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Naomi Campbell in Katharine Hamnett. Photography by Yannis Vlamos, Courtesy of Katharine Hamnett

Katharine Hamnett on Brexit, Fast Fashion and Donald Trump

Today a new exhibition opens exploring the political power of the T-shirt – and Katharine Hamnett, one of its featured designers, still has plenty to say

There are few fashion images as recognisable as the black and white photograph of Katharine Hamnett shaking Margaret Thatcher’s hand. The year was 1984, five years since the Kent-born, Central Saint Martins graduate had founded her own fashion label, and a year after she began producing her now-iconic slogan T-shirts declaring ‘Choose Life’, famously adopted by George Michael. Invited to Downing Street for a London Fashion Week event, the designer knew she would be meeting the Prime Minister, and selected that moment to make a choice political statement, with ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ splayed across her chest in solid black lettering.

This was in reference to UK governmental polls showing public opposition to the basing of Pershing missiles. As Hamnett told The Times in 2008, Thatcher simply looked down and “made a noise like a chicken. Then, quick as a fishwife, she said: ‘Oh well we haven’t got Pershing here, so maybe you are at the wrong party.’” This anecdote says much for the T-shirt’s sartorial power to become a tool for activism; a wearable placard, of sorts. Although as Hamnett admits, “It doesn’t achieve anything unless it’s followed up by political action.” As a new exhibition opens this week at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum titled T-shirt: Cult, Culture and Subversion, we speak frankly with Hamnett about her inclusion in the show and her severe dislike of Jacob Rees-Mogg.

On the T-shirts in the Fashion and Textile Museum...
“There’s ‘Choose Life’ which was the first one we ever did. When it was made, I was having a discussion with a friend who was putting on an exhibition on Buddhism – Lynne Franks, actually – and I said, ‘if you want people to get this message we’ll print it in huge letters that can be read from 200 yards on white T-shirt’. So I did one just to show her, and it’s been going ever since. At one point it was taken over by the pro-lifers in America, which was awful. But people are now using it for all sorts of things: it’s written on yoga mats, used to help people who are addicted to drugs, and I think that’s really great. Another is something I did with Oxfam in 2003 when I was visiting farmers in Africa to try and highlight the plight of 100 million cotton farmers who were dying of starvation across the world. It says ‘No More Fashion Victims’.

“There’s also ‘Save the Bees’ because one of the first things I found out about the clothing industry was the impact of pesticides. Pesticides kill all insects, and herbicides kill their habitat – even in urban environments. Hackney is twinned with Suresnes, in France which is a suburb of Paris, and there’s a big campaign there and where I live in London Fields because they were using Round Up in the fields – inches away from where young people picnic. In people of reproductive age, it’s associated with 31 different diseases including birth defects, kidney failure and Hodgkins Lymphoma. There’s ‘Save the Sea’, because we get 98% of our oxygen from it and overfishing is absolutely devastating – the way they drag nets along the bottom so they actually smash up the habitats as they go, you know. ‘Save the World’, because I think it’s never been more threatened. ‘Stop and Think’, which is one we did when Bush came out with his war on terror. It’s about one of the causes of terrorism – injustice and oppression. Instead of a war on terror we should have been thinking about reparation and restitution. Then there’s ‘Use a Condom’, the diamanté T-shirt Naomi Campbell wore – because AIDS is actually on the up again and it is important to include.”

On Brexit...
“We’ve recently made some new T-shirts too. We’ve done ‘Cancel Brexit’ and we’re doing ‘Second Referendum Now’, which is the latest. All the funds will go towards campaigning for a second referendum. I really think that Article 50 is teetering on the brink and that anything can push it over at this point. People are actually seriously talking about a second referendum as an option. Regarding Brexit, I’ve never heard so much stupidity talked about anything in my life. The one who gets me the worst is Jacob Rees-Mogg. What a moron. He really gets on my tits. The moment we voted leave, my friends and I all looked up Article 50 and there it is written, bold as the light of day: if Britain activates Article 50 we are still part of the EU, but we have no voting rights, effectively. We’re a vassal state. I mean didn’t he do his homework? He pretends to be so posh and so clever and so superior, but it was there from the beginning that we were going to be a vassal state. Well, we’re not going to be a vassal state, we’re effectively a vassal state now. If the EU decided it was going to confiscate all British property today, and we all voted on it, we wouldn’t actually be able to do much about it.”

“People are actually seriously talking about a second referendum as an option. Regarding Brexit, I’ve never heard so much stupidity talked about anything in my life” – Katharine Hamnett

On Jeremy Corbyn, education and the NHS...
“I think [Jeremy Corbyn] is a wonderful man. I was devastated that he gave his party a free vote on Trident, because I think that’s a catastrophic waste of money. It’s not the kind of thing we should be paying for. I mean, 130 billion pounds? Imagine what that would do for the NHS, what it could do for education. I love Jeremy on education and his stance on free higher education. Loads of my friends are top of their profession now, but we always talk about how none of us would have even gone to college if we had to take out these colossal loans. Our parents would have just said ‘oh, just get a job. You’ll never pay it off’. Tuition fees should be scrapped. It’s totally unfair. I’m also terrified for the future of the NHS. Terrified. I think the sooner Jeremy gets in the better. That whole Carillion collapse just shows you what these public/private initiatives are really made of. I wish Jeremy would come out for a second referendum now, and I wish he hadn’t gone for Trident – but I’ll vote for him. I’ll forget all my foibles and vote for him just on free higher education alone.” 

On the Trump era...
“There are similarities to the Nixon era, except that he actually had the grace to step down. I think that Trump will have to be pushed hard. I mean the blatant amount of money that he and his family are making out of the presidency; the fact that he refuses to hand in his tax returns, or divest himself of his business interests... It’s just so extraordinary. His terrible war-mongering, too. You just wonder how long it’s going to last, whether they’re going to get rid of him peacefully, or whether it’s going to be civil war. What is scary is that the democrats capitulated on the DACA concessions, when they’d got the government where they wanted it. So you also think, ‘what the fuck has happened to the democrats?’ Why didn’t they put Bernie Sanders in when he had a much better chance than Hillary? Somebody said to me that the Democrats and the Republicans are flipsides of the same coin, and that looks as though it’s alarmingly true.” 

On fast fashion and sustainability...
“There are a lot of brands who could be doing a huge amount more. It would be great if brands like Burberry made all their trench coats out of organic cotton, for example, because there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. Marks and Spencer could be using more organic cotton too. It changes farmers’ lives hugely. However, some of the big groups like Kering and Richemont now have massive teams working on sustainability. There used to be a tiny bunch of us, who would be going to the sustainability events, and then nothing would happen because of the aged board members and aged shareholders – anything that dents the bottom line they’re absolutely terrified of getting involved in.

“Basically, the industry needs legislation that regulates the labour and environmental standards. That would stop brands from bunnyhopping from Bangladesh, to Cambodia, to Ethiopia. But also, it’s happening here. I mean look at Philip Green and what happened to those BHS employees... I mean how much money does one person need? He doesn’t give a fuck about anybody else and these people have got to be made to give a fuck. I also feel like the ‘buy less, buy better’ is a bit of a dead-end. Clothing is ornamentation – it’s a kind of primitive activity. It’s got to do with biological programming, wanting to mate. People are always going to want to decorate themselves with clothes more and more. You’ve just got to make sure that only good stuff is available.”

“People are always going to want to decorate themselves with clothes more and more. You’ve just got to make sure that only good stuff is available” – Katharine Hamnett

On the future... 
“We’re doing new T-shirts all the time. I’ve just made one that says ‘Free Ahed’, for the little Palestinian girl who had her cousin killed by the Israelis, so slapped an Israeli policeman. Also, as I mentioned before, we’re really pushing ‘Second Referendum Now’ like crazy. I want to get everybody out to their MPs and saying: ‘look – we’ve all changed our minds’. We need to have something which allows people who weren’t informed to change their minds. Also, something that involves the ex-pats who weren’t allowed to vote in the last referendum. Really, we’re constantly responding to political issues, as and when they arise. However angry I am, the T-shirts have given me an ongoing voice. And that is an incredible privilege which I intend to exploit to the maximum. If I could just be responsible for some positive change, I can die happy.”

T-shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion is open at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London from February 9 to May 6, 2018.