An eco-warrior at London Fashion Week Festival

| 10th December 2018
BOUNCE snack art dress
On the day of the 2018 Fashion Awards, what can the industry learn from the political firebrand Katherine Hamnett?


Jack Whitehall and Alek Wek will host the 2018 Fashion Awards, taking place today.  The British Fashion Council's annual gala and 'gathering for a good cause' is the main event to raise much needed funds for their business support initiatives assisting UK creativity.

Tickets are available to the purchasing public, enabling - to an extent - access to a world often about exclusivity. But what's the connection between these high-end fashion events and the environment?

Katherine Hammett is the keynote industry insider on sustainability. For her, fashion was a political forum from the get-go.

Ethical label

After studying at the renowned Central St. Martins School of Art in London and aware of the 'art of the blag' in fashion, she utilised the tenet of 'treat them mean, keep them keen', when first starting out in Paris as a designer.

Knowing the language helped. The ploy to establish exclusivity from buyers, whilst trying to promote and sell her designs, paid off. When she could barely able to afford the fare home, this daring and defiant move could have backfired.

But like most of Hamnett's endeavours, taking a foolhardy approach - or as she would jokingly acknowledge, potential foolishness in an industry where ethics before profit - meant battling for decades.

Fast-forward and Hamnett's sustainable ethical label has never been more relevant. It re-launched in 2017 with classic archival unisex pieces coupled with new designs, all ethically and sustained from Italy.

Successful radical 

Launching in 1979 and almost always an activist, it was in '81 that Hamnett's slogan T-shirts were seen as the medium of the emblazoned statement of choice. From 'CHOOSE LIFE', 'SAVE the SEAS', and 'YOU-ME' amongst the several provocative statements to cement Hamnett as a magnet of and for, rebellion.

Her provocative, innovative shows and collections were a global success, helped in 1984 by the now infamous "58% Don't want Pershing" T-shirt, an anti-nuclear message directed at then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and televised on multi media platforms globally.

Hamnett is a successful radical who launched the careers of folk now part of the fashion 'fraternity', including Juergen Teller, Claudia Schiffer, Kate Moss and Terry Richardson. Her pioneering advertising, campaigns and collections - such as stone washed denim - revolutionised fashion.

By the 1990s the Hamnett brand was a major UK exporter with a multi-million pound turnover.

Today, Hamnett is is the go-to sustainable designer for many in fashion and remains refreshingly outspoken. As a long-term forerunner of accountability in an industry previously oblivious to putting the planet first, it was a far from easy journey for this 'enfant terrible'.

Punk sensibility 

With a punk sensibility well before punk was a movement, and a driven and '2 fingers up' attitude,  Hamnett was the thorn in the side of the business for years.

In 1989 she fully discovered the impact of pesticides, environmental pollution and waste, and the enslavement of production workers. She began lobbying the industry accordingly.

This was a time when human health and issues of environmental concern barely existed in the field of fashion. Taking an almost lone stance meant moving out of the mainstream fashion industry. Choosing other routes became an enforced choice and personally a case of ensuring her designs where in line with her ethics and politics.

Once more celebrated, she is no sell-out. “Slogans are fine but we need action now. And it needs to be dramatic”.

Given the current command for more choice and accountability, perhaps changes will be consumer driven. There has been an explosion of brands that position themselves as eco friendly via informed and financially supported public relations departments - but what's really motivating them? And will it meaningfully address the environmental crisis?

Influence and innovation 

Some businesses are confronting the real challenges. The organisation Fashion Revolution points to the Ellen MacArthur Report - 'Re-designing Fashion Future 2017' - which reveals ways forward in creating a new textiles economy and implementable alternatives, while also considering future sustainability and management.

Findings show the negative impacts of the textile industry are set to drastically increase by 2050. It  also predicts that between 2015 to 2050 microfibres in the ocean will reach 22 billion. The industry also faces its own challenges, as digital sales have negatively affected the high street.

But the London Fashion Week festival helps promote British fashion influence and innovation which stretches far beyond our own high streets, even beyond our island, positively impacting the UK in terms of education and tourism and ensuring its position as a 'destination for creation and cultural innovation'. 

According to BFC current research from 2009, the UK fashion industry is estimated to have directly contributed £20.9 billion to the UK economy. Significant contributions to this total were made by marketing (£241 million), the fashion media (£205 million) and fashion education (£16 million).

Therefore, the UK fashion industrys direct contribution to UK GDP is around twice the size of the publishing (£9.9 billion), car manufacturing (£10.1 billion) and chemical manufacturing industries (£10.6 billion), and only slightly smaller than both telecommunications (£28.7 billion) and real estate (£26.4 billion).

Fashion and nutrition

Health and wellness as a fashionable concern for consumers continues to evolve annually. Fashion and nutrition go hand in hand at events such as the Balance Festival, Design Week and The OM Yoga Show. 

The great success of the 'London Fashion Week Festival' is notable. While London Fashion Week (LFW) remains a trade only event, the festival posits itself as, "an opportunity for visitors to experience the atmosphere of London Fashion Week in its official venue and gain an insight into the industry. It also gives designer brands the opportunity to meet and build direct relationships with new customers."  

Sponsors of LFW festival include Emily's Crisps and Bounce balls - both vegan snacks, bringing awareness to new audiences. The latter in particular, had an eye catching creative garment sculpture made from recycling their wrappers (pictured above). A dress surely the fashion forward ethics and diversity pioneer Lady Gaga would wear.

Whilst it's an oxymoron to expect fashion and consumerism to be best buddies in sustainability, it is often through these experimental offshoots that progressive exchanges impact indirectly. London - as a fashion centre and innovator - could lead the way in embracing the environmental movement in new modes.

The festival is an assured way to hear directly from those established in the industry. The variety of topics was well represented, talks were frank and offered alternatives to fast fashion as well as addressing current trends in society calling for compassion. But there is need for more and greater change.

Critical Juncture

The organisation Women in Fashions talk - Represent - discussed the importance of visual diversity and its effects on societal pressures, as well as 'behind the scenes' and its impact on culture. The consensus was that fashion remains far from diverse and tokenism pervades.

The reticence to provide further commentary post-presentation spoke volumes. This is not new. Appearing to 'bite the hand that feeds you' means being brave and bold but potentially viewed as a whistle-blower and agitator.

The 2018 'Year of the Woman' undoubtedly embedded itself globally in the psyche of a society that is moving toward a tipping point. Polarisation, people power and social media create a force demanding acknowledgement and the necessity for change.

There is evidence of wider inclusion in the fashion industry, but with the planet at a critical juncture, tackling environmental and ethical issues in a business whose production and practice often mean ignoring them is often a contradiction in terms.

However there are hopeful signs. The future is full of fascinating potential, though dependent upon far faster and wider discussion alongside implementation.

This Author

Wendyrosie Scott is an anthropologist and journalist focusing on fashion, festivals and creative communities - she considers lifestyle trends and the natural world as positive partnerships.

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