Almost 40 years after she burst on to the scene, design legend Katharine Hamnett is back – as fearless and full of fight as ever.
Katharine Hamnett is back. Having just turned 70, the nonconformist septuagenarian is relaunching her pioneering namesake brand and doing it – as always – her way. She is returning on her own terms, but with the same integrity, wit and exceptional designs that propelled her to the fame, success and excesses of her heyday.
Hamnett has had quite the interesting life. She grew up living across Europe, was on the Diplomatic List by 16, and studied at St Martin’s School of Art (now part of Central Saint Martins) in London during the 1968 student riots.
She launched her eponymous brand in 1979, and within five years her silken parachute jackets and oversized utilitarian shirts were stocked in 700 stores. At one point she was the doyenne of London Fashion Week, and was awarded the British Fashion Council’s first ever Designer of the Year award in 1984.
Her protest T-shirts, which spawned fashion’s love affair with slogan tops, went viral before going viral was a thing. George Michael wore her “Choose life” T-shirt in the music video for Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Wham’s first UK and US number-one hit. Hamnett herself was broadcast globally when she confronted then prime minister Margaret Thatcher wearing a “58% don’t want Pershing” slogan, in protest against US missiles being stationed in Britain.
She was the epitome of cool and doing everything, from allegedly inventing stretch denim and stonewashing with Adriano Goldschmied, to receiving a CBE from the Queen, influencing designers and even collaborating with rapper Kayne West. She had it all. And then she gave it all up.
When we meet at her east London studio, Hamnett is pottering among the rails of her extensive design archive. The original “58% don’t want Pershing” T-shirt from her Thatcher encounter hangs casually in the corner of the room.
She is wearing her “daily kit” – a straight black skirt, T-shirt and cardigan. Her signature thatch of dark hair tops her tall, thin frame. A measuring tape is slung around her neck – she’s very much involved in her studio’s day-to-day design work. Chunky black Chanel sunglasses (“to hide the wrinkles”) and an oversized cup of strong black coffee, with saucer, are never far out of her reach.
As we take a seat, I tell her I’d like to talk about the brand’s relaunch and discuss her career.
“Ugh, therapy time,” she responds with a dramatic eye roll, only half-joking. Ever the fashion activist, she opens her cardigan and reveals her latest slogan T-shirt, which reads, “Cancel Brexit”. “Well I want to talk about Brexit and, particularly, the lost opportunities to the British clothing industry,” she retorts in her sonorous, well-to-do drawl.
Among her various passionate and well-informed arguments against Brexit, some of the key issues for Hamnett are the single market and trade tariffs, which she discusses at length.
“The idea of moving away from the single market is stupid,” she declares. “Europe is doing a free-trade deal with Japan and Japan regards ‘made in the UK’ as a supreme mark of quality. Japan constitutes 120 million of the world’s biggest British [product] consumers – they buy clothes like it’s a disease. What the fuck are we doing?”
Thanks to the current state of global affairs, Hamnett admits she is not short of inspiration: “Our next T-shirt will be ‘Second Referendum Now’ [in reference to Brexit].” Then there’s “Worldwide nuclear weapon ban now’, and “Stop Trump” – the list goes on. Although she admits it is all “utterly depressing”, Hamnett remains full of dry humour and funny stories, littering her passionate tirades and expletives with beguiling anecdotes and cheeky, unpublishable stories.
She was born in Gravesend in 1947, but lived across Europe, following her defence attaché father to a number of embassies.
“Sort of MI6, so he wasn’t allowed to talk about work at home,” she whispers theatrically. She was eventually “shoved off” to boarding school at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, a high society boarding school in Gloucestershire. “Horrible,” she says, exaggerating every syllable. “Hor-rib-le. A wasted childhood.”
Brought up on international Elle and Vogue magazines thanks to her glamorous, “fashion-crazy” mother, Hamnett’s interest in clothes led her to St Martin’s School of Art to study fashion.
“It was fun because I’d lived quite a sheltered life really,” she says of her freedom in London. “And compared with the education people are getting now, it was like a bloody PhD. It was incredibly all embracing.”
Without a financial grant, Hamnett found other ways to support herself while studying.
“I was a shocking hustler,” she says with pride. She would buy and sell antiques, including a rare Lalique Cire Perdue mirror she bought for £6 and sold sensationally at auction.
“The money I got was three years’ worth of grant money. So I went straight out and spent it on shoes,” she laughs.
We doubled our turnover every season. We ended up selling in 700 stores in 40 countries in about five years
Following graduation she launched Tuttabankem with a friend, Anne Buck. The brand was successful – “a really wonderful, glamorous time in the late 1960s”, she remembers with a twinkle in her eye – but the pair grew apart in terms of design direction.
Freelance gigs followed, taking Hamnett around the world. For one, she designed a small range of samples that were never delivered, so she was not paid.
“I realised I might as well try and sell them myself,” she says. And from that casual resourcefulness, the legendary Katharine Hamnett brand came to life.
Her first sales appointment was with Browns, but they didn’t turn up. Second was Joseph. Unsure, it took the brand on a sale-or-return basis.
“They sold out the same day,” says Hamnett, still pleased with herself. “And it just went like a dream. It was ridiculous. I think we doubled our turnover every season. We ended up selling in 700 stores in 40 countries in about five years.”
The brand’s sudden success led to widespread copying and, ever the joker, Hamnett decided to play those imitating her designs at their own game, creating her famous slogan T-shirts.
“It was the time of Thatcher and you could feel that we had no voice, so I thought it was a good way to spread a message,” she explains, inspired by bold newspaper headlines. “And it would be funny to see if the fakers copied it and spread [our messages] further.” Of course, they did.
More fame came in 1984 at Downing Street when Hamnett wore the anti-Pershing T-shirt to meet the prime minister. “It was an early selfie, a bit of a practical joke,” she recalls. “I wasn’t going to go because I couldn’t stand her, hideous woman. And she wasn’t very pleased: she looked at [the T-shirt] and squawked.”
Success brought wealth, chauffeurs and housemaids. She threw legendary parties and took luxurious holidays. It was an “Absolutely Fabulous” time. In fact, Hamnett was the first client of Lynne Franks, the famous PR queen on whom the Absolutely Fabulous series was allegedly based.
We were up to our necks in a quagmire of environmental destruction and human suffering on a scale that’s unbelievable
Everything changed in 1989.
“I thought, ‘We can’t be doing anything wrong making silly frocks,’” she says of her decision to request an audit of the environmental impact of her business. “But [I realised] we were up to our necks in a quagmire of environmental destruction and human suffering on a scale that’s unbelievable.”
Among many things, Hamnett discovered the terrible cost, to both the environment and human lives, of cotton production: “It was all vile, so I blew the whistle on the clothing industry thinking everyone would say ‘that’s awful, we must fix it immediately’, but of course nobody gave a flying fuck.”
She decided to change the entire outlook of her business, focusing exclusively on sustainable materials.
“It was difficult. I should have done the clever thing and phased one in and phased the other one out but, no, I had to rip up my contracts because I was so upset. It wasn’t the cleverest thing to do. You could say commercial suicide,” she adds with a shrug.
She battled on and threw herself into promoting the cause, transforming herself into fashion’s flag-bearer for organic cotton and sustainable manufacturing. A short-lived fair-trade, organic clothing collaboration with Tesco appeared in 2007, but Hamnett stepped away after reportedly disagreeing with the supermarket giant.
An unexpected encounter with rapper Kanye West came in 2015. When putting his Yeezy clothing line together, West reportedly came across vintage Katharine Hamnett items and was so inspired he got in touch.
“You know I signed a non-disclosure agreement with him, which gives me a fine of $10m [£7.6m] if I say anything,” she whispers. And then goes on: “He rang up out of the blue and wanted to see the archive, and he wanted me to photograph it – which we did – and he borrowed some stuff.”
In fact, Hamnett photographed her entire archive and turned it into a three-inch thick book.
“It did rather wake me up because I realised there’s quite a lot of stuff in [the archive] that’s still really relevant today.”
Using her own manufacturing factory in Italy and organic fabrics from around the world, Hamnett decided in May 2016 to relaunch for autumn 17 with a 15-piece capsule collection, selling exclusively via katharinehamnett.com.
“Everyone had been pressuring me for pieces they had in the past, so I thought,‘OK, well we’ll start with [the archive].’ But obviously it’s important to add new stuff because the world has changed – things never come back exactly the same. So that’s what we’re doing. It’s a mélange,” she says in a mocking French accent.
Sustainability is, of course, the key.
“But its got to be fashion, because we have to sell to people who often don’t care [about sustainability],” she says. “As a matter of personal conscience, I want it sustainable, but also immaculate.”
Key pieces include a slouchy patch-pocket silk army shirt silk (£290), brought back from 1983, sweatshirts with signature V-insert neck detail in organic cotton from 1982 (£195) and, from the same year, a padded parka in either cotton (£585) or silk (£990). Hamnett has kept her slogan T-shirts separate from the main collection.
She might be 70, but the designer has moved with the times, talking SEO and social reach with the ease of any digital native: “The world has changed and the whole retail axis has shifted. Now you can experiment and do drops however you want online. Digital puts you right in touch with the consumer, in quite a creative way actually,” she says. “Although it’s more like running a magazine with a small bit of manufacturing on the side,” she jokes, referring to the extensive editorial and social content her team creates.
Online sales have performed well, particularly across the UK, US and Japan.
“It’s nice because we still have some brand recognition left in those 40 countries [we used to sell in],” she says rather humbly.
Wholesale books opened for spring 18. Liberty, Matchesfashion and LN-CC are confirmed as UK stockists, while H Lorenzo, American Rag, Vinicio and Hypebeast will sell worldwide. Wholesale prices range from €30 (£26.50) for a bra top to €520 (£459.50) for a Swarovski crystal-encrusted full-body catsuit for women, and €32 (£28.25) for a T-Shirt to €240 (£212) for a cropped, hooded parka for men.
“What appealed to us about Katherine’s collection is that she has a very strong brand DNA and her focus on sustainability feels very relevant. The effortless ease of the pieces has a timeless appeal to women of different ages,” says Suzanne Pendlebury, contemporary womenswear buying manager at Matchesfashion. “I think the collection will appeal to both the original customer and a whole new generation. The collection, and Katherine herself, have a very strong image, and a history and ethos that is very important.”
“It’s absolutely the right time for Katharine to re-emerge,” adds Sarah Mower, chief critic for Vogue.com, who remembers sneaking into Hamnett’s catwalk shows as an aspiring journalist in the early 1980s.
“Not only are all the issues she’s been persisting in campaigning about coming home to roost, but a rising generation really cares about them, and her style is spot-on relevant as always. It all looks right, but now it’s even better because, by pressing for change and sound development, she now has beautiful organic cottons and silks to use, which feel and look amazing,” she says. “Katharine’s incredible integrity and thoroughness in following through, and being at the forefront of ecological and human responsibility as regards fashion production, makes her an incredible pioneer and warrior of our times.”
So, is Hamnett ever going to stop?
“Well, I think retirement is really stupid,” says Hamnett with characteristic bluntness. “I’ve spent my whole life making clothes. Why should I stop now? I know more about it than I ever did.”
In fact, she says enjoys her job more than ever: “I still love it. There’s a magic in clothes. And that’s really exciting, to make something that comes to life when people are in with it.”
”Do you still feel that magic,” I ask, ”even after all these years?”
“Well, I try,” she says with a smile.