Years later, her eponymous line became a huge success. “I know that people think we just did t-shirts, but they were a minor part of it. We sold an enormous amount of clothing,” she points out. “But it got to this point in the late 80s and I had won designer of the year and all that, and it seemed like you just couldn’t do anything wrong. We were very badly behaved. Our skill was staying out of the newspaper, which I would really congratulate myself to my grave that we did. Because we were really naughty and the worse we were, the more they loved us. In the end, I just thought this is too fucking easy, this success is actually boring.”
That’s when she fell down the rabbit hole, deciding to check up on the impact of what she was doing, making sure that it wasn’t doing any harm. “Crssshhhhhhhh,” she bursts into a crescendo-explosion noise. “And that was the big moment when you realised everything you were doing was destroying everything that you love, We’re destroying the planet. I realised that I’d been partying, we’d been surfing this wave of fabulousness and gorgeousness, and yet underneath it was just rotten to the core and needed fixing,” she says of the wake-up call, which changed the way she went about working from then on. “The industry has been so laggard. I find it shocking how huge brands are just about starting to do sustainable now because they’re still scared. Where have they been?”
To that end, Hamnett is tackling these issues head-on once again, her new venture taking her to Italy to set up a production office and put right many fashion wrongs. “We are setting up a vertical operation, 99 percent free and independent of the fashion system, for our new online store,” she explains. Launching in September, it will include producing sustainable materials, paying proper wages, selling direct to consumers and a variety of collaborations. “We are teaming up with Helvetas, a Swiss NGO and Hess Natur, a German sustainable e-commerce company, to help the West African cotton farmers in a project called Slow Fashion Container.” The idea is that cotton from West Africa is brought into Europe, where it’s spun and knitted – via environmentally and socially-certified manufacturing – into a garment collection.
Hamnett is also teaming up with Help Refugees, providing the organisation with the “Choose Love” slogan. “We hope this project will be part of an educational tool to support refugees and combat the rise of the far right.” In fact, at the time of writing, Choose Love has become a hashtag used in the US to oppose President Donald Trump. “I like ideas that tick all the boxes,” notes Hamnett.
There’s also talks of working with the local community, about doing a school over in Italy too – with a lot of emphasis on technical training and the history of art and fashion – and about putting on a film season. In a year’s time, she plans to open up its facilities for others to use. And it’s something she’s very specifically not doing in the UK, due to Brexit. And because, importantly, she defines herself as being European. “I’m more European than I am British. I prefer it. I prefer the attitude, the work ethic, the kindness, the absence of a class system,” she says. Straight-talking, eloquent with it and wholly refreshing, Katharine Hamnett, it was a pleasure to meet you.
To find out more visit www.katharinehamnett.com
Interview taken from issue 12 of Hunger, Stand for Something, on newsstands now