Katharine Hamnett x YMC: Save the Future

Politically diverse designer Katharine Hamnett tells PORT how her latest collaboration with YMC attempts to uphold an ethical integrity

Wham! wearing 'Choose Life' t-shirts designed by Hamnett
Wham! wearing ‘Choose Life’ t-shirts designed by Hamnett

Katharine Hamnett CBE is more than just a fashion designer. A political and social activist, she is famed for using fashion to highlight important causes – specifically in her iconic, unisex slogan T-shirts.

For SS16, Hamnett has collaborated with British label You Must Create (YMC) on a capsule collection which includes three slogan T-shirts, plus pieces from Hamnett’s archive. Spanning more than 30 years, these archive pieces have been reworked into modern day staples for men and women.

Hamnett’s love affair with fashion began when she studied at Central Saint Martins in the late ’70s. Since then she’s been the flag bearer for politically engaged fashion, releasing her first line of T-shirts in 1983. Sported by pop band Wham! and attracting considerable media attention around Europe, Hamnett’s T-shirts were established as a pop-culture tool capable of conveying powerful and poignant messages.

“The ‘STOP AND THINK’ slogan is a reissue of a T-shirt that’s been doing the rounds since Bush declared the ‘WAR ON TERROR’,” says Hamnett. To say that she is politically, socially, economically and globally aware would be an understatement; there aren’t many like her in the fashion industry today who use their skills to actively encourage and make change. 

Katharine Hamnett meets Margaret Thatcher
Katharine Hamnett meets Margaret Thatcher

The Kent-born designer gained considerable media attention in 1984 when she smuggled one of her slogan T-shirts into Downing Street. During the visit, she shook hands with the ‘Iron Lady’, Margaret Thatcher, while wearing one of her signature T-shirts emblazoned with ‘58% DON’T WANT PERSHING’ – a direct challenge to Thatcher’s decision to allow US Pershing cruise missiles to be stationed in Britain. When asked what she would wear if she met the UK’s current prime minister, David Cameron, Hamnett opts for ‘NHS NOT TRIDENT’. 

“The government is actually afraid of slogan T-shirts and you are not allowed to wear one in the House of Commons. Political T-shirts even have their own law – Section 13 of Terrorism Act 2000,” says Hamnett.

Her interests stretch beyond the typical confines of politics, however, and into the realms of ethical production. As a consequence of globalisation, she suggests, there have been thousands of preventable deaths, many of which have resulted from large corporations and clothing labels seeking out cheap labour to maximise profits.

“The brands have to be more responsible with how they work,” Hamnett says, explaining how these deaths could have been avoided. “They need health and safety checks in all of the factories where their goods are being made, and if they see anything wrong, demand immediate improvements.”

For example, a commercial building containing stores, banks and factory floors collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, claiming 1,130 lives. Thought to be the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern history, the tragedy was put down to ‘poor management’ and negligence by the owners who were imprisoned as a result.

Katharine Hamnett x YMC collaboration
Katharine Hamnett x YMC collaboration

By contrast, Hamnett’s YMC T-shirts are produced with ethics at their core. Made from sustainable and organic cotton, they feature environmentally friendly ink and reworked pieces are crafted from sustainable silks and cottons.

“Clothing is usually the 3rd or 4th largest industry in any industrialised economy,” she tells me. “China should never have been allowed into the World Trade Organisation without addressing its artificially deflated currency and human rights issues,” she says, fervently.

Another important and often overlooked factor in clothing, she suggests, is the production of the raw materials. According to Hamnett, cotton farming accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s pesticides usage and contributes to 10,000 deaths per year and a million hospitalisations. Hamnett encourages those concerned by the effect of pesticide use to write to their favourite brands and ask for organic cotton to be used. “This information just needs to get out there,” she says. “Big brands and retailers should be doing more.”