suggests directly contacting local representatives. “You need to not email, but WRITE to your MPs and ask for a reply. They represent you… If everyone did that, in a week we would have a different world.”

Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael (1984) | Getty Images

She is not one to shy away from anything, especially a cause that she believes in. Case and point, the famous image of her with Margaret Thatcher taken in 1984. The image immortalised her, making political history with a T-shirt reading: “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING”. The t-shirt protested the installation of U.S. nuclear warheads on British soil. According to Hamnett, when Thatcher noticed the T-shirt she stated – “Oh, we haven’t got Pershing here, my dear. We’ve got Cruise. So maybe you’re at the wrong party.”

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Katherine Hamnett (1984) | Getty Images

Next to her involvement with political activism is Hamnett’s dedication to sustainability. Ever since auditing her business in 1989 and being completely shocked at the manufacturing process, she has taken action to promote sustainability in fashion. She nods at the irony as she is the founder of the stonewashing textile process (an extremely polluting process due to excessive chemical and water usage). “I am the Eichmann of the clothes industry”. You can tell how energised she is about being a change agent by implementing sustainable material in her collections (such as organic cotton and silks) and encourages her colleagues to do the same. In reference to the “me-too” movement in comparison to the devastating effects of chemicals and pesticides she jokes: “He touched my bottom! I mean get the — over it. The real feminist issue is the garment industry and slavery.” She advocates that we should focus more on the tens of thousands dying of pesticide poisoning as victims of the cotton industry in India and Africa and the national and international consequences that provokes (e.g climate change, food shortage, mass-migration).

Photographed by Peter Lindbergh (1984)

I have tremendous respect for Katharine Hamnett as she does not just talk the talk… She is fearless, elegant, confident and incredibly talented. She makes people listen (even from 100 meters away thanks to her t-shirts) and always strives in pushing the narrative forward. It was a pleasure to speak to a role model. To someone using fashion to generate action in a time where many think it is enough to complain and passively “like” a photo instead of going out and doing something about it.