The Ecologist meets…Katherine Hamnett
13th March, 2012
It’s 27 years since fashion’s enfant terrible made headlines by arriving at Downing Street in a protest t-shirt but, as she tells Ruth Styles, Katharine Hamnett is as ready to stand up for the planet as ever
‘What does it mean becoming part of the establishment?’ exclaims Katherine Hamnett. ‘Shutting up because you want a medal? I don’t really know what being part of the establishment means! Does it mean you’re obeying laws?’ Spluttering down the phone from Milan, Hamnett is reacting to a question that wondered whether she, and fellow national treasure, Vivienne Westwood, might have finally joined the fashion establishment. ‘I think you’d have to question everything always,’ she adds firmly. ‘If you see something wrong and you don’t do anything about it you’re finished. If you’ve got any self respect, you’ve got to stand up for what’s right or what you believe to be right.’
Standing up for what she believes to be right is something that Hamnett has never shied away from, and the famously eco-conscious designer is running true to form with the launch of her latest project, a t-shirt made in collaboration with H&M to support Climate Week. The t-shirt, emblazoned with ‘Save the Future’ in large font is the latest in a line of slogan t-shirts produced by the designer, the most famous of which was the ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ [missile system] that she wore to meet Margaret Thatcher in 1984.
But there’s always been more to Hamnett than political sloganising, both in fashion and campaigning terms. She is, after all, the woman who brought us stonewashed, distressed and stretched denim – three inventions that have revolutionised wardrobes across the world. Hamnett was also one of the first to champion a greener way of making clothes after commissioning a report into the textile industry that found cotton agriculture was responsible for 10,000 (now 20,000) deaths per year from accidental pesticide poisoning. Worse still, she found that millions more people were working in squalid conditions and were little more than slaves. Her 1989 A/W collection, ‘Clean up or die’, was the fashion industry’s call to arms. But says Hamnett, despite the success of initiatives such as the British Fashion Council's Estethica, fashion still isn’t doing enough to clean up its act.
‘Definitely no,’ says Hamnett. ‘Just look at the CO2 [produced] by shipping and unnecessary travel [thanks to] fast fashion, people wanting shorter and shorter lead times and the whole fashion circus; you know trade show, fashion show, trade fair with tens of thousand of people flying all over the planet to do stuff they could probably do online. As far as climate change is concerned, cotton is one and a half per cent organic. The rest of it is [grown] using chemical fertilisers, which give off huge amounts of nitrate oxide which is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas and that’s just the beginning.’
But, I ask, shouldn’t we be taking comfort from the numbers of designers and brands – both large and small – making a shift towards greener textiles and manufacturing? Hamnett is cynical. ‘They offer this service because consumers are becoming increasingly informed and alarmed and this has been reflected in their buying patterns,’ she says. ‘Consumers are actually concerned about how their clothes are made, how people are treated, [the impact of] what they’re buying for the environment. That’s the only thing that’s forcing the industry to change – I think most textile clothing manufacturers would be really, really happy if it was business as usual. They could pollute without paying any fines, they could use slave labour and it would mean that they can make more money.’
Hamnett’s point is an interesting, particularly in light of the debate among certain eco-conscious left-wingers about whether any consumption at all is good for the planet. For the majority though, Hamnett included, conscientious consumption really can help change the world. ‘I mean if you look at Marks & Spencers [customers], 83 per cent are concerned about the impact of the goods that they buy on the environment,’ says Hamnett. ‘30 per cent are actually not buying something because they’re afraid. It’s huge. Those reports from these accountancy companies now say that people have either gone environmental or they’re out of business. It’s not a path being tried; it’s an long term trend.’ One that, according to some of eco-fashion’s leading lights, is due to changing perceptions of what eco-fashion looks like.
‘Nobody is going to buy clothes out of pity,’ says Hamnett. ‘People buy clothes because it cheers them up, makes them feel great, and makes them look great. So the whole concept that environmental has got to be sort of porridgey coloured, I hope it’s gradually fading. I know it can never fade fast enough because it absolutely doesn’t have to be like that. The choice of materials now is phenomenal. You’ve got the most beautiful long staple cottons, you’ve got the finest muslins and beautiful jerseys. There are things obviously that you’ve got to avoid like hell and there are things like bamboo, which has been completely greenwashed. There will always be a lot of things that are horrendous for the environment, so you do have to steer around those and have some degree of self-discipline.' But no one has done as much to promote green fashion as Hamnett, with the result that her own label, once made in the same factories as everybody else’s is now 100 per cent eco-friendly.
‘I think I talked myself into a situation where I would completely lose credibility if I didn’t put my money where my mouth was really,’ she says. ‘I talked myself into a situation where, like it or not, I had to do it and in the beginning it was difficult because we were the first people doing it. It was hard, but it’s easy now.’ Could that be then, I ask, why despite consumer pressure and the huge range of eco textiles available that more designers aren’t making the switch? Hamnett’s response is typically forthright. ‘Well some of them [designers] just don’t give a shit. They just really don’t care, which I think is pretty disgraceful. But more than the designers it’s really the decision of the CEO. They’ve got their heads in the sand. It is more difficult initially to do it because you’ve got to change your supply chain, you’ve got to research different suppliers and fabrics, because even at Première Vision [an enormous textile trade fair in Paris], you still don’t have a section with samples of sustainable fabrics. You go somewhere like Tex World, which is the Asian textile fair, and it’s clearly marked who’s got the sustainable fabrics. But CEO’s… Look at the state of the industry right now. There are very few people doing well. Most people are ding incredibly badly, but it is the CEO’s decision more than the designers. Designers can try. I tried, I would research fabrics and one Italian manufacturer said to me, “if you carry on with this environmental shit, you can take your collection and fuck off.”’
Not that Hamnett’s worried. Along with her own line and projects for the Environmental Justice Foundation and Climate Week, she’s currently in Milan launching a collaboration with Italy’s version of the Co-op. The Italian market, she says, is changing enormously, but that doesn’t mean she’s finished. ‘[The Climate Week t-shirt] just says “Save The Future”,’ she says. ‘I mean there’s not much time left to do it. I think the t-shirts…you can’t not read them. There’s no way that you can look at someone and not read what it says. It passes all the filters, gets into your brain and makes you think and actually take some positive action. If we care about extinction of species, if we care about life on earth, if we care about survival of the human race, if we care about a habitable planet, we just have to adjust our lifestyle. The slightest change would have an enormous impact. If we all tried to buy organic cotton whenever we could, if that would be our first choice in cotton garments, it would have an enormous impact.’
The limited edition Katharine Hamnett ‘Save the Future’ t-shirt, £9.99, (as seen on Sunday Girl above) is available from selected H&M stores nationwide and www.hm.com. All proceeds will go to The Environmental Justice Foundation. For more information on Climate Week, see www.climateweek.com
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