“My mission is to change the world through fashion, make products as ethically and as environmentally as possible, with the best supply chain, the best social, environmental and cultural impact, alleviating poverty, and preserving traditional skills”
An insightful and passionate talk about the changing ethical and political landscape of fashion, and her role in promoting this, Katherine Hamnett laid down a powerful gauntlet to the next generation of designers.
Hamnett opened by explaining how she built up a small business when still a student at St Martin’s College. After graduating, she and a friend set up more formally. This proved an inspired beginning to the designer’s career even if it also resulted in the death of their friendship (she warned similarly of the pitfalls of going into business with husbands). During this formative period, Hamnett experienced every aspect of the production line, from designing and prototyping, finishing edges, to packaging and shipping the off the final product; she also chased the debtors. She researched her market and almost immediately began selling internationally. Hamnett is adamant that such a wide-ranging apprenticeship and skills set are essential for success.
From the start, and throughout, she adhered to her iron clad design principles. Hamnett’s mantra has always been “Protest and Survive”. Who could forget her well-photographed meeting with Margaret Thatcher in the mid-eighties amongst the twinsets and suits when the designer wore her oversized t-shirt with the slogan “58% OPPOSE PERSHING”? The audience will also not soon forget Jasper Conran’s verbal sketch of the invitation: “Why should we go to have a glass of warm white wine with that murderess?” Needless to say, Hamnett’s encounter with the PM was not the publicity stunt that Thatcher imagined.
Many of the students in the DJCAD’s packed auditorium on Thursday were not even born when Hamnett met Thatcher. So what is Hamnett’s relevance today? In 1989 there were 10,000 pesticide-related deaths of agricultural workers in the developing world; now 1,000 such deaths occur every day. Hamnett pointed out that these figures are not well-reported in the mainstream media. In 1989, The Guardian described organic cotton as “brown and lumpy”. If Hamnett is scathing in her condemnation of the folksy “eco-look”, she is also determined that an ever-greater proportion of ethical fibres should be used to make well-designed clothes. Change is beginning to happen. Already Louis Vuitton wants “sustainable luxury … with a story”. Hamnett’s challenge to all of us, as consumers, is clear: unless an understanding of the supply chain is woven into the whole design process, the horror of the textile factory workers deaths in Bangladesh will happen again and again. The last slide in her lecture read “Clean up or Die”.
Hamnett’s talk was also directed at industries closer home where there is an equally pressing need to combat unethical fabric production. Her points about the use of pesticides such as “Roundup” (implicated in birth defects), and its successors, chilled the packed room. Hamnett also reminded her audience that the North Sea oil will dry up, but that Scotland could do more to tap into its amazing textile heritage. She proposed “an economy anchored in knitwear, not oil”. The designer was unwavering her belief that unless the skills possessed are passed on, they could become non-existent within a decade. With the right educational commitment, however, Scotland’s industry might just “explode” Indeed, as the foundations are laid at the V&A, and with our UNESCO City of Design status, Dundee is well-poised to be at the vanguard of a creative explosion.
There is no cooling of Hamnett’s flame as the designer herself moves beyond t-shirts and bags to online (38 Degrees) pro-democracy campaigning. More comfortable – and amiably adversarial – in the question and answer sessions that followed her talk, I felt that Dundee was fortunate indeed to have had a chance to meet this unafraid Amazon of the fashion world.
*This event was hosted by the Design in Action project (@DesigninAction), a £5 million Knowledge Exchange Hub based primarily at the University of Dundee and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Creative Scotland to research, promote and create opportunities for the adoption of design as a strategy for economic growth in industry.