Born: Gravesend, 1948. Education: Studied at Cheltenham Ladies College and at St Martin's School of Art, London, 1965-69. Family: Children: Samuel and William. Career: Cofounder, Tuttabanken Sportswear, London, 1970; freelance designer, London, Paris, Rome and Hong Kong, 1970-79; Katharine Hamnett, Ltd. founded, London, 1979; menswear line introduced, 1982; launched "Choose Life" shirts, 1983; flagship London shop and three others opened, 1986; showed spring/summer womenswear collection at the Natural History Museum, 1995; men's business suit collections—the "body" suit, 1996. Awards: International Institute for Cotton Designer of the Year award, 1982; British Fashion Industry Designer of the Year award, 1984; Bath Museum of Costume Dress of the Year award, 1984; Menswear Designer of the Year award, 1984; British Knitting and Clothing Export Council award, 1988. Address: 202 New North Road, London N1 7BJ, England.
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A British designer as much recognized for her political and environmental beliefs as she is for her catwalk collections, Katharine Hamnett designed some of the most plagiarized fashion ideas in the 1980s. Hamnett set up her own company in 1979 after freelancing for various European companies for ten years. Although the designer claims she never intended to become involved in the manufacturing side of the fashion industry, preferring to concentrate solely on design, she was often, as a freelancer, treated badly. In 1979 she produced her own collection under the Katharine Hamnett Ltd. label, of which six jackets were taken by the London fashion retailer, Joseph Ettedgui, and subsequently sold out. Hamnett's early collections utilized parachute silk, cotton jersey, and drill, which she cut as functional unisex styles, based on traditional workwear that became her hallmark and, like many of her designs, spawned a thousand imitations.
Her nomination as British Fashion Industry Designer of the Year in 1984 testified to her influence in the early years of that decade. One of Hamnett's most influential designs was the idea of the slogan t-shirt bearing statements about political and environmental issues in bold print on plain white backgrounds. Perhaps the most famous read "58% Don't Want Pershing," which Hamnett wore when she met Margaret Thatcher at a Downing Street reception in 1984. Like Coco Chanel before her, Hamnett sees imitation as a form of flattery— particularly in the case of her slogan t-shirts which, she says, were meant to be copied to help promote her cause. Another example of Hamnett's obsession with politics was seen in the launch of her own magazine, Tomorrow, in 1985, where the designer attempted to parlay both fashion trends and political views. Unfortunately this combination was not a great success and the magazine folded after the first issue.
By 1986 a change was evident in Hamnett's design as she embraced the theme of sex as power with her Power Dressing collection aimed at postfeminist women. Since then her collections have become decidedly less workwear-oriented, to which critical reactions have been somewhat mixed.
Although the slogan t-shirts are no longer part of her collection, Hamnett's devotion to environmental issues continues to play an important role in her approach to fashion design. One project in which Hamnett became involved is the Green Cotton 2000 campaign, launched in conjunction with the Pesticides Trust in 1990, which aimed to reduce the harmful waste and discharged effluent produced by the textile industry. The power of the media is seen by Hamnett as a vital instrument in her personal campaign for the protection of the environment, and her fashion has provided an ideal vehicle. Hamnett admits she has more publicity than she needs to sell the clothes themselves, and can afford to use her influence as a designer to promote her own causes. However, while undoubtedly a major force in British fashion during the 1980s, along with John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood, her influence as a designer declined somewhat in recent years.
Hamnett's latest commitment, men's fashion, is yet another controversial career move that has not only brought her fame and fortune, but heated debate. Where styles for women were typically form-fitting and revealing to the body, men's styles were always baggy, oversized, and even shapeless. Men's bodies were not the focus; they had fewer options in their wardrobes, and fewer options for what was acceptable. It was Hamnett who changed this trend.
The highly opinionated and edgy British designer expanded her collection to focus primarily on the workplace. Slim suits, tight-fitting sport shirts, body-hugging knits, and chunky loafers—to be worn without socks—were just some of the prime examples from Hamnett's more recent collections. Ties, shoes, eyewear, and accessories also played a big part in her lines. Some say these styles resembled those of the early 1960s, and some say that's where they should have stayed. Although most of what Hamnett designed included pantsuits and jackets, they seemed to lack the professionalism most workplaces required. Allowing a male employee to show up to work in an iridescent, single-breasted slim suit with Lycra was certainly not the standard dress code of many companies.
In 1997, Hamnett escaped the runway scene and had an unforgettable show in Milan. It was a performance of two male models in shiny silk suits, lounge-lizard hats and pointy shoes. To many critic's surprise, the show was a success. Women absolutely loved it; as for the men however, well, that may take some getting used to.
Hamnett's most important contribution to fashion, and the one for which she will best be remembered, was her use of clothing as a vehicle for political and environmental change. Her success as a fashion designer enabled her to ultimately pursue her commitment to these issues.
updated by Diana Idzelis