Born in 1948 in Gravesend, Kent, UK, Katharine Hamnett attended Central Saint Martin’s School of Art and Design in London, where she graduated in 1970. After taking freelance commissions for British, European, and Hong Kong companies, she established her own business in 1979. Hamnett has long been a political and environmental campaigner and has used her collections to endorse her activism through production and design techniques, with the aim of increasing public awareness of ethical and ecological issues.
Hamnett’s fall/winter collection of 1983–1984, titled “Choose Life,” featured her now iconic slogan T-shirts alongside utilitarian-inspired pieces such as bodysuits and fatigues. The slogan T-shirts became a symbol of resistance in the 1980s, especially after Hamnett wore a “58% Don’t Want Pershing” T-shirt to meet Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, an antinuclear message that referred to the stationing of missiles sanctioned by the Prime Minister. In 1984 Hamnett was also given the Designer of the Year award by the British Fashion Council.
Throughout the 1990s, Hamnett’s interest in eco-fashion increased, culminating in a desire to produce a line that adhered to strict ethical and environmental regulations and processes. This research has seen her get more deeply involved with the business of fashion production from its earliest stages, such as fiber sourcing and helping to develop organic wool, cottons, and other necessary materials. In 2003 she visited cotton farmers in Mali with Oxfam, and she continues to work with cotton growers in India and Africa, believing that organic principles help to address issues of poverty as well as protecting the environment. Subsequent to this, Hamnett canceled existing production contracts that failed to agree to ethically produce their offerings. In 2003 she returned to her slogan T-shirts, producing among others the “No War, Blair Out” design at London Fashion Week after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Other slogans have ranged from “Use a Condom” to “Cancel Third World Debt.”
In 2005, her men’s and women’s lines were fully revived to follow ethical and environmental strictures and including slogan T-shirts in organic cottons. In 2011, Hamnett was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to the fashion industry, and in 2013 she designed two additional slogan T-shirts for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament: “Education Not Trident” and “NHS Not Trident.”
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