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  January/February 2005
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Fashion Statement
Katharine Hamnett is making green the new black
by Marilyn Berlin Snell

Sidebar: Haute Sans Harm

"It's possible to produce in harmony with nature and at the same time not turn back toward wearing hairy sacks," says fashion designer Hamnett.
Twenty years ago, during the height of the cold war, a skinny, raven-haired London designer made fashion history when she flashed Margaret Thatcher. Katharine Hamnett had pioneered haute protest by occasionally wrapping her catwalk models in T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now" and "Clean Up or Die." When she arrived for a reception at Number 10 Downing Street, she was wearing a stylish jacket that she kept closed until she was next to the prime minister in the receiving line.

As the paparazzi waited for a photo op, Hamnett took Thatcher's hand and gave them one: Flinging open her coat, she revealed a long cotton tee that read "58 Percent Don't Want Pershing" -- a reference to European opposition to the tactical nuclear weapons Thatcher's friend Ronald Reagan had deployed throughout Europe.

"Afterward it was like the movies: Everybody moved away from me," remembers Hamnett, 57. "I was getting a stern look from the chairman of the Conservative Party. I tried to be cool, grabbing a glass of champagne, but I couldn't control my hands. They were shaking like crazy." Fired up with adrenaline, Hamnett wasn't done with the head of state.

"I chased Thatcher around the room because I wanted to talk about pollution. I was the last to leave. 'What about acid rain?' I asked her at the door, and she said, 'I'm a scientist. We don't know what causes it. Good night.'" The designer-provocateur made headlines the next day, however. With typical PR flair, Hamnett had made sure the lettering on the shirt would stand out in newspaper photographs.

The daughter of a diplomat, and a 1969 graduate of London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Hamnett made her way as a freelance designer for several years. She opened a shop featuring her Katharine Hamnett label in 1979 and learned early on that she could exploit her celebrity to sell causes as well as clothes. "I wasn't a rebel, I just feel like I had common sense," she says of her sartorial assaults.

She didn't expect anyone to buy her "Abstinence, Faithfulness, or Condoms," "Make Tea Not War," or "Sod Space Travel–Save Life on Earth" T-shirts, but she became as well known for them as for her pencil skirts, hip-hugging trousers, and sleekly cut coats. Hamnett was one of the first to sell stonewashed stretch jeans, earning kudos from the influential International Herald Tribune fashionista Suzy Menkes, who wrote, "Nobody does denim like Hamnett." (Because of the environmental problems caused by mining the pumice used to create the stonewashed look, she is switching to lasers to achieve the effect for her new line.)

Hamnett also got media mileage for putting pockets for condoms on her men's boxer shorts. Her casual and high-end lines for men, women, and babies, as well as her watches and underwear, are sold worldwide.

Time has not mellowed Hamnett, and she's no less opinionated today: People in developed countries are "being rotted by comfort"; the fashion industry, from whose ranks she was once named British Designer of the Year, is full of "complete morons"; and Tony Blair is, well, don't even get her started on him or the war in Iraq.

On the morning we meet in her kitchen, with its long wooden table, a built-in freshwater aquarium covering the length of a wall, and a door opening out to her tangled back garden, I notice that the reading material on her window seat is not British Vogue or Elle but the Ecologist, Resurgence, and a briefing paper by the relief organization Oxfam on cotton farming in west Africa. She's slogan-less in her fitted white Katharine Hamnett top and well-worn denim skirt. What she's revved up about these days won't be on her shirts but in them: Her new label, Katharine E. Hamnett, will launch a high-end line of organic and socially responsible clothes that will be shown on the runways of Milan during the 2005 autumn/winter shows.

"I'm no longer going to make clothes the normal way," says Hamnett, because it involves hazards like pesticide-laden cotton; chromium (III) and (VI) for leather tanning [chromium (VI) is a carcinogen]; chlorine, a toxic, corrosive agent, for whiteness; and, in some cases, slave labor. "I am going to do it with absolutely minimized impact on the environment, and I'm going to make my products ethically."

She has found gold that's being mined sustainably in Colombia for her line of watches sold in Japan. Her watches' leather bands will be vegetable-tanned to avoid the use of chromium. And she's working with three UK-based groups, the Soil Association, Oxfam, and the Pesticide Action Network (PAN UK), to develop a supply chain of organic cotton from Africa.

Barbara Dinham, director of PAN UK, met Hamnett in 1990, when the designer asked the organization for a tutorial on pesticides and cotton. The toxics used on cotton crops alone account for approximately 25 percent of all insecticides used worldwide, even though cotton is grown on only 3 percent of the world's farmland. In the United States, the most "acutely toxic pesticide" registered by the EPA is aldicarb, commonly used on cotton.

"Katharine has earned a right to rant" against toxics in the apparel industry, says Dinham. "And the fact that she can use her label to raise awareness and create a more responsible attitude toward consumption is vital." Hamnett's enthusiasm prodded Dinham's group to begin documenting the devastation wreaked by cotton pesticides on humans and the land. "Katharine's concern and energy, coupled with a campaigning zeal and confidence that the world could be a different place, were an inspiration for us."

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Photo courtesy Brian Moody/Oxfam.

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