Activist and Icon: Katharine Hamnett, CBE

British Fashion Council

The inventor of the slogan t-shirt, an icon of the 1980's, and an early champion of sustainability in the fashion industry.

The designer Katharine Hamnett is one of the pioneers of modern British fashion. She invented the much copied slogan t-shirt, was the first to use distressed denim, and championed organic cotton long before many were aware of the damage that conventional production causes to the environment. Katharine Hamnett, especially so in the 1980's, influenced both British popular culture and politics through the strength of her work. She was also the first designer to win the British Fashion Council's 'Designer of the Year' award in 1984. 


Katharine Hamnett was born in 1947. Her father was a diplomat and she was brought up all over Europe. She attended 10 schools including Cheltenham Ladies College.

She studied fashion at Saint Martin’s School of Art and on graduating went into business with her college friend Anne Buck under the Tuttabankem label. The partnership lasted 5 years.

She then worked freelance in London, Paris, Rome, Hong Kong and New York before launching her own label, Katharine Hamnett London, in 1979.

Katharine Hamnett is most famous for the invention of the slogan t-shirt. By printing political messages in large block type onto simple t-shirts Katharine Hamnett created a sensation in the 1980's. These t-shirts were designed to be easily copied so that as many people as possible would see her messages. The most famous of Katharine Hamnett's slogan t-shirts was the CHOOSE LIFE version worn by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of the band Wham!. Over time Katharine Hamnett's messages became more concerned with the plight of Africa and environmental sustainability - two important issues she would return to time and again in the 2000's.


Katharine Hamnett meets the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. 'At last! An original,' was the Prime Minister's response to Katharine Hamnett's anti-missile message when the two met at a government reception.


Fashion Aid, was an off-shoot of Band Aid to raise money for victims of famine in Africa. It was a star-studded event taking place at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Katharine Hamnett created a series of slogan t-shirts for the event including messages to PROTEST AND SURVIVE and to SAVE THE WORLD.

The event featured many more of the world’s best-known fashion designers including Armani and Yves Saint Laurent, with designs presented by top models including Grace Jones, Jerry Hall and Boy George.

Katharine Hamnett Autumn / Winter Collection at the 1986 London Fashion Week

Katharine Hamnett gave many of the world's top fashion photographers their first commercial jobs. Ellen von Unwerth, Juergen Teller, and Terry Richardson all worked early in their careers on Katharine Hamnett's advertising. She also launched the careers of many of the most famous supermodels: Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann, Naomi Campbell all starred in Katharine Hamnett's advertising campaigns and catwalk shows. 

Katharine Hamnett's Spring / Summer Collection from 1989 which was shown at London Fashion Week.

Katharine Hamnett was deeply impacted by a visit to Mali in West Africa in 2003 with the charity Oxfam. Here she saw not only the impact of AIDS on the local population but also the damage caused by conventional cotton farming on the wider environment. After this visit to Mali Katharine Hamnett became committed to only work with products produced ethically and as environmentally as possible. Long before it became popular Katharine Hamnett campaigned for greater sustainability in fashion. 


Katharine Hamnett has for over three decades made an enormous impact on fashion. She has campaigned endlessly to change the fashion industry from within, getting involved in many eco-friendly initiatives and lectured on sustainability all over the world. She was appointed a CBE in the New Year Honours List in 2010 for services to the fashion industry.

As from 2017 she is bringing her brand back to market. Everything will be sustainably produced in Europe in compliance with EU labour law, and sold via selected retailers internationally and direct to consumer from her own online store.

"The clothing industry is one of the largest industries in the world. It employs one billion people; one in six of the world’s population. It is one of the biggest polluters: it impacts climate change and global warming. Garment workers in many parts of the world still work in conditions tantamount to slavery. We have to make our clothes in a better way.

I am committed to changing the way it works, only making clothes ethically and as environmentally as possible, preserving traditional skills, and showing how it can be done."

Katharine Hamnett, CBE

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by the British Fashion Council in collaboration with Katharine Hamnett and Modus Publicity.

All rights belong to Katharine Hamnett or The British Fashion Council unless otherwise stated. All photographers and models have been credited where known.

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