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Hook Archives: In Conversation with Katharine Hamnett

August 8, 2018


For this month’s instalment of Hook: The Archives, I thought I’d share an interview that appeals to the mission of Hook’s upcoming ‘The Earth Issue’. After all, fashion is soaked in activism. Designers use political protocol as prose for their latest collections and their platforms as a stance for creating change. One designer that has been using her personal power as activism for the duration of her near 4-decade long career, is English-born Katharine Hamnett. I’m delighted to reaffirm Hamnett’s sharp whit and commitment to campaigning in this interview from 2016 as she offers up advice for how we, the younger generation can make our mark in the world. 


Enjoy and see you next month...

Hook Archives: In Conversation with Katharine Hamnett - 30/04/16


There have been dozens of moments over recent decades where fashion has paid homage to political upheavals, environmental disasters and societal affairs. From McQueen’s 1995 Highland Rape portraying the violation Britain upheld on Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries to Chanel’s Spring/Summer 15 feminism protest. Whilst few seldom manage to demonstrate the usefulness of fashion by identifying and making a stand against something, others have been laughed at for using politics as a means to popularise their brand. Seemingly, no matter how much (or little) integrity, fashion’s stage is one that can make a lot of noise. 


But if we were to think of specific, epochal occasions where fashion players have held more power than a middle-class white man in well, everything, it’s instinctive to think of Katharine Hamnett and her activism through fashion. Rivalling the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Hamnett is your original politically-motivated fashion girl. Through a series of slogan t-shirts that drew attention to environmental and political problems of the 80s, Hamnett started a revolution and her most famous: "58% DON'T WANT PERSHING” that she strategically trapped Margaret Thatcher with in 1984 has already gone down in history. Although Hamnett is still producing politically-driven slogan t-shirts to this day, a lot has changed socially since she first started making change her primary motif. There is still lots to do and very little support out there for young people who want to start the same kind of innovation for a better tomorrow. So sitting down with the Saint Martins graduate herself (who went to the college “when it was really good - it’s rubbish now,” she adds), explains why we should all write to our MPs, talks the toxicity of fashion and gives us advice on how we can make a difference in today’s climate.


"Fashion gave me a voice which

I would've never had if I wasn't a designer."

- Katharine Hamnett


Wearing one of her latest t-shirts that declares "NHS NOT TRIDENT”, Katharine Hamnett clarifies why she decided to make the decision to break the nuance of designing for the purpose of getting rich and famous and instead opt for a direction a little more selfless. “We got way more coverage than we needed to sell clothes so decided to put something out there that’s actually worthwhile,” she explains. Since she made that decision to cut all ties with designing for the sake of becoming somebody, it’s been pretty clear of her dissatisfaction with the industry and exclaims “fashion itself is utterly toxic.” She first drew up this corollary when she blew the whistle on the textile industry in 1989 when researching into the poisoning in cotton agriculture from pesticides resulting in thousands of deaths. When she brought this information to the surface and nobody in fashion actually cared, she was shocked that it was the same industry where she had once felt comfortable. Before, she believed that fashion had got to be a pretty innocuous occupation but then soon realised she’d built “a nest in a snakepit…I didn’t realise that they didn’t give a fuck and they weren't going to do anything. They didn’t care how many people were dying,” remembers Hamnett. It was a wakeup call.


But of course she never resents what the industry initially did for her: “fashion gave me a voice which I would've never had if I wasn't a designer,” Hamnett defends. It’s creative industries that hold all the power in being able to engage people to work to eventually achieve their end goal. “You’ve gotta get off your ass, wake up and know that there is a way. You just have to find it and to find it, you need creativity,” on the importance finding a creative way to get your messages out there and for people to remember it. “T-shirts were great because you can’t not read them. Even if you hate the subject and you think the NHS should be completely privatised and you adore nuclear missiles, you can’t not read them,” she says. But she also realises that consumers are much more informed and aware of issues than they were in the 80s and so has to utilise the information we do have in more ways than just getting it heard. Popular ways in which people often show their support to causes are by going on marches and signing petitions. Hamnett explains why she doesn't believe these to be sustainable algorithms in actually making a difference. “I think that marching attracts attention to a subject and petitions are great but they do give a false sense that you’ve achieved something. The only thing they change is politicians’ behaviour as something that affects and threatens their ability to be elected,” she claims. “You are appealing to the better nature of people who haven't got one, in many cases,” Hamnett concludes. 


“You’ve got to make the fuss. Start attacking early."

- Katharine Hamnett


So what are we, the younger generation, to do to get the government to listen up and stop doing an array of things that are bluntly, destroying the planet? Well, “you’ve got to make the fuss,” says Hamnett. “By the next election, 14yr olds are gonna have a vote and so they can start threatening them [government] now. Start attacking early.” Adamant that MPs treat one letter as a thousand, Hamnett stands by the notion of writing letters to the government and threatening their vote if they don’t change their ways. It’s a shame that the government don’t really care about the issues we’re faced with and instead are only focused on being in power, so no matter how old-school letter writing is, I guess Hamnett is right. Write with the intention that you’re a supporter in the first place and will terminate your loyalty if they don't represent your views. It’s the same in fashion she says: “write to your favourite brands and tell them you’re not going to buy in the future unless you can tell me it’s been made ethically and environmentally.”  But her most ardent piece of advice for creating change: “don’t give up.”

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