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Fashion Revolution x Katharine Hamnett: “I found my voice and want to use my voice to talk about things I care about”

Last week saw the start of this year’s Fashion Revolution Week, which is an annual event that urges the fashion industry to take more responsibility for its supply chains. The week included an intimate Q&A with the ethical designer Katharine Hamnett, which this Lawfully Chic writer was excited to attend.

During the discussion, Hamnett shared her optimism that public scrutiny of environmental issues, not just limited to the fashion industry, was on the rise and turning into a global movement. She did, however, admit that we have been discussing these issues for around 30 years and nothing much has really changed.

When asked about what the UK government could do to improve sustainability within the fashion industry, the designer suggested introducing legislation that would oblige goods coming into the UK to meet the same standard as goods created within the UK. This, Hamnett said, would level the playing field between outsourced goods and goods made in the UK, and would stop brands chasing the needle around the world (although the designer did subsequently raise the well-publicised issues with factories in Leicester). Any new legislation should give brands a suitable period to adjust their working practices. We would then need to consider how to dispose of materials and chemicals which aren’t permitted under the new legislation. Hamnett said that the government should also provide grants to companies to manufacture their products in the UK.

The designer said some responsibility sat with consumers who are citizens first and foremost, and they should be putting pressure on their MPs and brands to improve environmental practices. Consumers should be asking brands if they use organic cotton (and questioning them if not), and should accept that they just need to pay more for clothes (“if a pair of jeans costs £12 you need to ask why“). Shoppers should also be recycling more and staying away from harmful materials such as PVC, lycra and new nylon.

The designer stated that brands should use their platforms wisely to raise awareness of issues, given that “a new designer probably gets more press than a small African country“, but really more legislation is needed to improve the fashion industry since brands will not change their behaviour by themselves. For younger brands, Hamnett advised trying new green initiatives and just seeing what happens, and looking at whether their manufacturers and suppliers are members of the Fair Wear Foundation. Brands should also speak directly to factory workers to find out more about working conditions.

Hamnett touched on her personal journey with ethical fashion since the 80s (when “we didn’t know much about the issue back then“), saying “it was a complete living nightmare” when she first discovered the extent of the problem. Hamnett also spoke honestly about the difficulties she first faced when she started to work in a sustainable way, with doors being slammed in her face by her manufacturers and licensees. After initially cutting back manufacturing, Hamnett admitted that she found her voice and then wanted to use it to talk about things she cared about. This put her back on the path of ethical fashion.  

The vocal designer also entertained the audience with personal anecdotes, from her famous meeting with Margaret Thatcher (where Hamnett saw the opportunity as her very first selfie) to her response to the “Frankie Says Relax” t-shirt.