|THE FACE No 41/September 1983.|
Interview conducted July 6th 1983
Ever since, I keep running into outlying branches of the Katherine Hamnett fan club. They are everywhere and mention of her name inspires an enthusiasm in the unlikeliest people. In person she is a blast, a burst of energy and ideas, self-deprecating and autocratic by turns, loose and with a sense of humour.
She is also rated internationally alongside Yves St Laurent and Kenzo and cannot produce enough clothes to keep up with the demand. This woman is HOT and very central. She runs a thriving export business on the products of her imagination and she is anti-nuclear and anti-pollution. Her language is a mixture of the London of Mary Quant ("fabby French cigs") and the argot of advanced science ("doing a quick scan").
She says: "Now I'm 35 this is the age when you are in your strength. One's got to start doing something. When I feel good now I'm so angry."
Her workplace is in Islington, a two-floor design studio/production office behind a metal yard, reached by ascending an iron staircase. The decor is white with black rubber floors. Katherine isn't here yet so I take a seat and browse through the press clippings.
She was born in Gravesend, Kent in 1948. Daughter of an air attache, she grew up in European embassies, Cheltenham Ladies College and graduated to fashion design at St. Martin's School of Art under Bernard Nevi11. She freelanced for two years, then established a company called Tuttabankem with Ann Buck. Unfortunately her husband owned half the company and, when their marriage split, so did the firm. She freelanced further afield for a while in Rome, Paris and Hong Kong until her son William was born in 1976. Hibernation in the household lasted three years but in 1979 she was forced by circumstances back to work since when she's gone from strength to strength.
Suddenly here she is coming up the iron stairs, arms by her side, tall and elegant, wearing an African print duster coat with matching tapered trousers of her own design. We sit down on two old airline chairs in the middle of the room and pretend that there is a bubble round us so none of the other ten people in the room can hear what we're saying.
She's already checked me out on the phone with someone to see whether my affidavits stand up to scrutiny. She sends out for Special Brew and the conversation begins. I want to know why she thinks a designer is in a position of power.
"I suppose it means you dress the elite. You could say intelligent, powerful people wear our clothes, wear our message — in the end, that's what it boils down to. You can decide what they're going to look like basically and that means a lot. If they're read off totally as the clothes they're wearing, as the person they are, you're creating their persona.
"So I say let's make peace and ecology very fashionable. Everybody thinks, What can I do? You look at the situation in the world at the moment, the politicans aren't really representing the people. You've got a chance to let people represent themselves to an extent. If you change the face, if you change what it looks like, people are going to feel it really, aren't they. That's where I think my area of responsibility lies.
"I think you are in a position of power that you can just come out with a look which changes the world for six months on a certain level."
That's quite an opening speech but she apologises and says she'll get into it in a minute. She is fascinated by the relationship between the clothes you wear and the attitudes you adopt. She says: "What you represent in your clothes is your values — what you think is nice, what you think is beautiful, where you'd like to be at. Your hair can be wrong but if your clothes are saying that, you will be saying that. It's like a disguise isn't it but it's more than that. It's a complete statement about where you stand in the materialist world."
For Katherine fashion comes out of the ground, from the collective subconscious which she tunes into and sketches out the results like automatic writing. She mentions some research she read at college which has obviously stuck in her mind by a guy called Stephen Black. He showed his subjects a range of fashion garments, put them in deep trance hyponosis and then told them what they were wearing and asked them how they felt. The result was a flood of precise feelings.
She obviously relishes the business of fashion. "The reason we've been successful," she says, "is we don't just do anything. There's a terrific discipline it's got to fit into. I work very much with applied psychology, market research and then you have to think what you can bear to see. One extraordinary garment is marvellous but you can't imagine selling two thousand of them because it would look stupid.
"So it's a particular kind of garment you've got to produce which is going to look different on anybody, that you can wear different ways, that different age groups can wear. You can dress it up or you can dress it down. You can look one thing one week and another thing another. It fits everybody — which is quite difficult. That's really what's quite nice about designing clothes for mass production, the fact that it's so hard."
She works fairly constantly, always planning a year ahead always thinking and sketching. When an idea reappears three or four times she begins to shape it up, works with a pattern cutter to produce a prototype which is then "shaved down" until it's right. When everyone's happy it goes into sampling, it's shown, orders are taken and it goes into production.
Her work is very hot in the USA and Italy but over here she keeps her outlets limited because she doesn't want to see them all over the Kings Road. They would become stale and odious.. She is trying to be good, free, unrepressed, flexible, honest and eager. She admits that clothing is a youth thing and that the older you get the harder it becomes but she says "our backup is to try and produce what was English quality. Down to the nail!"
And here we have one of the taproots of Katherine Hamnett's beliefs and ideas, her concern for this country and for its future. "My father was in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp for three years. His two brothers —fighter pilots — were killed in the war. Without being sentimental those people gave their lives for what they considered was this country. Look what's happening to it now. I feel because they're dead, if I am to go on working it's because of a debt I owe them.
"Britain is one of the most uncomfortable places to he. I think it is repressive and people are very tense here. At the same time it's also the most creative place to be. Something's got to happen because it's either going to go positive or negative."
On the positive side she ranks Malcolm McLaren, a "great Englishman. He's completely inverting the system and they're lying there with their legs open, lapping it up." She obviously shares his fascinations and obsessions but brings a different insight to bear. She would have voted SDP if she hadn't moved and lost her voting papers but realises now they've got no strength.
The daughter of very ambitious upper middle class parents, she was aware of the class system from an early age and of the international power trips that go on. She says: "People think there's three classes; it's more like 300. In every class, if you get into it, there's incredible subdivisions. It's extraordinarily stratified. Bernard Shaw said: 'One Englishman can't open his mouth without making another despise him.' It's true, we've all got this awareness and fear.
"I think here we're more aware of class than any other country. I think President Carter said we invented racism and it's something that comes out of it because basically, every class hates every other class and would murder them quite happily."
But Katherine Hamnett has more than class on her mind. She begins to sound like Doris Lessing, for God's sake. "It's getting so much worse I don't see that we're going to avoid some apocalypse." That's the talk of a woman with two sons (aged seven and two) who doesn't like the look of the future and the point where she connects with the voices of Greenham Common.
Her talk is scattered with references to the Parent Teachers Association she's involved with (strong on getting lead out of petrol) and her anxieties have been increased by the fact that she's just taken her seven-year old to a second educational psychologist. He told her that the boy is above average and yet he's innumerate, basically illiterate and still reading mechanically. This has obviously coloured her views and adds energy to her attack.
"We're destroying all our future. The only thing a country's got is its youth. If you cannot afford education you get a decline in civilisation. From what I see of what they're picking up in the State Schools it's just aggression and defiance. To an extent you can't blame them. If this is all we're prepared to dish out to them, why shouldn't they?
"According to people in established positions, anybody under 25 is rubbish and ought to be killed. They don't give a shit about them. They give less than shit. They just want to keep them quiet. It's the most selfish thing you've ever seen. And for who, for what?"
At this point Katherine decides we should go downstairs and talk some more. Her brother comes in to ask about the arrangements that evening for their mother's birthday. She says she rescued him from the army and he's now working for her.
Geoffrey, the man she lives with who was also inadvertently drawn into the business, comes in to close the windows and lock up. She goes for him: "Out. Get out, you guys. I'm just doing a very crucial thing on a copyright which he might print. Please go away for two minutes. Simply fuck off." There's a hint of a smile but only a hint.
Here's Katherine Hamnett on copyright: "The Italians are founder members of the EEC which is supposed to be free trade. Their clothing industry is the size of Fiat. Our clothing industry would be considerably larger than it is if it was handled sensibly. They're copying all our styles and selling them all over Europe. We've got no comeback. We've got no right of injunction on copy, no copyright laws whatsoever.
"I think there should be because I think the creative areas in this country — whether it's music, painting or fashion design — we're stronger than anybody else in the world and we could be exploiting it. We are categorically better than they are. We could be turning it to the good of the country.
"The strongest export from this country is ideas. The guys in Silicon Valley are all English. Creativity, genius, talent and ideas —the growth industry we've got in this country right now."
The conversation takes its final turn, back to her deeper concerns. She wants to express this feeling in as strong a way as possible, burn it into the tape so that you will read it.
"I think we've got to go for world government. I think there's no other way to eliminate war. We all face extinction, our children face extinction. Nobody wants to feel that babies are dying from lack of food when they've got butter mountains, meat mountains, milk lakes. This is the only obscenity.
"People who have children are the only people that care really. Single people don't care. They have it whammed home to them that the individual, the child, the baby is the most colossal thing that anybody can produce. It's so much greater than any artefact or empire.
"Science fiction is another consumer tool, a tool of the armaments industry. It has to be. If you accept that there's no life in the entire continuous billions of galaxies — that we're the only life that exists — it's far healthier.
"The only thing that's important is survival, and it's possible. There's enough land, enough sea that everybody should be able to live on this planet and just enjoy this extraordinary gift that is life. We are stardust. This is the Garden of Eden."
Later, on the train home, I listen to snatches of the tape. I'd asked her about Radical Chic. "What was that, I missed it." I explained it was where fashion adding energy to a movement it merely sucks it off and sells it to the High Street.
Her reply is revealing: "Quite a fightening thought, really. It hadn't occurred to me before. Well we're going to do it very blatantly. I'm just going to do t-shirts. If people think they can't make a stand, at least they can wear one."
Katherine Hamnett has revealed how Margaret Thatcher let out a 'shriek of horror' when she realised the legendary fashion designer had hijacked a 1984 Downing Street reception for fashion designers to make an anti-nuclear protest. Hamnett smuggled one of her infamous slogan T-shirts into the event, putting it on when she was inside and approaching the Prime Minister for a chat. The garment was emblazoned with the words '58% don't want Pershing', in reference to the then Prime Minister's decision to allow U.S. Pershing missiles to be stationed in Britain despite the majority of the British public being opposed.