Saturday 7th October

| BY Alexander Fury

48% Don’t Want Brexit: The Revolutionary Katharine Hamnett Talks To Alexander Fury


The archive is the first thing I see when I go to see Katharine Hamnett. Actually, the first thing I see is her dog, Arthur, but the archive overwhelms. It takes over an entire floor of her east London studio. There are roughly 1,600 garments, charting Hamnett’s influence over the 1980s and early 1990s.

There are distressed and printed denims, her military surplus designs and sexier numbers in stretch velvet with sequins. The garments weren’t all there – a group are in Paris, where Hamnett had just returned from selling her SS18 collection, the second in the nascent relaunch of her eponymous label. Kanye West is a fan – he collaborated with Hamnett on designs for his Yeezy label. But in the London archive, the first thing I saw was the infamous “58% Don’t Want Pershing” T-shirt that Hamnett used to confront Margaret Thatcher in 1984. The T-shirt’s slogan referred to the then-prime minister’s decision to allow US nuclear Pershing and cruise missiles to be stationed in the United Kingdom, despite public and parliamentary opposition. It was a riff on the slogans she had introduced the same year in her AW84 collection, including “Choose Life” and “Stop Acid Rain” – the latter of which she distributed to the female protestors outside Greenham Common airbase in the mid 1980s; the former was made famous when Wham! wore them in their music video to Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.

The meaning behind Hamnett’s protest has been dulled over time – Pershing isn’t a word you heard all that often. But the image – the confrontational nature of it, the rebellion of Hamnett – still resounds. At the time, her slogans proved controversial enough for retailers such as Joseph Ettedgui (of the Joseph boutiques) to refuse to stock them – he specifically turned back a shipment bearing the slogan “US Go Home”. I tell the designer (now aged 70) that there’s still a dress code for fashion-related events at Downing Street, news she greets with a wry smile. I also tell her that I (along with many other industry figures) boycotted Theresa May’s cocktail party at the start of last September’s fashion week. Hamnett, apparently, considered doing the same. But instead she decided to fight through fashion.

Hamnett was always politically aware and politically active – she had her phone tapped after the Pershing incident at Downing Street (“It was classic,” Hamnett says, in tones rounded by schooling at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. “You pick up the phone, and ‘click’. I could hear them. I screamed at them down the phone, ‘Waste of public money! You’re wasting their time, I’m innocent!” She shrugs.) And she is still fighting. Her new line, relaunched for AW17, is sustainable, environmentally aware, organic and fashionable. It’s everything she’s been trying to promote. And it’s loud. She gives me one of her new (organic cotton) slogan T-shirts, printed with “Cancel Brexit” in that big, bold font. And she opens with big, bold thoughts on Brexit and everything else.

KATHARINE HAMNETT: “Brexit. It’s the biggest change in Britain since deciding that we were going to fight Hitler rather than surrender. I think it’s pretty well up there with the big ones. It’s been railroaded through, and even the CBI [Confederation of British Industry], who I hate, are coming up and saying this is going to be a financial disaster. You’re going to have a skill shortage, you’ve got the migration, you’ve got the financial centre, which they all wank off all over. There, they’re just rubbing their hands and saying, ‘Frankfurt or Paris?’ Paris is such a nice place to live.”

ALEXANDER FURY: “Especially now.”

KH: “I mean, it’s tragic. You can already feel that we’re being left behind. I could weep! And then there’s the European Court of Justice, which we actually need because it’s a bit ropey here – their environmental rules are better than ours. We’re in bed with the agrochemical companies, with our reluctance to face up to the horrendous facts about Roundup Glyphosate [a controversial weedkiller] – birth defects, kidney failure, 31 different diseases including blood cancers. Anyway, I shouldn’t go on. We should be talking about fashion!”

AF: “I think it’s all very relevant.”

KH: “I think it’s relevant.”

AF: “I don’t know if I would say it’s a positive, but the one thing that’s interesting that has been born out of Brexit and Trump and everything right now is that I feel like people are so much more politically aware. Especially young people. Not even just aware – engaged. Actually going out and marching, protesting.”

KH: “Realising that their vote means something. Realising it’s their future and they could gain it or lose it by the way that they use their vote. It’s their most precious possession.”

AF: “Which, to me, kind of makes the time perfect for you to come back to fashion, because your clothes are all about an awareness – promoting awareness.”

KH: “I just took advantage. I did use the media when we were getting loads of coverage, thinking that we could actually slip some messages through. I think, around these clothes, it’s about awareness, as well. Trying to drive demand for organic cotton. But in the end, there’s nothing like doing it yourself. I tried to not go back into manufacturing because I did it for 20 years and I know about manufacturing. Anything that can go wrong, will… ”

AF: “It’s always a disaster.”

KH: “The evil god of clothes has got a very creative mind! But it’s completely sustainable, preserving traditional skills, Made in Italy. Organic cotton, no BCI [Better Cotton Initiative] cotton, thank you very much. It gives us pesticide. I just can’t stand it, the way we’ve watered down environmental standards. Pesticide just equals microbiological death. It actually destroys the soil facility and it carries on killing. I can’t stand these half-cock things going around, masquerading. If you look at some of these huge corporations, they talk about ‘social responsibility’… ”

AF: “When they tend to talk about things like light bulbs. We’ve changed all the light bulbs and now we’ve saved so much electricity.”

KH: “They’re interested in everything post-harvest. They don’t care about things like chlorine bleach and they don’t care about thousands of farmers dying every year. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of farmers dying every year from pesticide poisoning, or suicide from pesticide debt. I’m just sick of it. I always function better when I’m independent.”

AF: “I read an interview with you in which you were talking about the idea of sustainability. You said that whatever you create has to be a desirable product. People have to want to love it and to wear it.”

KH: “And need it. It’s my conscience. It’s my self-indulgence, not necessarily theirs and we just have to do it so that it’s the same prices as our competitors’. And it’s incidentally ethical, if you care or not. If you care, it’s fantastic. If you don’t care, you’re not even paying more for it.”

AF: “It just looks really good.”

KH: “It looks good, it does the job it’s supposed to do. But it’s my self- indulgence, really.”

AF: “I actually want to go into the past and ask you why you first got interested in fashion?”

KH: “All the kids were. My mother was crazy about it. Her family were competitive dressers. We moved to Paris when I was five years old.”

AF: “And living there, you can’t really ignore fashion.”

KH: “Exactly. I made my first thing at my first sewing class in school, a terribly small Blanche de Castille. The nuns said, ‘Now we’re going to make a dolly’s apron.’ So I brought in some white organza that my mother had got for making some hat and it ended up like some sort of French maid… I couldn’t understand why they were giving me these odd looks. I thought it was beautiful. I was in love with the fabric. I was obsessed with fabrics as a child. I would take the bits of fabric on holiday with me, bits of velvet, and stroke them. I just had to take them with me! My mum used to buy her fabrics at Liberty – it was after the war. My job was matching the cottons and that was incredible training. That was before we moved to France. I must have been about four. I started at a very early age – I was breast-fed on fashion. And we lived in Paris in the 1950s and my father was in the military and got promoted and so I was really exposed to society. I had to make my own clothes.”

AF: “Because you were very tall.”

KH: “I was tall, I couldn’t fit into the horrible school uniform.”

AF: “I read that. I wondered if you used it as kind of a rebellion because you hated the school uniforms.”

KH: “It was! It was awful. The waist on anything was here [She chops her torso around the ribcage.]. And I had to dress up, because by the time I was 16, [my father] was the defence attaché for the Baltic and I was on the diplomatic list at 16. As you are! And you’re up against your friends, who are dressed by Courrèges, and so I found the only way to do it was to make my own clothes, because it’s so much cheaper. I did needlework and physics and chemistry at school and became fairly adept. I didn’t learn pattern cutting, though, so you got some interesting experiments that never quite worked out.”

AF: “Before you figured out how a sleeve was actually made.”

KH: “It was a revelation. You used to get these patterns, Vogue couture patterns. You could get a Nina Ricci coat – I made that at school. I was at this horrible boarding school and they banned me from using the drying room because I’d left a mess. They knew I was in the middle of making this coat and I wasn’t allowed to use the sewing machines. And I thought, ‘Fuck you!’ So I sewed it by hand and it was wonderful because the hand stitch with the fabric, it’s got a kind of elasticity. It was a miracle – when you saw the pattern pieces go together, it was like watching the planets form. And then I didn’t know what to do when I was at finishing school. I wanted to be an actress and I’d failed my RADA. But a friend said, ‘Why don’t you come to St Martins with me and do fashion?’ I thought, ‘Oh, all right, that sounds like a good idea.’ And of course, it was amazing because St Martins was just so perfect. It was such an incredible education.”

AF: “Was it on Charing Cross Road?”

KH: “We were in the annexe. We had the most amazing pattern-cutting teachers, and incredible artists actually teaching in the fine art department. And amazing history of art teachers and it was just, like, intensive saturation. I didn’t have a grant, so I kind of lied my way into freelance jobs when I was studying, so I worked my way through college. I used to get textile-design jobs from Thea Porter, around the corner in Greek Street, then shoot into the textile department and ask, ‘How do you do a pattern repeat?’ having actually got 50% in advance from Thea! I was a criminal, a bandit! But you know, clothes, they’re fascinating. They’ve got a transformative power, they can turn you into someone you’d like to be perceived as, that you’d like to think you are. They can give you confidence and power. There is that aspect to them, which is quite extraordinary.”

AF: “Fashioning yourself. Being able to fashion this identity, this image of yourself. It’s very interesting.”

KH: “They have a magic as well. They’re actually alive. Good clothes actually come alive on you, they melt with you and they transform you. It’s can be something that looks like a boring mac, but it’s the proportion.”

AF: “When you were at St Martins, when you were graduating, did you always know that you wanted to do your own label or did you want to carry on freelancing?”

KH: “I loved freelancing. I enjoy it all and it’s good fun, but I prefer to be behind the camera, background, and I had this thriving freelance practice. It was great. But then I had this friend who didn’t and she said, ‘I think we should set up a business,’ and I was quite weak and I said, ‘Oh, all right.’ So you set up a business straight after leaving college called Tuttabankem. It was [a play on] Buck and Hamnett, we couldn’t decide on a name.”

AF: “It’s still going.”

KH: “It’s not!”

AF: “I Googled. They said that they bought it for £50 in 1974, which made me realise it’s that same company.”

KH: “It could be, because I left it to my ex- husband. He might have flogged it. Fifty quid – he’s not very good at business.”

AF: “It was more in 1974.”

KH: “Yeah, but we started on 50 quid! My first one started on 50 quid, second one on 500. This one is considerably more. We ran it for five years and we matured as designers. I mean, I started designing things for space that made you look like spacemen.”

AF: “That Courrèges mould?”

KH: “It was more extreme. It wasn’t Courrèges at all. There were kind of strange capes, hand-painted, influenced by science fiction. We nearly starved to death for about three years and we thought, ‘Fuck this.’ I wanted to do something that works without making a compromise. That loads of people can buy and people could be in the same room wearing – people could actually wear the same clothes but not realise they were wearing the same clothes, because it was doing something magic on each of them. [My friend] wanted to carry on doing hand-painted stuff. I was going into industrial production and she was going the other way. It was the beginning of that whole utility thing that I was in love with. She wanted to do craft, so we split, but you know. But we got pages in Vogue and loads in Nova. Then I worked freelance for a bit – in Paris, actually. And I did a job in Hong Kong and another one in New York. Then that folded. And then I thought, ‘Uh- oh, I’ve got a one-year-old baby, I’ve got to have a means to support us. I better go back into manufacturing.’ It’s ended up being the heartbeat of my life, going back into manufacturing. But then I knew all sorts of tricks I’d learnt from the French. It flew. I mean, I wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t done the research on the impact of the clothing and textiles on the environment [In 1989, Hamnett researched the damage caused by fashion companies, starting with her own. The results made her reconsider the way she was producing fashion and ultimately led to her closing her company.]. I’d be the Donna Karan of Europe! But I’m glad. It’s obviously not been the easiest. But what are you going to do? I think it’s like that Chinese proverb – if you lose your money, you work hard to get it back. But if you lose your character, you lose everything.”

AF: “We have to talk about the slogan T-shirts and that politicising. But what I find interesting – and I’m not sure if you agree with this – is that I felt like a lot of the other things you did in the ’80s, besides the slogan T-shirts, were equally political in a different way. There was a real focus on sexuality, on femininity, which I thought was playing with gender politics. Was that your intention?”

KH: “I’m always reacting against everything. In the 1980s, I was really reacting against miserable feminism. You can’t look nice or make yourself look attractive. It’s just like, it’s biological programming. Guys are looking for a mate – if you’re beautiful, flaunt it. When I did advertising campaigns, I found the girl with the biggest tits. The first campaign that Ellen [von Unwerth] shot, they were so huge. [The model] had no bum, but she had these tits! There was that going on and I felt like, ‘Everyone is just so miserable,’ and I thought, ‘Why can’t it be about fun? Why can’t it be about being happy? What about playing games? What about being transgressional?’ I don’t know if it was to do with gender politics.”

AF: “It’s interesting because when I look at what you were doing… ”

KH: “I did lesbian sex acts on stage on the catwalk. I can actually get you pictures. But they were both wearing sort of beautiful sequinned catsuits. Sequins… entangling! I played games with everything, really.”

AF: “For me it very much kind of linked to what Vivienne Westwood was doing, that kind of reclaiming corsets, reclaiming these things that, as you said, feminists had decried for a long time.”

KH: “They were really – feminists were really annoying.”

AF: “But it also wasn’t that Lacroix coquettish way. It was much more powerful, this feminine reclamation of female sexuality, of padded bras and corsetry. It was slightly the restriction, high heels. Maybe it’s because it’s a woman designing it.”

KH: “And after the military-appropriation thing, this was that women can be as strong and sometimes you’re a boyish girl and sometimes you play up bosoms. Equal, but different.”

AF: “So where did the idea for the slogan T-shirts come from?”

KH: “Well, we were getting hugely copied. I thought, ‘If they’re just going to copy everything, let’s give them something that would be funny if it was copied.’ I like ideas that kind of tick all the boxes. It had its origins in a discussion that I was having with Lynne Franks. She was staging an exhibition on Buddhism at the Commonwealth Institute and I just said, ‘This is shit. If you want to get the message out there, you should do a giant T-shirt with “Choose Life” on it,’ which is central to the Buddhist philosophy, ‘but in letters you can read from 200 yards.’ Then, I thought, ‘Actually, that’s an idea.’ I wanted to do something that, if it was copied, it would make me laugh, but also it would be a good thing.”

AF: “The message is very undiluted if they’re ripping it off exactly like that.”

KH: “Yeah, it’s divine.”

AF: “It’s not like ripping off a suit really badly.”

KH: “It’s putting out something that needs to be said a lot more. Of course, they never really copied the content. They copied the style.”

AF: “The lettering.”

KH: “‘Choose Life’ got nicked by the anti- abortion brigade in America, which is really annoying. It had a slight resurgence after George Michael died, because he was wearing it in that video, which is wonderful. But it’s a cry from the heart and it’s something that I did because I started thinking it would be funny if it was copied. I never thought they were going to actually be adopted. There was a fabulous Top of the Pops once, when we were doing it, and there was one person wearing ‘Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now’. And you could see from the camera angles the producer was picking that they were trying to keep it behind the pillar. And the next week, the whole of Top of the Pops was wearing it. And that was the most amazing feeling. Because I thought, ‘If I can put this out, I have to.’ If you can, you have to. Minority of one. I never thought it would get picked up. We did ‘Choose Love’ to help refugees – and that’s ridiculous, how that’s selling. That’s hugely gratifying for me, just on an artistic level, to feel that we are one. That so many of us feel the same. But also it’s raised lots of money for help for refugees, to support ambulances for Syria and mobile phones and food. And you can’t not read them.”

AF: “How do you feel about this new rise in putting slogans on clothes?”

KH: “I suppose it’s the zeitgeist. Even if they get it totally wrong. We got Sarah Mower, front row at Dior, wearing our ‘Cancel Brexit’ tee. It’s a price worth paying.”

AF: “At least the fashionability of it gets some messages out that actually mean something.”

KH: “That was my whole objective. Because in the early ’80s, you couldn’t talk about condoms. ‘Save the World’ – people asked ‘Why? What’s wrong with it?’ People didn’t realise there was anything happening. Even then, American Vogue came into our showroom, finally, for the T-shirts and span on their heel and left without saying a word. But pretty face, T-shirt… the message is in your brain, it’s written on the back of your brain and there’s nothing you can do to remove it. It’s a Nazi propaganda technique that I studied at St Martins. It kind of runs around and festers and makes you think, question and, I hope, do something.”

Text by Alexander Fury
Photograph by Jonathan Baron