The designer famous for her slogan T-shirts hasn't stopped fighting for the environment, among other causes

LONDON — Decades before social media was even a twinkle in the eyes of digital entrepreneurs there was Katharine Hamnett, the designer, political and environmental activist who was messaging her heart out on oversize cotton T-shirts. Slogans ranged from “Choose Life” and “Frankie Says Relax” to “58% Don’t Want Pershing,” a T-shirt Hamnett famously wore to Downing Street to protest the government’s plan to host U.S. Pershing missiles on U.K. territory. Hamnett is still making the shirts — how could she resist in times like these? — with slogans such as “Fashion Hates Brexit,” “Second Referendum Now” and “Vote Trump Out.”

In the late Eighties, she was among the first industry campaigners to highlight the use of pesticides and the plight of cotton farmers — and her commitment to politics has not dimmed. She continues to campaign for sustainable sourcing and manufacturing, and is raising money for various charities including Help Refugees. Here, Hamnett talks about the myriad challenges of running a sustainable fashion business, how the problems just seem to multiply and why younger generations need to move faster.

 

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher greets fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, wearing a t-shirt with a nuclear missile protest message, at 10 Downing Street, where she hosted a reception for British Fashion Week designers.

Katharine Hamnett wearing her Pershing protest T-shirt at 10 Downing Street, where Margaret Thatcher had been hosting a reception for British Fashion Week designers.  PA Archive/PA Images

 

WWD: Let’s talk plastics. What can fashion do to help?

Katharine Hamnett: We have got an absolute state of emergency on plastic, micro plastic especially, and fashion is hugely responsible for some of the worst stuff. Polyester fleece is in everything — even our drinking water — so we need to stop using it. We are going to drown in plastic. Plastic is better taken into hard products — like computer keyboards or car parts or garden furniture — rather than clothing because we don’t want the f—ing fibers escaping. Even Lycra is a problem. It is hideous, and so we are trying not to use it — but it is very hard. We’ve got a denim with 2 percent Lycra in it — because we thought that was OK — then the news came out that it’s not.

WWD: You have been using 100 percent organic cotton for years — and asking others to, as well. What sort of progress have you made?

KH: Cotton is actually a climate change issue. The added chemicals in conventional cotton farming are causing huge methane gas emissions into the atmosphere. Conventional cotton is grown by huge agricultural companies in enormous fields, whereas organic cotton is usually grown by small holders in developing economies like India, where the farms are tiny and rain-fed. Farming organically is labor intensive, but the money stays with the farmer. They have food security, and it cuts migration to the cities. Organic farming is better for the entire biosphere, and it is better for the farmers.

WWD: Can you talk about what you’re doing from a sourcing and manufacturing point of view?

KH: We are weaving the cotton, copying old English 19th-century military construction that was done in Lincolnshire, but having that made in Italy because we have lost all of the mills in England. I am also joining forces with Stella (McCartney) on this fabulous supply chain that comes from Africa through Portugal. It is really low carbon because it is a short distance and we are working with Pesticide Action Network UK. They were the ones that gave me the information in 1989 that made me blow the whistle on cotton. They do all the research on pesticides and fertilizers.

WWD: What about silk — and polyester, two other controversial materials?

KH: Our silk isn’t as good as I would want because it is not organic, but at least I don’t use pesticides. We are going for organic, we are moving in that direction. The problem is that while it looks the same, organic silk is double the price and the consumer doesn’t realize that. We are asking our suppliers all the time and pushing for organic, but we are not there yet. And we have to stop making new polyester. I am working on a recycled polyester. We have got it in some of the labeling and some of the garments, and I am actually really keen to do a 100 percent recycled polyester with absolutely nothing on it. Not a bit of metal, nothing.

WWD: Can you talk about how the organic textile conversation has changed since the Eighties?

KH: It was 1989 and I wanted to check to see about our social and environmental impact. I was thinking all would be fine. Of course it came back s–t. We were making everything, selling in 700 shops worldwide, but all this bloody fashion stuff wasn’t eco-friendly or anything. We were selling it because it was cutting-edge, cool, and sexy and beautiful. It made you feel great and all that. Then I thought ‘Oh, s–t. What are we going to do?’ I thought I could just tell everyone and then it would change instantly.

The scary thing is you will find some people who care and other people who really don’t. I remember going to a big trade show in Munich and trying to find sustainable leather and other materials. I went to one guy, and he said: ‘Do you want sustainable, or do you want a sustainable look?’ It was so awful. I would ask people ‘Have you got any organic cotton?’ and they would say ‘Why should we do organic cotton when no one is asking for it?'”

WWD: How have those attitudes evolved over the years?

KH: Now it is massively different, and there is a huge amount of availability, but why isn’t a company like Burberry using all organic cotton? They had most beautiful cottons if you look at those 1940s macs, the originals — or earlier. They were organic cotton because there wasn’t anything else around, so why don’t they change something? It is so hard for the young designers, it is a huge barrier for them because they can’t break the high cost of the mills’ minimums. The big guys, though, where the f–k are they?

[Burberry confirmed it does not procure any organic cotton as the quality is not currently readily available in the quantities that it needs. “We are exploring opportunities to use organic cotton with the supplier of cotton yarn to our mill in Yorkshire, where we weave the gabardine for our iconic trench coats,” the company said, adding that it has committed to procuring 100 percent of its cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative by 2022 and is a partner of Cotton 2040, a cross-industry initiative, that aims to maximize and accelerate sustainability initiatives in the global cotton industry and drive wider usage of sustainable cotton].

WWD: What sort of improvements or changes in people’s attitudes have you seen so far? 

KH: I think there are good things: I think there is a new generation coming up and young ceos. People have got an appetite now, people really want to make a change and younger people are so on it. I am working on a top-secret project that sees new uses for ocean plastic and plastic waste because that is what we are desperate for now. We have got an industrial emergency, and we have got to come up with new products that we can make out of it. We can take it out of the sea and keep it on the ground and make it useful, like giant Lego building blocks.

 

George Michael

Pop duo Wham!’s George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley wearing Katharine Hamnett’s “Choose Life” T-shirts in 1984.  ITV/REX/Shutterstock

 

WWD: How does the consumer come into all of this? Do shoppers need to start buying less and spending more? Is that even realistic today?

KH: You can’t blame people. They need clothes. If they go out and they see something they adore that’s 900 quid and then they see something that is very similar for 9.99, can you blame them for buying it? I mean this is how we attract our mates. It is a primate activity. The big change needs to come from legislation, and that is what I am looking for now. I am doing something tonight at the House of Commons, talking about only allowing goods into our economic box that meet the same standards of fair labor, health and safety, human rights, and environmental impact as we have.

WWD: Britain abandoned its textile industry long ago. You’d like to see it rebuilt for the 21st century. Can you talk about that?

KH: We need clothing jobs back in our economy. We need to be making clothes for a local market. Don’t think the Chinese are not doing that. The Chinese are developing their local brands, their own domestic luxury and online brands. It would have a huge impact on carbon emissions because making locally means less carbon flying around, but we do need to reinvent our industries. We need to re-industrialize and reinvent the clothing industry here. We need to build higher-spec factories and create skilled worker jobs. Of course, I am a socialist so those factories would need to be owned by cooperatives.

WWD: How does that tie into your feelings about Brexit?

KH: For England, the opportunity of staying in the EU is just phenomenal because it is not just the single market in Europe that we’d continue to have access to. The EU has got a trade deal with Japan — some of the richest consumers in the world — what is there to hate about that? It would be good if (Labour leader) Jeremy Corbyn became prime minister; there could be a nationalized fashion industry, state-of-the-art training, with England representing a supreme mark of quality. This could be an incredible export opportunity, and we could do it all sustainably because England has the best energy potential anywhere in Europe. We have a huge coastline, offshore winds and massive tidal potential.

WWD: You believe in a new generation that’s making changes, but are those changes happening fast enough?

KH: We are going so slowly: Organic cotton still only makes up 2 percent of the world’s cotton, and that is after 30 years of campaigning. It’s going too slowly. That’s the scary thing. We have been banging on about this for years and the issues are as relevant now as they were then. The big scary question is, ‘Are we too late?’ I think it is time not for panic, but for action. I hate the word ‘woke,’ but there is no other way of putting it. It is the new word. People need to be ‘woke’ about the environment.