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Katharine Hamnett

Her T-shirts first made a statement back in the early 1980s, and are proving just as relevant in today’s fashion landscape. Drapers meets Katharine Hamnett, the first lady of ethical fashion

Katharine Hamnett could never be described as a wallflower of the fashion world. Best known for her Choose Life slogan T-shirts and ethical standpoints, Hamnett regularly creates stories that are the stuff of fashion legend. Twenty years on, her causes may have changed – to that of organic cotton, solar power and overseas shipping pollution – but her passion remains the same.

She is on talkative form when we meet, and is relishing her new role as “godmother” of the eco-responsible So Ethic area of Parisian trade show Prêt à Porter. So Ethic showcases a wide range of sustainable fashion and ethical accessories. It has grown from 20 stands in February 2006 to more than 90 in September 2007.

As such, Hamnett is delighted that the exhibition invited her to be involved. “So Ethic is a very select collection of exhibitors and products, who share my beliefs and principles, and I have been very impressed with what I have seen, both in terms of product and the number of UK and international buyers showing such an interest in ethical fashion.”

But Hamnett’s role stretches beyond just overseeing the stands and chatting to visitors. She also had a group of promotional models walk around the show with her newest slogan, No More Fashion Victims, emblazoned in neon pink on plain white T-shirts. The words are “a direct statement to the fashion and textile industry to clean up its act”, says Hamnett. “The T-shirts are part of my 43-piece spring 08 collection, and I think they’ll do rather well, don’t you?” she smiles. Also forming part of next season’s Katharine E Hamnett range is a tote bag with Clean Up Or Die embossed on it. “It’s about trying to hammer home that message in any way we can,” explains Hamnett.

Alongside the new slogans, there are also a number of reissues, including Choose Life and Save The World. “I think the reissues are important this year because we’re seeing this 1980s revival at the moment. You only have to look at Henry Holland and how well his range has done for him.”

Katharine Hamnett’s key international accounts now include Japan’s United Arrows, Fred Segal in the US, Collette and Galeries Lafayette in France, and Liberty and Urban Outfitters in the UK.

Hamnett maintains there is room in the market for both her and younger designers influenced by her. “My point of difference, however, is the ethical nature of the manufacturing and fabrication process we employ,” she explains. “And I see a shift in consumer spending patterns there – people are actually beginning to really take the issues of the environment seriously now, and that is shown by the increase in ethical shopping.” Indeed, according to the Co-operative Group, the value of ethical shopping hit a record high of £29.3 billion in 2005, and is thought to be growing steadily.

Among the myriad ethical issues that surround today’s fashion industry, it is Hamnett’s work with cotton farmers that is especially close to her heart. She says: “People just don’t understand the dangers and traumas undertaken by cotton farmers – poor pay, pesticide poisoning, crippling debt. There is so much we can do to help them if we just put a little effort into it.”
Organic cotton project

As well as producing all her T-shirts in organic cotton, Hamnett is spearheading a project with the UN to produce a new certification for farmers who convert from conventional to organic cotton. “It takes about three years to switch to organic, during which time there will inevitably be a drop in yield and money earned by the farmers. We hope to offer a scheme where farmers can still make the same money during that three years, on the condition that they will then farm organically for a minimum of another five years.”

Alongside her own business and international projects, Hamnett is also forging links with a number of other fashion labels to promote her ethical views. She linked up with ethically-focused jewellery brand Cred Jewellery in February to create a collection of nine gold and diamanté pieces for Valentine’s Day. “I love working with Katharine,” says Cred founder, Greg Valerio. “She is totally committed to her causes, and lives and breathes political fashion. She really has changed lives through her campaigning. She’s a role model in our industry.”

A less positive tie-up was the collaboration with Tesco, which kicked-off in September. It will not continue into 2008 due to, according to Hamnett, Tesco’s narrow distribution and lack of merchandising of her Choose Love line. Bruised by her dealings with the supermarket, Hamnett has been careful about her next partnership moves. These include an autumn 08 collection of pesticide-free wool, cotton and cashmere pieces with knitwear brand John Smedley, and a spring 08 tie-up with environmentally-conscious footwear brand Terra Plana, run by Galahad Clark.

“Katharine is an inspiration to all those who are trying to fight the good fight in the treacherous world of fashion and shoes,” says Clark. “The shoes we are creating are made of 100% organic cotton and have Forest Stewardship Council-approved latex soles. They’re the most eco-friendly vulcanised pumps in the world.”

Hamnett is just as positive about working with the brand. “Terra Plana is a brilliant UK manufacturer, and Galahad and I are always bumping into each other at environmental conferences. We have a common belief in what we are trying to create, and the Terra Plana shoes themselves are fantastic. Not only is the cotton they use 100% organic, but the shoes are entirely vegan, and feature recycled polyester and natural latex glue.”

The environmentally-friendly footwear even has a Choose Life reversed rubber sole so that vehement eco-warriors can leave Hamnett’s message in the mud. She says: “I’ll never give up trying to find new ways to get people to listen to what I have to say.”

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