Katharine Hamnett at the Espacio Pulpo cultural centre in Palma. | Humphrey Carter
KATHARINE Hamnett CBE, the award-wining British fashion designer and political activist has made Mallorca her home since Brexit, but she did not fall in love with the island for the sun, it was in fact as a result of a winder wonderland experience in the snow.
“It was February 1983. I should have been at the Venice Carnival where we had won the top award for best design, but to be honest I couldn’t be arsed with all the hype and decided to bring my two sons to Mallorca for a winter break.
"We had decided to go hiking up into the mountains above Fornalutx and we headed out with this ‘old sea captain’, she was only 18 at the time, and ended up in this lovely cave which had been one been used by the Moors. It had this lovely fire with a chimney system at the back and was really quite comfortable.
"However, it started to snow and we were stuck there for two days in the end. The fire was amazing, the way it had been fixed by the Moors, the heat and smoke just skimmed through the cave, it even heated the floor. We were getting soaked and clothes were taking hours to dry, so I thought sod it and just wore a T-shirt and wandered around barefoot.
"I was just blown away by the beauty of the nature of the mountains and then the people; we found everyone just so friendly. Walking down the streets, everyone would say hello and were all too willing to help. And the little children at the kindergarten, I had never seen children so sweet in my life. I was totally overcome by that experience with Mallorca and had been coming back and forth ever since - until Brexit” Katharine told the Bulletin this week.
That said, lighting a fire in a Mallorcan mountain cave in midwinter would not have been unusual for her at the time.
Katharine was, and still is, a real fire-starter.
The Kent-born designer is best known for her slogan T-shirts, famous for their bold ethical, social and political messages - such as “Choose Life” and “Use A Condom”. Her designs have been worn by a host of high-profile names including Alexa Chung, Lily Cole and Naomi Campbell.
The 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 Katharine’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.
Beginning in 1989, with research showing pesticide poisoning in cotton-growing regions and sweatshop labour a major part of the textiles industry, Katherine began lobbying for major changes in the way the industry operated. After disappointment with the results, she terminated most of her licensing arrangements, and in 2005 relaunched her line under stricter ethical guidelines, including manufacturing and agricultural practices.
At one point, Katharine 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 II 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.
Katherine won the first ever British Fashion Awards, and in 1996 was voted Britain’s favourite designer by readers of Cosmopolitan. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2011 New Year Honours for services to the fashion industry.
She decided to move to Mallorca on a more permanent basis after Brexit.
“I was an exporter. I actually won an export award. I was in fact an exporter before we were in the Common Market, so I had to deal with so much red tape back then. But it was fine, once we negotiated it. But I just knew Brexit was wrong.
"What’s wrong with having a free trade agreement with the richest consumer market in the world just 23 miles away across the Channel? I just don’t understand why anyone in government could not understand the costs and implications involved. They understand defence contracts, etc. but they don’t seem to understand the basics and state of manufacturing in the UK. In the ‘80s it was ok.
"The fashion and textile industry was producing wonderful things, we were the best designers in the world and everything was manufactured in the UK. There were loads of homemade brands. We were the biggest fashion and textile producers in the world. We had that culture of dressing up, I guess, from our childhood and experimenting with role play that gives you the cultural references. We had the best fashion training. It was regarded as applied arts, so to study art and design you also studied the history of art, cinema, photography - learnt how to do it, to paint, draw, visit all the incredible museums in England.
"It was amazing to have been at St. Martin’s School of Art during its golden age, but then they sold out. It was fantastic but now people are coming out with MAs, and girls coming to me to help when we are finishing a collection have no idea of simple stitching - things we used to learn at home aged 12 with our mothers, never mind going to art or fashion schools. So, there’s been a sad collapse in fashion education.
“As a fashion house, we were then doing so well that we were being copied all round the world. It was very flattering, but I started thinking about what would make you feel good, what would be fun. We were getting up to 70 odd interviews after every fashion show and I thought it would be great to have a voice. The T- shirts were designed to be copied, and they were; we gave the money to Save the Children. They weren’t designed to make money, they were designed to be funny and get a voice out there. I honestly had no idea how it would work, whether we would sell any, but I was wrong.
"So they have become what I am best known for, which is slightly galling. I’d spent so much time trying to make trousers fit perfectly and create the magic of clothing which makes you look good and makes you feel happy, and which all worked great, but the T-shirts were the things that made a difference. Like meeting Margaret Thatcher at the time over the nuclear missile issue.
"I was not going to meet her at the time but then I thought we had a photo opportunity here, so I scoured the media and realised that I had hit a message that connected with democracy and what people were concerned about. For the most part T-shirts and marching don’t make any difference to what is happening. But the T-shirts have became the forefront of the anti-nuclear, environmental, anti-war movements and many other campaigns.
"So while initially they don’t do much, if you follow this up by contacting your local elected representative such as your MP and tell them that you will not vote for them unless they take action and that you will be watching how they vote, it can make a difference.
“Politicians always have their own interests at heart and that is quite simply to get re-elected, so you have to hit them where it hurts. For example, the Stop The War coalition eventually came out of the Stop The War slogans when Bush invaded Iraq and Blair followed suit, so they can serve to make a difference, give people a voice and I would like to see more of that here amongst the foreign populations.
“Apart from ‘Cancel Brexit’, ‘Use it or Loose it’ it is all about the importance of people voting. I have a pro-bono job with Samsung which is all about encouraging young people to think more, to engage their brains, think about their future and value the importance of their vote once they get it. Many don’t have the right to vote now, but they soon will and I am a staunch believer in people using their rights to vote.
“That is something I would like to see more foreign residents doing here in Mallorca. Through my careers, be it fashion or as an activist, I have travelled the world, but for me Mallorca is the most wonderful place on earth. But like anywhere it has its problems, and these problems, and how they are resolved, affect everybody who lives here. Therefore, everyone who lives here and is entitled to the right to vote should sign up and use their vote, otherwise nothing really changes.
“I remember once being up in Biniaraix, looking at the view and thinking ‘mine eyes have seen the coming of the Lord’. That’s how stunning the island is for me and it is home to so many extremely influential, intelligent, experienced and worldly people of all nationalities and from all walks of life. It would be so nice to see all that know-how be brought together for the common good of the island and the local community.
“Having been the daughter of a former Royal Air Force officer and diplomat, I spent most of my early years in Europe as opposed to the UK, so I suppose I’ve always had more of a leaning towards Europe. And post-Brexit, Mallorca has become our base, not only because we love the island but also just in case the shit really does hit the fan. Politics in the UK is in such a mess, not even the Labour Party knows where it’s going or what it’s doing with Kier Starmer. One moment he is for the freedom of movement again, suggesting a fresh warming to Europe, the other he is not.
“If Sunak had not come along anyone could have been prime minister. If there had been any reason for me to have gone back to the UK it would been to have become PM; I could have organised and managed it. Politics has become so contaminated,” she said. And contamination, the use of pesticides in farming is another of her issues.
“We’ve got some land on our property and we grow as much as we can ecologically. I would like to see others doing the same to help, for example, the Soller food bank, which is used by some 600 people. It is so easy to ecologically grow a bumper crop of cabbages and then let the food bank get its hands on it for the local community, or any other vegetables or fruit. And we don’t need to be using pesticides, it can all be so natural,” she stressed.
“Mallorca has it all, from the land to the wonderful history, architecture (which could be better preserved), heritage, the environment, and everything is so close. You can live out in the villages and be in the centre of cosmopolitan Palma in half an hour or so.
"But what I want to see is everybody involved, everyone using their vote while at the same time all the political parties addressing the community at large, and by that I mean foreign residents as well. We all pay our taxes and are blessed with services like the excellent public health system, so there needs to a greater push on integration, from both sides - that is one of my main aims right now. ‘Use it or lose it’.”