Katharine Hamnett CBE
Katharine Hamnett , Founder
A graduate of Central Saint Martins, Katharine Hamnett launched her brand in 1979 with a range of eclectic women’s designs; menswear followed in 1981. That year also saw her release the first of her many slogan tees CHOOSE LIFE, soon followed by EDUCATION NOT MISSILES, WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR BAN NOW, PEACE, SAVE THE WORLD, YOU – ME, SAVE THE SEA, CLEAN UP OR DIE, and SAVE THE FUTURE – these are central to the Hamnett DNA of the provocative and political writ large.
In 1984 events snowballed: the collection was selling in 700 of the best retail outlets across 40 countries. Katharine, known to the British public as a “bad girl with integrity”, was the first person to win the British Fashion Council’s “British Fashion Designer of the Year” and signed her first international licences. Across the media and on the street it was the summer of the slogan tee. Wham wore CHOOSE LIFE for one of their videos. Perhaps the most famous was the 58% DON’T WANT PERSHING t-shirt that Katharine wore to meet British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: a bold political act that made front page news around the world.
The sexy and seductive Katharine Hamnett London collections defined an aesthetic for the times and attracted fans such as Mick Jagger, Liz Taylor, Princess Diana, Boy George and Madonna; and with lines for denim, watches, handbags, shoes and eyewear, Katharine’s instantly recognisable style reached across the world. By the 1990s the Hamnett brand was a major UK exporter with a multi-million pound turnover.
Catwalks were staged in all the major fashion cities: Milan, Paris, London, New York and Tokyo. A highlight of fashion schedules, their mix of women’s and men’s collections were joyous and often riotous, and defiantly original for the time. Katharine took the then unprecedented step of launching collections with films: the first in 1991 with supermodel Naomi Campbell who had made her catwalk debut for Hamnett.
Advertising was provocative and controversial, designed to make all other advertising look old fashioned – and resonates still. Katharine’s campaigns were the first for major talents such as Ellen von Unwerth, Juergen Teller, Terry Richardson, Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer.
Sustainability and ethical production became of prime importance, further shaking up what was expected of a global brand. Katharine’s 1989 research into the environmental and social impact of the clothing and textile industry horrified her as she discovered that the true cost of fashion was paid in environmental degradation and human suffering. She lobbied the industry to act for change, but with little success. She campaigned directly on issues such as the use of pesticides and the plight of cotton farmers, and badgered her licensees to reduce the environmental and social impact of her collections.
It was a war before its time, so Katharine took the decision to gradually wind down her brand – ripping up licences – until production methods could meet her environmental criteria. She moved out of the mainstream industry to concentrate on campaigning, political activism and collaborating with charities.
Now sustainable materials have at last caught up with her activism, in large part through her high-profile campaigns. Sustainability is no longer a left-field notion, consumers are increasingly demanding sustainably made products, and people are agitating for change in all areas.
Katharine Hamnett London re-launched in 2017 with reissues of many classic archive unisex pieces that are as relevant today as they always were, along with a wide selection of new designs – now all sustainably and ethically produced in Italy. The collection is available on this site and via top international retailers.
Campaign slogan tees are also available through this site, each for a specific cause with profits going to further the work of relevant charities and organisations. Some of the most recent include CANCEL BREXIT and CHOOSE LOVE.