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Katharine Hamnett and Kanye West’s Unlikely Friendship

Over lunch, the ‘80s maverick designer and pioneer of sustainable fashion tells Tim Blanks about allowing Kanye West to ‘sample’ her archive — the latest radical step in one of fashion's most unconventional careers.
Katharine Hamnett and Kanye West | Source: Courtesy/Shutterstock
  • Tim Blanks

LONDON, United Kingdom — Katharine Hamnett fancies the restaurant in Brown's Hotel for lunch. It's now a Mayfair outpost of the [English chef and restaurateur] Mark Hix empire, but I remember an earlier incarnation, when a poached peach in a praline basket was the very apogee of sophistication. Hamnett's memories are equally misted. "I actually moved here for three weeks when I did my first fashion show. I was a brattish 24, and I was so grande." She exaggerates the pronunciation, a reminder that she has teenage roots in France, growing up in Paris where her dad was defense attaché to the British Embassy. "This hotel was perfect when you were young," she adds, another reminder, this time of the fact that she's always been someone who has managed to combine fierce principle with the pursuit of pleasure. "Drinking at lunch on a Friday, so lovely," she murmurs appreciatively.

Except she is, she says, “Addicted to New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs,” and I’m not. Too green and cat-pee-ish. “I was at boarding school [Cheltenham Ladies’ College] for ten years and I can drink anything, even warm vinegar,” Hamnett counters. She orders sole (off the bone) and mashed potatoes. “I just love baby food and hotels cook it so beautifully.”

That sounds like posh talk. Hamnett herself is, and she uses the word as a compliment. She has the perfect voice for it: sonorous, seductive, slightly imperious. It goes with her rangy beauty, all 5"9 of it. She could always be pretty intimidating when she set her soapbox-y mind to it, but at the same time she had those nouvelle vague looks. That perverse chemistry was the essence of her designs.

Fashion's bush telegraph throbbed during the spring shows with the news that Kanye West had fallen under her spell. West confirmed this with BoF's founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed, during a recent dinner in Paris. "I would go to this vintage place three hours out of Milan and I would see these pieces and they were speaking to the language I wanted to say," said West. "It wasn't a name that you heard as much as Helmut Lang. But every single piece I saw, I connected with emotionally. She created something that I thought was relevant to where we are today. So I reached out to her."

The result was a lunch with Hamnett at L'Avenue in Paris, after which, "Katharine allowed me to look through her archives," West told Amed. "In the past, when I've made music, before I got to 808s & Heartbreak where it's completely original, I was more of a postmodernist in the way I would create. I would sample. So, as a start-up brand, to be able to see these ideas up close and be able to learn [was helpful]."

More than once, West has said that his fashion efforts have been subjected to a particular kind of scrutiny, a kind of ‘one-shot’ attitude. As a result, he has had to learn “at seven times the rate of a normal designer,” he told Amed. If he fucks up, he’ll get a shitstorm of “told you so’s”. If he succeeds, it’ll be all about surprise that he did. Kind of a no-win situation. But he found that Hamnett came to him “with a very pure, open heart and wanted to just be helpful. It’s just unheard of for someone to open their archives in that way.”

His timing couldn’t have been better. Hamnett’s attitude to her own archives has done a recent 180. “I was thinking of chucking it,” she says, heavy on the droll imperiousness. “I’ve been lugging it around for ages. And I’m so bored by my past. I was never archivally inclined in the moment.” Then along came Kanye, at the same time as Fraser Moss, founder of YMC (You Must Create), the London-based label whose match of fashion and pragmatism has made it a quiet force, was making a convincing case for a commercially viable Hamnett revival. She quickly realised that her albatross was a potential goldmine.

Hamnett went so far as to have every outfit (almost every outfit — some of the most famous slogan garments are missing) photographed in an orgy of documentation: two snappers, six models, a solid five days' studio time, resulting in a weighty bound volume that is now the Hamnett Bible. She heaves it onto the restaurant table and declares, "I could run a business for a hundred years off this." Is the navy silk shirt with the bellows pockets that I bought in 1981 at Brown's (the boutique, not the hotel) in the Bible? I don't see it immediately, but that's only because there are hundreds of looks, forensically laid out in an overwhelming summation of a career that, for at least two decades, was a brazenly seductive union of sex, style and street, wrapped in a barbed-wire bow of social activism.

When YMC's Moss saw the Bible, he thought it could be a bestseller. (One of the most sensational cult tomes of the past decade has been Jun Takahashi and Hiroshi Fujiwara's slip-cased compendium of just about every single item of clothing designed by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood for Seditionaries in the '70s). Hamnett was a little more reserved. "This is my resource," she says. "I don't want to let the cat out of the bag." On the other hand, she acknowledges that her clothes always existed as ideas to be copied. (The oversize message tees are true contemporary classics — CHOOSE LIFE being the most popular, and the anti-missile statement 58% DON'T WANT PERSHING being the most memorable, because that's what Hamnett wore to shake Margaret Thatcher's hand at 10 Downing Street in 1984.)

That's something West was conscious of when he approached the Hamnett archives. There was nothing overtly referential in his second Yeezy collection, though there was a pretty accurate simulacrum of Hamnett's spirit and attitude, particularly in the body-consciousness that managed to be militant and sensual. That was how Hamnett would couch her messages. West, on the other hand, was adamant about his own collection. "There was absolutely no political message," he insisted to Amed. "Though I am black, it doesn't mean every time I design a t-shirt it's a statement about the position of black people and the class of black people. I think people would like for there to be, but people have to look past colour. I think that everybody is trying to figure out where two plus two equals four with me. And what experience have you ever had with me and my work and my messaging where two plus two equals four? There's no example of that."

“Why do people keep saying what they’re supposed to say?” West asked Amed. And his connection with Katharine Hamnett immediately clicks into place. Mavericks both, they have been simultaneously their own worst enemies and their own best friends. “Look at yourself through the eyes of someone who hates you, because then you get it right,” Hamnett says. “It gives you a standard.”

So the notion of them sitting across from each other at a table in L'Avenue, the most hung-out of Parisian fashion hang-outs, makes being a fly-on-the-wall the profession du jour, especially when West showed up with the rapper Travis Scott whose diamonds dazzled Hamnett to the point of almost-inarticulacy.

You could say there's something else that this unlikely duo shares. They both want to change their worlds. Hamnett's commitment to an ethical fashion industry is so well-documented, so long-suffering that it has an almost quixotic edge. For all the years I've known her, organic cotton has been her banner issue. Her Pauline conversion came on a trip with Oxfam to Mali in 2003, where she saw the fundamental differences that the cultivation of organic cotton made to West African farmers. No pesticides, for a start, so no swingeing outlays before they'd even harvested their crop. The farmers rotated organic cotton with food and other cash crops, so they had food security and more income. Above all, they could avoid the agri-monoculture that makes the production of conventional cotton one of the world's greatest environmental toxins.

This is the issue on which Hamnett has spent more than a decade trying to snare visionary business partners. Tesco was there for a while; now, YMC is her collaborator on “a nice little line of sustainably produced clothing.” Her slogan t-shirts are made of cotton sourced from an agricultural project in Africa and processed in India. Each step in the supply chain is Soil Association-certified. But it’s those African-American urban artistes — people like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams — that she dreams of engaging in her grand design. “There’s a superb supply chain ready to go,” says Hamnett. “And I’ll give it as a gift to anyone who wants to use it, provided I get a five-year commitment.” Inevitably, she’s spent years being knocked back. “Yeah, it’s pretty shocking and horrific. It puts people who consider themselves quite illuminated on the grill. But people go on dying, so I ain’t gonna give up.”

West is so ardently knowledgeable about fashion that you can easily picture his reaction to Hamnett's resume. She gave Juergen Teller his first job. Kate Moss got her commercial start with the designer. Claudia Schiffer, Terry Richardson… "He was living in Alphabet City upstairs from a family of Puerto Ricans, and I waited with them while he got his kit together. Voodoo and Lazarus candles and fabulous 62-year-olds in hot pants." Richardson shot punks spitting for Hamnett's campaign. So anti-. She loved it. Even more, because she prides herself on an eye for a bargain and this field team talent came cheap at the time.

She has always loved to stir things up. “It’s all or nothing,” Hamnett says with conviction borne of bitter experience. “I spent a lot of time in the wilderness trying to work with people, and the YMC thing has inspired me to come back. I might open an online store in the autumn, with social enterprise set-ups. Make it exciting, the way it should be done: Tibet, Mongolia, yak, cashmere, baby camel. Make the herdsmen partners. And don’t wholesale it. You could sell a 600 quid jumper for £120 because you’re not protecting the wholesale medium. Apply the Hollywood principle: spend the same amount on promotion as you spend on production. And do it online, not with a couple of hundred ailing boutiques.”

“I’ve always loved fashion,” she insists. “It’s part of biological programming, the way you establish your mateability, one way or the other. But I don’t think it takes up 99 percent of your brain. I think you can be quite thorough with five percent.” And the rest? Hamnett rhymes off her “lovely, huge life”: friends, family, her dog Arthur, travelling, exploring. And her activism, of course. She met the surfing legend Kelly Slater recently and was surprised to find out how interested he was in Europe’s refugee issues.

She orders spotted dick — no custard — for dessert. I’ve always thought of Hamnett as quite highly strung (tempered by a healthy sense of humour), but she doesn’t seem particularly high maintenance. Her iPhone is held together by a rubber band, and her “mobile office” is a big old sketchbook. She’s made some rough notes of subjects she wanted to be sure to talk about:

• Social enterprise

• Make change

• Give money at source, giving people a share of the turnover

• For the good of all living things, a right livelihood

• If you want to be happy, you have to have a good life

“A lovely Japanese potter said, ‘To throw a good pot, you have to have a good life,’” Hamnett elaborates, almost in the same breath with which she praises Herostratus, who pursued fame at any cost by torching the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. “He was so badly behaved that his name was erased from all public monuments. I think that’s rather magnificent. I love those people who live on the edge.”

She’s been to that edge. Had it all, threw a lot of it away, got a bit of it back. Ups and downs, she’d say, never more so than a few days earlier when she’d found herself curled in a foetal position in muddy parkland, protecting Arthur while a local lunatic’s equally lunatic dog gnawed on the top of her head. Now, in her late 60s, Hamnett could be starting another chapter, courtesy of a performer who sees things other people don’t. If it doesn’t happen, it’s hardly something new for her. But she’ll never give up. And she seems happier about that than ever.

Check please.

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The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
© 2021 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions and Privacy policy.