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AN INTERVIEW WITH Katharine Hamnett

Katharine Hamnett is iconic for so many reasons. One of which is that she was probably fashion’s first Eco-warrior. She was fighting for our environment way before it was cool; and her slogan tees have been fighting the good fight since the Thatcher era. This year, she relaunched her eponymous brand, in a See-now-buy-now model that is more sustainable than ever - from Co2 pulling natural fibres, to using recycled biodegradable packaging. On minimising her label’s carbon footprint, Katharine says, “It’s an ongoing process”. A process that takes a hard look at her own business model, and beyond this, an even tougher look at the realities of the fashion industry on a macro-scale. 
We sit down with Katharine Hamnett in her sun-filled East London studio and chat about fashion, sustainability, her recently launched see-now-buy-now collection, politics, and everything in between. What’s changed and what hasn’t in her label’s fifteen hiatus, what’s wrong with the fashion industry, and how we as citizens of the world, can affect change. Activist, designer, revolutionary - Katharine Hamnett is as relevant now as she was then, and the relaunch of her brand could not have come at a better time. 

Tell us about yourself and your background. What made you fall in love with fashion?
As a child, I lived all over Europe. My  Father was a diplomat, and I was on the diplomatic list when I was sixteen. I went to all the amazing parties, and I was exposed to a lot of gorgeous clothes. I realised that clothes have a kind of magic which fascinates me still.


You have been an icon for political fashion since the Thatcher era — where you used the politicised slogan tee to speak out and invite change. Do you think fashion as a political medium is still relevant today?
Fashion is a great tool for putting across political ideas in writing. You can’t NOT read messages on t-shirts.

You were the British Fashion Council’s first recipient of the Designer of the Year award back in 1984. In what ways do you think the industry has changed since then?
There seems to be little genuine will from large brands to make radical changes, as they are afraid that it will affect their profits, so not much has changed. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that less than 2% of all cotton is now organic, as opposed to none in 1989. People are beginning to realise  that the one thing that will force big brands to improve their social and environmental footprints is going to be legislation. Legislation that, to some effect makes it so that, ”Only goods made to the same social and environmental standards outside our economic block as within them, will be allowed to be imported." 


After fifteen years, why have you decided to relaunch Katherine Hamnett in 2018?
I needed some clothes. For many years, I tried to change the industry from within by working with  the big players. I did the rounds of speaking at sustainability conferences, trying to create change, which are mostly hot air fests. It is so much easier now to produce sustainably than it was 15 years ago. So I relaunched the brand and made it as ethically and environmentally as possible, on the principle of show not tell.

How important is sustainability to the ethos of your brand, and to your ethos as a person?
It is the central motivator of what we do as a brand. The social and environmental aspects of a product is decided at the design stage. As a person, I try to live as sustainable as possible — no sustainability, no life on earth, it goes without saying.

Katharine Hamnett London is committed to sustainability as a brand. In what ways do your production processes minimise your carbon footprint?
Our carbon footprint is of deep concern to us. We do far too much travelling and online stores are also miserably high on CO2 emissions. We are re-examining all logistics with our CO2 footprint in mind, trying to minimise it. It is an ongoing process.  We use mostly natural fibres and they are all carbon sinks in one way or another. They all come from plants pulling Co2 out of the atmosphere via photosynthesis, and keeping it locked into fibres. These fibres ultimately bio-degrade into benign organic material that stays in the ground.  


Today, sustainability is more important than ever, with brands becoming more and more concerned about their carbon footprint. What role does the fashion industry play in the effort to minimise our environmental impact as a species?
So far, it is just so bad. It’s not just the Co2, there is chrome in leather tanning, and heavy metals from dyeing, processing, and finishing. Denim processing deserves a whole chapter to itself that would include stone slurry that silt up rivers from stone washing. Dioxins ( the worlds' no1 pathogen) are created from PVC manufacture and disposal. Chemical pesticides and fertilisers used in cotton agriculture (which contributes to 12% of world agriculture) cause long term contamination of fresh water supplies, rivers and seas, as well as cause micro-biological death and desertification.  Nitrous oxide (NO2),  a greenhouse gas whose molecule is 200X heavier than CO2, is gassed off in huge quantities from chemical fertilisers; and must be considered a serious contributor to global warming and man made climate change. Micro-fibres from synthetics such as Acrylic, nylon, polyester, as well as plastics in packaging, are creating huge problems for marine life. All of these are to name just a few of the many problematic areas of fashion production. 

The fashion industry needs to seriously reinvent itself and transform into a cleaner, more ethical, and environmentally friendly business model. A model that would include bringing back local manufacturing in the developed world. This would not only bring back jobs in the sector, but also cut carbon emissions from freighting goods in from all over the planet!


As consumers, how can we must in protecting the future of our planet?
We are not just consumers, we are also citizens of the world. The lucky ones are even voters in democracies who have huge power to effect change. There are the obvious ways, such as taking care to only buy goods that are sustainably produced. But then there are the less obvious ways, such as putting pressure on our elected representatives that we want new laws that only allow goods into our countries that are made to the same standards outside as within. This would have the effect of making outsourced goods more expensive. As it costs more to pay people properly, treat them well, and use sustainable fabrics and processes, thereby protecting all the outsourced garment workers.
Brands would not be able to 
bunny-hop from one country to another, because laws in one place would have become stricter. They would only be able to ship into the EU if their goods conformed. This would make local manufacturing within our economic block more competitive, create jobs, and cut CO2.


Interview by Hannah Tan-Gillies

Portraits by Curtis Gibson