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From billboard to ballot: Fashion’s first whistleblower is asking you to vote

World renowned for her political T-shirt designs and planet-led activism, fashion’s first whistleblower Katharine Hamnett has taken to billboards with BUILDHOLLYWOOD to further spread her message. Cast your vote wisely. 

With Arthur the dog sitting just out of shot beside her, Katharine Hamnett appears as if out of nowhere on the screen, captured in a bright room with a lit cigarette in one hand, periodically shifting in position to accommodate the sleeping hound to her left. “He has a dog pass, you see”, she shares, “so he can come everywhere with me, even to the Tate”. This kind of loyal company feels reminiscent of Katharine’s unwavering commitment to justice, her dogged determination for seeing things through properly, and her persistent hounding of political heavyweights to listen to the people, and to act accordingly. 

It’s clear to all that Katharine Hamnett has a remarkable number of accolades to her name; from winning the first ever British Fashion Awards to renouncing her CBE on account of the Palestine crisis, her accomplishments appear to align wholeheartedly with her strong moral compass. A recent post on her instagram shows Katharine dressed in a black T-shirt with the words “DISGUSTED TO BE BRITISH” proudly emblazoned on the front, capturing her speaking a few words to camera before swiftly binning her CBE. “I’m not the only one disgusted to be British, apparently”, she comments when we discuss it in our interview. “We sold a tonne of those T-shirts”. 


Words by Elsa Monteith

Katharine has an unshakeable integrity unique in an industry dead-set on profit and profile, being very much the first person to really interrogate the perceived optics of fashion in the ‘80s, instead of blindly accepting them for what they were. Following the heady success of her years in designing clothes, Katharine began the arduous task of researching her own impact, revealing a dismal trail of pollution, oppression, and toxicity, and little in the way of an actionable solution. Seeing no alternative but to become the first whistleblower of the fashion industry, Katharine’s claims were met with derision and contempt, ridding the fashion scene of its former shine, and replacing it with what felt like a bleak and hasty demise into an environmental and ethical recession. 

Since conducting that research in 1989, Katharine has talked the talk and walked more than the catwalk, relaunching her label in 2017 with re-issues of archive pieces, and fresh campaigns of ethically made, statement T-shirts. Having recently focused her efforts on what it means to vote in a political climate rife with crises; be it cost of living, conflict, or climate, Katherine shares her love for QR codes and their ease of use for rocking the boat (or vote). “This is their one weak spot,” she continues, referencing the politicians she has been lobbying for years, “this is where you have huge power”.  

As well as being an iconic fashion designer with a wickedly beautiful archive, it would be remiss not to acknowledge Katharine Hamnett as a quick-witted woman generous with her thoughts on what good we can do in the midst of compounded crises. Her legacy is one of courage and acerbic sincerity, immortalised in capital case, on the front of a litany of statement T-shirts. Here’s to voting for our futures.

What was your childhood experience of getting dressed and choosing your outfits?  

We were kind of naughty kids. My father was in the military so we lived all over Europe, and I was on the diplomatic list when I was 16 in Stockholm. We’d be playing on canoes in the mud until about four o’clock and then we’d have to zoom back and get changed to look perfect for some kind of diplomatic reception, and then we’d go and steal all the cigarettes.  

Did you always have ambitions to design clothes?  

I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but when I left school, my parents said, “you’ve got to earn your own living”, which I thought was a bit hurtful. I wanted to be a film director or an archaeologist but they said that there aren’t any women film directors, and to become an archaeologist you would need a private income. Eventually, a friend suggested I go to St. Martins with them to do fashion. I think I just wanted to be rich. So I looked at who the most overpaid people in the world were, and it was fashion designers, and so I did that. And it was great. 

Have your influences, fashion, politics, or otherwise, stayed the same since your days at Central St Martins? 

I suppose I was politically radicalised when I was at St Martins. I was there in ‘68 and came from a very military, conservative family. My father was a special advisor to Wilson and worked in the Ministry of Defence – we had this kind of embassy life all over Europe. So St Martins was great. My heroes were the great designers of the past – early Ossie Clark, the great couturiers, you know, Charles James, Schiaparelli. And just looking at what people are wearing in the street. That’s the most interesting thing.  

When you first came into fashion, did you expect to become its biggest critic?  

No – we just wanted to play with beautiful fabrics and beautiful techniques, and we didn’t know that there was anything wrong. In Buddhism they talk about the right livelihood, the notion of earning a living without harming any living thing, and so we kind of careered along from ‘69 to ‘89 thinking we were doing fine. And then I did this research, just to make sure that we’re aligned with the right livelihood, and of course when the research came back it wasn’t right livelihood at all, it was living hell.  

At the time, I was very successful. I think we had 17 licences in Japan, a few in Italy, and others all over the place. I thought that when I told the industry about the damage they’d say, “Gosh, that’s frightful, we must fix it”, but not at all, it was a nightmare. And one by one, I lost all my licences, because I just thought – what am I going to do? Am I going to be a hypocrite? What’s that Chinese saying… If you lose your money, you’ve lost nothing, because you work hard to get it back. If you lose your health, you’ve lost something. If you lose your character, you’ve lost everything.

What are your thoughts on the evolution of the fashion industry over the past few decades?  

Consumers are listening and are interested, but it’s very difficult for fashion companies to change the way that they behave, and there’s been an enormous amount of greenwashing. I was working with a top manufacturer in Italy who made beautiful quality clothing. From the start of the process I said that we were going into this sustainably, but just before the collection was due to go out to sales, I found that they’d used chloride bleach on some jeans. I said we can’t do that, it’s not sustainable, it’s really really toxic. And he turned to me and said, “carry on with this ethical and environmental shit and you can take your collection and fuck off”. And that pretty well sums up the industry. They’ll greenwash it left, right, and centre. As they see it, it’s the enemy of the bottom line, which is a very narrow-minded view because consumers increasingly want sustainable products. We are looking for sophisticated clothes which are made responsibly, and right now that’s very hard to find. 

What led you to “choose” the “Choose Life” slogan for your first statement slogan piece? 

I like ideas to tick all the boxes, and I just thought; important messages about ethical, environmental, and social issues that aren’t being attended to, in huge writing that you can read from 100 metres away? Choose life, that’s a pretty good start. 

You’ve got a wonderful way of making statement clothes without slogans too – your work with organic cotton speaks volumes about your commitment to responsible, conscious fashion. What does the industry need to do to make more than a statement and take the climate crisis seriously? 

I mean, the tragedy is that we left Europe. The first thing to actually sort out what’s wrong with the clothing industry would be to have a law that only allowed goods into our territories that were made to the same social and environmental standards, that way you clean up the entire garment industry. If you’re making clothes in Vietnam, for example, you’d have to be dyeing in compliance with the European chemical laws, you know, you’d have to be treating your workers properly. It would create jobs within the EU or the UK or the US or wherever this law came into play, because it would make domestically made clothing more competitive.  

Do you see a connection between free speech and fashion as a form of self and community expression?  

There is a T-shirt law, I can’t remember which one now but it’s part of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It says that you’re not allowed to make or wear a politically contentious T-shirt, which means you could potentially be jailed for wearing a T-shirt that says Free Tibet. I think you can tell so much about people from the clothes they wear; you can tell which way they vote, what music they like, which bands they go for, what they do for a living. And for trans people, dressing is a whole other thing. You can get murdered for wearing a dress.

Your clothes make it possible for people to visibly voice their opinions and wear their views. Do you ever get people commenting on the slogan you’re wearing?  

I did wear that DISGUSTED TO BE BRITISH T-shirt, and we had about 5 million views on it. It was incredible how far it went. And what was quite interesting was that most of the comments were positive. We sold a tonne of DISGUSTED TO BE BRITISH T-shirts, I’m not the only one apparently. 

Do you like being known as the “original fashion eco-warrior”? 

Well, it’s nice to be acknowledged as the first person that really blew the whistle on the fashion industry. And I’m glad I did it. My father had a very strict, strong moral code, and I think it’s in line with that. Given the circumstances, I didn’t really have any other options. I basically picked the wrong job, I should have been an archaeologist or a filmmaker. 

“Vote” is a word with incredible political baggage, and a huge amount of personal power. What brought you to this word as the latest slogan T-shirt? 

After 40 years of trying to save the world, you realise that it’s actually down to people lucky enough to live in a democracy that can politically engage with our elected representatives, to tell them that we won’t vote for them next time unless they represent their views. This is their one weak spot. This is where you have huge power. We vote with our wallets as well – how we consume decides the future of the planet. And then there’s also boycott, which is a very powerful tool, which brought down apartheid in South Africa. And it’s a tool that we should be using now with the Palestine crisis.  

Despite your clear politics, you didn’t use a slogan that indicated a certain party was better than another, simply asking people to exercise their right to vote. Why is that?  

It’s quite good to be political without telling people which party to vote for so they use their common sense. I mean, we’re trying to get young people out to vote and women out to vote and if you get young people out to vote, they normally vote left. Women are sensible. You’ve got to carry the can for everything and they tend to vote left as well. So we’re desperate to get them out to vote. 

It’s exciting to see the billboards up in London and beyond. Do you have a connection to the city? 

Yes and no. My father was in the military so we lived all over Europe, after Brexit it became really complicated and difficult, and I came back and felt like a changed person, I’m much more European now. I can’t understand how we take so much stuff lying down compared with the French. I mean, they have the place on fire daily. Is something in the water? My first campaign was actually about getting lead out of petrol. And lead is in all the topsoil in London. I’m just thinking; is lead making people stupid? Is that what’s happening? Why are we so dopey? Why are we so acquiescent to all these terrible things, to these MPs who refuse to vote for a ceasefire in Gaza? Go to hell. You don’t represent my views, and that’s your job. You’re fired. 

Could you share some of your favourite London haunts? Could be a shop, park, library, or anything that resonates. 

I love the parks; Dalston Curve Garden, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens. There was a parrot tree near the Henry Moore on the Serpentine, all the parrots were coming down and feeding from people’s hands and standing on kids’ heads, it was the sweetest thing. I spent my student years in Soho, so I love Soho, I love Chinatown. I also love Hampstead Heath. I’ve kind of gone off the shops a bit. Fenwicks was our port of call and it closed down which was heartbreaking. 

I check for the low tide on the Thames and Arthur and I go for a walk on the beach which is great. There are all these little secret beaches; there’s one by St. Paul’s, and a fantastic one by the Southbank. There’s crazy stuff down there; old roof tiles, clay pipes, incredible flints and huge lumps of chalk.

What’s your favourite piece of clothing that you’ve designed in your career? 

I used my career as a way of exploring late 20th century to early 21st century dressing. I’ve played with all sorts of different styles of dressing, from jeans right the way through to party dresses. I’ve played with all the techniques and fantastic technicians that I’ve come across via men’s tailoring and women’s tailoring. I’ve loved it all. I mean with clothes, you’ve got to design them for yourself, but I also design them for my friends. I think they’ve got to have some extra element that you put in them, which is beyond money. It’s a trick. It’s when you make something and you think you’ve got it perfect, then you stand back and just see if there’s one more little thing you can add.  

Clothes have got an anima, it’s extraordinary how you put something on and it changes you. There’s a French expression, and I can’t translate it into English, but it vaguely means bringing out somebody’s natural beauty. It can just be something like a slightly differently proportioned mac, it becomes a sort of disguise because we’ve got all these cultural and social references in our clothing. We’re very aware of them in England because we have dressing up boxes as children, we play with roles and personas. How does the king dress? How does the thief dress? How does the beggar dress?  

What’s next for Katharine Hamnett? 

I’m really concentrating on this voting thing and getting people politically engaged. I think it’s the most important thing that we can do, it would be criminal to not work up to the max. Attack attack! 

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