The convergence between fashion and popular culture is V’s sweet spot. One iconic instance of this intersection was at the end of 2003: Naomi Campbell closed out Katharine Hamnett’s S/S 2004 collection in underwear and a completely sheer, strappy halter top—show-stoppingly salacious in and of itself—and in true Hamnett fashion, the designer took it a step further. The top read, in chunky, impossible-to-miss rhine-stone lettering: USE A CONDOM. Scandal ensued, which, of course, was kind of the point. The buzzy slogan was a strategic move in the fight toward increasing sex education, particularly in South Africa, where the AIDS epidemic was wreaking havoc and where, not-so-coinci- dentally, Naomi was all the rage. “If I saved one life, it was all worth it,” Hamnett recounts, her voice resolute and commanding over Zoom.
Herein lies the genius of Hamnett’s political campaigning. Since she started making her slogan tees in 1983, she’s sought moments with a lot of build-up and hype; once she has people’s attention, she hits them with an impactfully cheeky (and hyper-specific) message. “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING,” read the shirt she wore when she met Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street. “[The slogan] came from a European opinion poll about the proliferation of American cruise and Pershing nuclear missiles across Europe without consulting the electorate, which was totally undemocratic,” she wrote in The Guardian. Over the decades, everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker and Debbie Harry to Alexa Chung and George Michael has sported one of Hamnett’s tees—whether they’re in support of LGBTQ+ rights, against climate change, or simply championing love.
As she celebrates the 40th anniversary of the slogan tee, mostly, Hamnett wants peace and love, and the causes she so vehemently promotes have always favored these end goals. These days, lounging in Antwerp with her good friend, journalist, and activist Ninette Murk, she seems to have found harmony. The pair connected with V to chat about Hamnett’s slogans over the years, meeting the royal family (“including the bad ones,”) and the future of her brand. “We will be at home most days, having pedicures and facials done. Living the life ;-)” reads an email from Ninette. I smiled as I read it. Even political icons enjoy the occasional mani-pedi with their girlfriends.
NINETTE MURK: Through that window behind [Katharine], you can see where Jef shot her portrait. Okay, connecting to audio…oh my god! She has appeared. Hi, Katharine! You are in nature.
KATHARINE HAMNETT: In your beautiful garden.
NM: Of course, she is the only one with a nice background.
KH: I’m kind of sick of competitive bookshelves.
NM: Let’s get started with where we met for the first time, do you remember that? In Berlin, at the fashion fair in 2004, which was [right after] Naomi Campbell was photographed in the top that you made with the huge condom [slogan]. The glitter top.
KH: It was aimed at South Africa because she’s a huge icon there. I went down there and met Nelson Mandela, and he said people know nothing about AIDS. They’ve got no sex education at all. Naomi being a huge star down there, I thought, “We’ve just got to use her to get that message over and maybe somebody will listen.”
NM: And they did.
KH: I hope so. I hope we saved one life.
NM: That was around halfway through your career as a social activist designer because you started in 1983, right? What was the slogan?
KH: NO WAR, BAN POLLUTION, WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR BAN NOW, WOMEN AGAINST WAR, CHOOSE LIFE.
NM: You did all those together at once?
KH: Well, they’re related. Let’s put it that way.
NM: I always thought that your first slogan was CHOOSE LOVE.
KH: No, it was CHOOSE LIFE. CHOOSE LOVE was one of the last ones I did, which I gave to help refugees. That’s probably the best one I ever did because it encompasses everything. It’s kind of a note to self, I need to be reminded of that all the time. I’d like to actually have it written on the inside of my glasses so I can see it laid over everything.
NM: And the world needs it more and more, right?
KH: I love it because every time I see someone wearing it, I think, “Exactly. Choose love, don’t choose to strangle [each other]. Choose love.” I can be a terrible person just like anybody else, so it’s been very useful for me. Kind of like corrective therapy. I’m so glad it’s gone so well. Somebody said, “The true nature of humanity is our kindness to others.” I mean that’s what we’re here for.
The slogan came at a time where we were just trying to help, but we were getting hugely copied. People would come in, buy the whole collection, and copy it without even trying it on. Emulation is the best form of flattery apparently, but I hate flattery. It didn’t make me feel much better, but I thought it would be great to design something that was meant to be copied. We were doing incredibly well selling clothes. I thought, “We’re getting so much media”—excessive media coverage—“I’ve got to put that to good use.” Use that [coverage] to put out social environment messages that might be copied or that could be read from 200 meters. By then, you’ve got no filter. If you see one of those messages, it’s in your brain. You have no defense. Hopefully, it makes you realize that there are things you can do to make a better world.
NM: The slogans were meant to raise awareness about issues in the hopes of making a better world. You have been doing this for 40 years. When you look at the world today, what do you think?
KH: The slogans didn’t work. You know? I think marching and slogans didn’t work. I realized it’s all very well to kind of march and to wear slogans, but unless you follow it up with political engagement and contact your elected representative and say, “I’m not going to vote for you next time if you don’t represent my views,” you won’t get far.
Politicians are just in politics to get re-elected. With the lobby phenomenon—industry owning government—we are seeing huge gifts given to elected representatives and basically corrupting them. So, we have to hit them where it hurts. We have to write to them and tell them that we won’t back them next time unless they represent our views. We’ll be watching and we will actually vote. Marches are great. They’re wonderful. You feel good, everyone is wearing their t-shirts, but without political engagement we don’t have any teeth. We don’t have any way to force politicians to behave. And, while we can’t force them to represent our views, we can vote for someone else next time. You and I did that fabulous video, WE ARE THE FUTURE. It got a lot of views and massive rises in viewership during the American midterms and the Brazilian elections. I hope we got some kids and some women to act—we need young people to vote.
NM: A few magazines tweeted it out. Brilliant that V did their VOTE edition.
KH: Yes. Thank you, V Magazine. We all did it together. Thank, god. It was a pretty scary moment.
NM: Let’s hope for the best for next year, for the U.S.
KH: It’s about getting young people and women out there to vote so anything that we can do to do that.
NM: What’s been a highlight from your career?
KH: Oh god. I mean, I’ve had an amazing career. So I don’t know, it’s had loads of highlights.
NM: You have to pick one.
KH: The time I wore the t-shirt that said 58% DON’T WANT PERSHING to meet Thatcher. I mean that went around the world, but I don’t think it actually made a huge difference.
NM: Imagine if that would’ve happened at a time when social media was present. It would’ve gone very viral. What [were] the lowlights?
NM: I bet it starts with a B.
KH: Well, Brexit was a pretty lowlight. [Laughs.] I’ve also had fashion shows where the music broke and I was like, “Is this real? Is this real?” It’s like a nightmare. It’s so awful. I went outside afterwards once and it was almost like there was an exclusion zone around me of about 10 meters where nobody dared to come up and say anything. I mean, it was so bad it’s funny.
Um… I got a thing from the Queen—not that I believe in any of that—but it was a nice day out with the family and it was nice being inside Buckingham Palace.
NM: That was not a lowlight, right?
KH: No, no, no. I made the Queen laugh which was amazing because I didn’t think she could laugh. She threw back her head and laughed, so that was cute. The brand being successful without me making any compromises on the setup or things I believed in. Making clothes that were designed to make people happy, and it working, and people coming to tell me that they were their favorite things.
NM: You’re an icon to so many people. Especially the young ones. It’s not only the 40 or 50-plus, it’s also the young ones. I don’t think you realize that enough.
KH: Well I don’t want to get big-headed, but it is pretty nice to know.
NM: It’s cool, huh? Maybe we should make more t-shirts—which brings me to my next question: Do you have a dream slogan that you haven’t used yet and that you would love to use?
KH: I always wanted to do ASHAMED TO BE BRITISH. I could wear it and be happy everyday. But all my staff for the last 18 years were saying no, you can’t do that, and I wish I did. Another one was WE DON’T WANT CHEATING WANKS.
NM: (Laughing.) Another thing people would maybe like to read about is that you’ve worked with a lot of well known people. A lot of well known photographers. Can you tell us a bit about meeting famous people that you think are remarkable or fun or nice?
KH: What was it? Photography? I gave Ellen [von Unwerth] her first job in fashion. I gave Juergen Teller his first job in fashion. I gave Terry Richardson his first job in fashion.
NM: (Laughing.) Oh no.
KH: I met Warhol. I met Nelson Mandela which was incredible. I was at an NGO meeting in Mali because I had gone down there with Oxfam—which is a British charity—to highlight cotton farmers and we were able to get it to the top of the agenda. [Afterwards,] I was at a party with these beautiful government organizations, mostly African, and after dinner I plopped my hand on the table and went, “Who’d like to shake hands with the hand who shook the hand of Nelson Mandela.” And the table was covered in arms, everybody wanted to touch the hand that touched the hand. It was so sweet.
I was friends with Andy Warhol. I’m in his diaries. He was really nice. Hm… who have I met? I’ve met most of the royal family. Including the bad ones. Obviously, I knew Bob Geldof.
NM: George Michael, did you meet him?
KH: I did once.
NM: He wore one of your shirts in one of his videos.
KH: He did the CHOOSE LIFE one which was really lovely. The best pop music program in England was called Top of the Pops. One day it was on and somebody was wearing the WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR BAN NOW t-shirt and you could see that the camera position kept him behind a pillar. The next week, the entire audience was wearing WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR BAN NOW.
NM: Oh, amazing!
KH: There have been so many highs, I’ve just had an incredible time.
NM: The power of pop culture. What is your dream for the next 10 years?
KH: Well I sort of Brexit-ed in disgust. I said I’d only go back once we had a new Prime Minister. Nothing will happen if you don’t threaten your elected representatives. This is your strategy. We’ve really got to promote voting and get involved. I mean, Spain just narrowly missed going very right wing by a hair.
NM: By a hair.
KH: England is going right wing at the moment. It’s in Italy. America, I’m sorry, but what Biden’s doing with refugees is just appalling. All the conversation, all the promises that politicians have made before they got elected, they haven’t kept. We have to devolve. Revolutions always fail. So we need to peacefully devolve into a system of direct democracy like they have in Switzerland. Which is much smaller political parties. People vote on everything issue by issue. There are voting apps, secure voting apps. I mean, I transfer money by phone using voice recognition—god knows what will happen with voice recognition once the smartypants get a hold of it—but if we can securely transfer money [using voice recognition], we can securely vote. That’s what we need. We need to end voter suppression.
NM: Don’t make voting more difficult, make it easy.
KH: Make it easy! People can vote on their phones. I think the next American elections will decide the future.
NM: Well, we’ll have to double our efforts, haven’t we?
KH: Really just got to get up and get out.
NM: Do you have a message to the readers of V Magazine, like to do with your slogans?
KH: I was thinking of gifting a load of slogans so that people could get them to their local printers. We have a PDF they could choose from and it’s going to look original because it’s going to come from me, they could choose which shirt they want to get it printed on too. Maybe an old t-shirt that you’ve worn once or twice and then probably give it to your kids to wear in bed. Maybe we can do it with a QR code. I love QR codes.
NM: Thank you, Katharine, I’ll see you at dinner later.
KH: I’m looking forward to it already.
Photography Jef Jacobs
Editor Kevin Ponce
Special Thanks Ninette Murk, Inez & Vinoodh