Hamnett graduated from Saint Martin's School of Art. She set up Tuttabankem with Anne Buck in 1969. From 1975, she was a freelance fashion designer in London, Paris, Milan, New York and Hong Kong until she founded the Katharine E. Hamnett clothes label in 1979.
Hamnett's oversized T-shirts with large block letter slogans, launched in 1983, were adopted by pop bands, including Wham!. George Michael wore his white "CHOOSE LIFE" shirt in the music video for "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." The t-shirt also appeared in Queen's video for "Hammer to Fall" (worn by Roger Taylor). Taylor wore Hamnett's "WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR BAN NOW" shirt during Queen's historic appearance at the first edition of the Rock in Rio festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In 1984, ZTT's Paul Morley designed a series of "FRANKIE SAY..." T-shirts to promote the record label's chart act Frankie Goes to Hollywood (FGTH). Morley has stated that these designs were consciously based on Hamnett's slogan T-shirts: "What persuaded me was reading Katharine Hamnett saying she wanted the T-shirts ripped off, which reminded me of Mark P, saying he wanted Sniffin' Glue to be ripped off. And I mean, I did a fanzine, so when I read that I thought, great, fanzine T-shirts!" The official FGTH designs were particularly successful, and spawned many imitations of their own.
Models such as Naomi Campbell have appeared in Hamnett shirts bearing the slogans "USE A CONDOM" and "PEACE."
Hamnett viewed her T-shirts as a way of getting her message across: "If you want to get the message out there, you should print it in giant letters on a t-shirt." Her first shirt featured the "CHOOSE LIFE" slogan. Inspired by a Buddhist exhibit, it was a comment against war, death and destruction. Hamnett has spoken out several times against the slogan's use by anti-abortion activists in the U.S. She wrote on her website, "It's not about the anti-abortion lobby. The US anti-abortion lobby attempted to appropriate CHOOSE LIFE. We are taking it back and promoting its real meaning. Ours is authentic and I believe in a woman's right to choose."
Beginning in 1989, with research showing pesticide poisoning in cotton-growing regions, and sweatshop labour a major part of the textiles industry, Hamnett began lobbying for major changes in the way the industry operated. After disappointment with the results, Hamnett terminated most of her licensing arrangements, and in 2005 relaunched her line under stricter ethical guidelines, including manufacturing and agricultural practices.
At one point, Hamnett met with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wearing her own T-shirt with the slogan "58% DON'T WANT PERSHING", a reference to polls showing public opposition in the United Kingdom against the basing of Pershing missiles in the country. In 2003, at a London fashion show, Hamnett's catwalk models wore shirts with "STOP WAR, BLAIR OUT", a reference to the looming invasion of Iraq.
In 2008, Hamnett said that fashion designers participating in the London Fashion Week were racist due to what she views as increasing exclusion of black models, stating:
The catwalks are full of white dogs, cosmetic companies don't like black models – the racist bitches. I have no idea why when it's obvious that black girls are just so genuinely much more beautiful than Caucasians, who have clearly got the short straw. Black girls have much better body shapes and it's such a shame. I just think there should be a bit more of a balance.
In 2013, Hamnett designed two different T-shirts for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament: "EDUCATION NOT TRIDENT" and "NHS NOT TRIDENT". As an additional sign of her commitment to the anti-nuclear cause, Hamnett joined the 55th edition of the Easter demonstration at Aldermaston, on 1 April 2013.
Awards and honours
Hamnett won the first ever British Fashion Awards, and in 1996, was voted Britain's favourite designer by readers of Cosmopolitan. Hamnett was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2011 New Year Honours, for services to the fashion industry.
- "Hamnett, Katharine, (born 16 Aug. 1947), fashion designer". WHO'S WHO & WHO WAS WHO. 2007. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.U18835. ISBN 978-0-19-954088-4. Retrieved 16 August 2021.
- Hoskyns, Barney (13 October 1984). "The Morley & Horn Show Present – How to Make a Spectacle of Yourself". NME. p. 25.
- Sutcliffe, Kevin (1 December 1984). "The Road to the Pleasure Dome". The Face. p. 26.
Indirectly, the band have Morley (a director and minor shareholder of ZTT) to thank for an income beyond the usual record company minimum. Noticing that Katherine Hamnett's outsized polemical t-shirts of '83 were being knocked off in the high street by the spring of '84, he concocted a series of bold slogans for Frankie's second release: 'Frankie Say Relax', 'Frankie Say Arm The Unemployed', 'Frankie Say War, Hide Yourself'. 250,000 t-shirts bearing these words have been sold to date, plus twice as many pirate versions.
- Michalewicz, Claire (3 December 2012). "Right Livelihood gets fashionable, thanks to design icon Katharine Hamnett". Lion's Roar.
- "Katharine Hamnett Online Shop: Campaigns: Choose Life T Shirt". 14 March 2008. Archived from the original on 14 March 2008.
- Katie Baron, 'How Choose Love Made Charity Credible Again: Pop-Up Sales Storm Towards £1.5m, Doubling 2017 Total' (22/10/18) on Forbes
- Seipel, Tracy (1 December 1989). "Ghost on the rise in fashion Popular line's resort collection comes in loose, flattering shapes". The Denver Post. Retrieved 8 April 2016.(subscription required)
- Selwyn-Holmes, Alex (10 May 2010). "Katharine Hamnett meets Thatcher". Iconic Photos.
- "Fashion Designer Katharine Hamnett Turns 65". Zimbio. Retrieved 25 July 2013.
- Day, Elizabeth (17 February 2008). "Why racism stalked the London catwalk". The Guardian. London.
- Hudson, Kate (27 March 2013). "New Katharine Hamnett anti-Trident designs". Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
- Elgot, Jessica (24 April 2015). "Celebrities sign statement of support for Caroline Lucas – but not the Greens". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 23 July 2015.
- Emma Bartholomew. "Katharine Hamnett accuses Hackney Council of ignoring weedkiller petition", Hackney Gazette, 2 June 2014
- "No. 59647". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2010. p. 7.