TUES. NOVEMBER 22, 2016WORDS BY ALEX THURMONDPHOTOGRAPHY C/O YOU MUST CREATE
The famed British designer on living and creating with love.
Few designs are as instantly recognizable (or as widely copied) as Katherine Hamnett’s iconic slogan tees. The original “Choose Life” t-shirt debuted in 1983 and was inspired by the designer’s interest in Buddhism, whose belief system centers on the idea of choosing life, above all else. The tenets of Buddhism and the practice of choosing life—a good, meaningful life—not only informed Hamnett’s designs, but also her business practices. “After launching the company, we did some research into the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry and discovered a nightmare,” she remembers. “I had to do it another way, make clothes that were ethically and environmentally sound, and preserved traditional skills.” And she wasn’t going to do it quietly.
Hamnett launched her eponymous line in 1979, designing collections influenced in part by work-wear and military uniforms from various countries. “Military is utility,” she says of her inspiration. “I love that the function defines the form: there are no unnecessary details, everything must have a purpose.” And though she quickly gained a following with her utilitarian designs, the designer considers 1984 the year that the line really came into it’s own.
George Orwelll’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four had cast a dark shadow over the year, and Hamnett sought to bring in some light. “The book was so famous and dreadful, I wanted to show people that the world could be different—full of joy and hope,” she says. “I wanted to make 1984 my year, and it was.” Wanting to offer a counterpoint to the doom-and-gloom mentality as well as voice her opinion during the increasingly strict administration under Margaret Thatcher, Hamnett knew she needed a bold idea—something that couldn’t be ignored. “Democracy was slipping through our fingers, and at the same time a lot of my designs were being copied,” she says of her points of inspiration. “I wanted to design something that would make me happy if it was copied, and gave me—and anybody who cared—a voice.”
Hamnett has continued her commitment to activism year after year, even when she wasn’t working in fashion. This year, she teamed-up with another famed British brand, You Must Create (YMC for short), to re-work some of her classic silhouettes, from utility pants and bombers to coveralls and release a new set of slogan tees, emblazoned with words like “You,” “Love,” and “Don’t Shoot.” And as with all of Hamnett’s collections, each garment is made from organic silks and cottons, and environmentally friendly dyes.
“I want to hopefully create clothes that you will never tire of and keep forever,” she says of her designs. We’d say she’s succeeded: her pieces feel as relevant for today as they did 30 years ago when she was just starting out—maybe even more so. It’s her authenticity and the heart behind it that creates that longevity. “The Buddhist path says that everything you do has to be done to be the best of your ability, and done with love,” she notes. “That is what I’ve always tried to do with everything I design.”
And in this moment, with all of its uncertainties and the lack of understanding, we can all use a reminder to do things with love, and most importantly—Choose Life.