Organic Consumers Association

UK Fashion Designer Looks Toward Organic Cotton

UK's Hamnett Is Fashion's Social Conscience

Thursday, September 25, 2003
By Gideon Long

LONDON (Reuters) - An outspoken campaigner against war, pollution, nuclear
weapons and developing world debt, British clothes designer Katharine
Hamnett has never had much time for the sycophancy and air-kissing of the
fashion world.

"I was at a fashion do the other evening and I wasn't interested in anything
the people there wanted to talk about and they weren't interested in
anything I wanted to talk about," she says with typical frankness.

"We decided to call it a day and have an early night."

"I'd just come back from Mali where I met a woman aged 22 who'd had seven
children, three of whom died from malnutrition," Hamnett told Reuters in an
interview after her catwalk show at London Fashion Week on Wednesday.

"In those circumstances, it's very hard to find time for fashion chit-chat."

Hamnett, 56, has set herself up as the social conscience of an industry
which draws most of its resources from the developing world but sells almost
all its finished products to the rich, fashion-conscious consumers of the

Since she launched her own label in 1979, she has sent dozens of models out
in front of the world's cameras clad in T-shirts emblazoned with campaign

Wednesday's Spring/Summer 2004 show was no exception.

Its climax was an appearance by supermodel Naomi Campbell wearing a tiny
body-hugging cropped black vest with "Use a Condom" stamped on it in
diamante studs.

As she posed for the cameras, Campbell turned around to reveal the same logo
glittering on the back of her knickers.

Other models wore T-shirts bearing the words "Save Africa. Make Trade Fair"
and "Save Africa. Use a Condom."

Using Campbell as a campaign role model might seem a little foolhardy. This
is, after all, the supermodel who spoke out against the use of fur in
fashion only to be sacked by her campaign managers for subsequently wearing
a fur coat.

But Hamnett is confident the campaign to raise AIDS awareness and push for
equitable trade deals for Africa will not backfire in similar fashion.

"What's Naomi going to do?" she asked. "Is she now going to contradict
herself by saying 'don't wear a condom' or 'let's all catch HIV'? I doubt


She said Campbell, still the world's best-known black model, was the perfect
figurehead for a campaign aimed largely at sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS
and HIV are rampant.

"She's such a huge icon in places like South Africa," Hamnett said. "I
designed the vest two years ago and I've been trying to track Naomi down
since then. I'm very glad to have her on board and really happy she could do
the show today."

This is not the first time Hamnett has campaigned for AIDS awareness. In the
1980s, when AIDS first emerged, she designed a range of men's underwear with
condom pockets.

More recently, she has been trying to cajole clothes makers into using
organic cotton from sustainable sources.

She has also highlighted how chromium is discharged into the environment as
a by-product of the leather tanning industry and how sulphuric acid is
pumped into the atmosphere during the process of extracting the textile
viscose from wood pulp.

"I still haven't got organic cotton in my own collection though I hope to in
the next one," she says, acknowledging that she sometimes finds herself
fighting an uphill battle to reform the clothing industry from the inside.

"It's taken me 12 years to get a supply chain together."

Almost a quarter of a century after she established her own company, Hamnett
still believes in the power of the consumer to change the habits of big

"The consumer is far more tender-hearted than industry," she said. "They
care about these issues and they don't want blood on their hands."

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