Clash of the Titans, or a mutual appreciation society? What happened when Katherine Hamnett met Vivienne Westwood...
One is keen on history but thinks the 21st century is a funny old place; the other worries about the environment and is known for her abrupt manner and highly tuned BS detector. Both are successful female British fashion designers, ladies with principle, and possess the kind of attitude to match their talents. And they have more in common than either of them thinks. On the right, we present Katharine Hamnett, the 80s street-style pioneer best known for her political sloganeering and chic drill cotton; the woman who went to Number 10 wearing a provocative anti-Pershing warhead T-shirt and shook Thatcher’s hand with delicious irony. Although she loves fashion, Hamnett’s biggest gripe these days is the fashion industry itself and its often irresponsible nature. A huge advocate of organic cotton and alternative ways of producing clothes, she remains fiercely political, continuing to highlight injustice where she sees it. And to the left, lighting up the room up with her flame-coloured hair and equally inflammatory views, is the indomitable Vivienne Westwood, who surely needs no introduction. A living, bona-fide fashion legend, Dame Viv’s clothes have enhanced the world for over forty years now and she remains immensely passionate about her craft. She is equally inspired by the need for revolution, letting the world know her unorthodox views on climate change, cultural decay and the other things that piss her off via a direct manifesto: Active Resistance To Propaganda. The two women have met before, but it’s been a while.
Katharine Hamnett: It’s been ages since we met. I think the last time I saw you was at the Thatcher bash when I wore the T-shirt, do you remember?
Vivienne Westwood: Probably.
You were about the only person who spoke to me. Everybody else avoided me like the plague because, you know, the t- shirt was quite funny. So the last time we actually had a chat was about, God, twenty six years ago. It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? You were wearing that T-shirt, and I remember thinking, now then, if somebody asks Katharine to leave, am I going to leave with her? Because in my mind, my reason for going was somehow to try to tell Margaret Thatcher something. Like, I think she had sunk the Belgrano by then and committed those men to death in the icy sea of the South Atlantic without any good reason. I wanted to sort of say something to her to stop her from doing that kind of thing again. I wanted to sort of get through to her. But I thought, well, if Katharine is asked to leave I sort of have to leave with her [laughs].
Oh bless you, bless you. Yes, I tried to nobble her afterwards, so I chased her round the room. She’s so skillful, though, she just avoided me. I wanted to ask her about acid rain, and in the end I was the last person to leave, so I said, ‘and what about acid rain? We’re meant to be responsible you know..’ And she said, ‘we don’t know what causes acid rain. And I’m a scientist. Good night!’ But it was funny, wasn’t it? It was funny to be in there. Anyway, I wasn’t going to talk to you about that.
One of the things I was most proud of ever doing was copying Margaret Thatcher for that Tatler cover – ‘This woman was once a punk’. It was really brilliant.
Yes it was actually, because you did it very well. I don’t know who did the make up, but it was a frightening likeness.
But I did it from my acting ability. I put into my mind what this woman was like, the hypocrisy of her. My idea was, there’s a hospital bed with a child in it, and there’s the TV camera, and I’m going to show the world how much I care for this child. Michael Roberts, the photographer said, ‘Put a little doubt into your mind – am I being believed?’ And I did, and it just was brilliant. I mean, it came. It was her.
What do you hate most about being famous?
I don’t hate it at all.
Do you love it?
No, I don’t love it, I find it convenient. It gives me a chance to say something every now and again. People always ask you for your autograph or for a photo with them, or both. I was once in the National Gallery and somebody really startled me, so I said no. I wouldn’t sign their thing and I wouldn’t have a picture taken. I regretted it. I’d never do it again. It only takes a minute.
That’s really sweet. Do you ever go out in disguise?
No, I don’t need to. I’m not that popular that people will mob me or something. Andreas notices it, my husband Andreas. When he’s with me he says ‘you’re so recognised,’ but I keep these metaphorical blinkers on so that people don’t think I know I’m being recognised. But also I’m always in my own head, I’m always thinking. I actually don’t notice my surroundings when I go down the street. People would think a creative person is somebody who’s always aware of everything that’s going on. But I’m not.
I don’t watch television and I don’t go to the cinema. I don’t follow those things because I’m too busy reading or doing brilliant things
You’re very into political activism. What difference do you think you can make?
I don’t think I can make any difference really. I mean we’re so overwhelmed. With climate change, the human race has never faced such a danger, and I really do think we are an endangered species. I was really shocked by James Lovelock, this amazing man – I don’t know if you’ve followed him and his Gaia theory – but when I saw the statistics published that he expects by the end of the next century there would be, at most, one billion people left, that was just such a shock to me. To think of all that suffering between. And the point is nobody’s doing anything. The financial crisis proves that the world is finite and you can’t keep on exploiting it anymore.
We’ve got to change or we’re finished… I don’t know.
I was at Malcolm’s funeral and I feel a bit sort of fragile because of all that, because it’s a very difficult thing to think, to let settle in you, the fact that Malcolm is dead. It’s going to take me a long time before I feel he’s gone. Erm, but where was I, sorry.
On climate change.
Oh yes. Really I was having a go at trendy people. Saying that they’re not doing anything and trendiness is business as usual. And what I really think is that the twentieth century was a mistake. There was no culture in the twentieth century, only what’s called popular culture, and popular culture is essentially consumerism. Just suck up something to fill a gap. And there are no intellectuals anymore, not enough of them to have any kind of respect for anything.
Are you doing anything in your activism area?
I’m trying to do something about it of course.
What are you doing?
Well at the moment I’m working on a television programme, which will be one in a series. Then I’ll go to the television companies and ask if they want it. I’m not going to them first. I’m doing it, and it’s going to be done really, really well.
They’ll be fighting for it.
Well I’ve no idea, but it’s going to be called Get A Life.
So what are the important things we should be doing?
Well I think you have to go to the art gallery. And I think you have to go to listen to great music concerts. It only costs seven quid to go to the Barbican. And if you live in the countryside you have to learn the names of all the trees. And I think you have to read things that are worth reading. Like what?
What would be your top five books that people should read?
Well people have to read the first two greatest books of the twentieth century in English which are Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. But then I do read mostly non-fiction.
So what would you suggest they read from non-fiction?
I’m reading all the climate change things, so it would be James Lovelock and any of his books. I’m reading something about anthropology, about the human race and how we really function. You can’t read Jane Austen or something like that, that’s just a waste of time.
Can you describe your normal day. What would you do?
First of all I must tell you that I always give a long answer instead of a short answer.
I always think that it would be really good to get up early and be one of those people that by breakfast time have done half a day’s work. I think that would be absolutely wonderful. But I’m really lazy and I don’t. And even if I wake up early I will lie in bed for probably an hour.
And what time do you call early to wake up?
Usually I’m up by about half past eight. It takes me ages to get out of the house though. I’m not trying to make an excuse for myself, but I do think that it’s because I’m always thinking. It’s amazing how long it takes to do the smallest things. Like, this morning I wanted to prepare some salad stuff to eat for my lunch and it took me half an hour just to sort it out. It takes ages, doesn’t it? Anyway, I get to work at any time, sometimes at lunchtime even. And I do things at home too. I write some things, and I’m thinking some of my things. Sometimes I take the day off and do some writing of the things I’m thinking about: my intellectual things. And then at work I’m doing fashion, sorting out all the little problems you need to sort out to do designs. I usually leave here about seven thirty, go home, cook and eat a little bit late. And then I go to bed as soon as I’ve eaten with the idea of reading for a bit. Sometimes I fall asleep after ten minutes. That’s alright, because then what happens is that I wake up in the middle of the night for a couple of hours and that’s the best time. And I’ve got all kinds of quotations as well that I go over at night.
Quotations? Who’s your favourite quote by?
Oh my God, er, which would it be, let me think. Well, there’s a couple of things that make me go to sleep which are, Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats. I go over that all the time because its just so familiar. If I want to go to sleep I’ll do something familiar. If I want to stay awake I go over the most recent ones. Half of the things are in French.
Do you speak French?
I’m nervous about speaking French but I’m able to read it. But I’ve never lived there or spoken it very much.
But you love French writers?
Yeah, and the reason why I learnt to read French is because once I read a book called The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz and it’s just full of French quotations. When I got to the end I had translated them all with the aid of a dictionary, and I thought, I could read a book in French actually, I know I could.
I’m reading something about anthropology, about the human race and how we really function. You can’t read Jane Austen or something like that, that’s just a waste of time
Wow, that’s very serious minded.
I would love to read more things. I would love to read Proust but I don’t have the time. I read it a bit once, but I’ve always intended to read it in French. It’s dead easy to read in French, Proust, by the way.
Just going back to popular culture, who’s your favourite pop group now?
Well I wouldn’t know. All I know is that whenever you do hear anything, they’re ever so much worse than anything before. I had never heard of Oasis until I went to the Palace for Tony Blair and they were invited. I’d never heard of them because I don’t watch television and I don’t go to the cinema. I don’t follow those things because I’m too busy reading or doing brilliant things.
What’s the most brilliant thing you’ve done recently? On any level.
Well it wasn’t that recently, but probably the most brilliant experience I’ve ever had in my life is Japanese Noh theatre – it’s just incredible. It’s so deep and so magical. It’s just an amazing, amazing, amazing experience.
A lot of people find it so kind of ritualised that it’s removed from..
(Interrupts)…it’s mesmeric. It’s really so hypnotic, and you just get sucked into this, oh I don’t know, it’s like primitive but profound. It’s just brilliant stuff.
Is there anything that you’ve seen or heard recently that you think is brilliant?
I thought that series on the radio by Neil McGregor, A History Of The World in 100 Objects – I thought that was brilliant. It’s really worth listening to. It was such a wonderful use of radio as well.
What makes you miserable? Apart from climate change.
Well I would say that I’m like everybody really, I’m sure everybody’s the same. I think that your body chemistry sort of goes through little cycles. Some days you’re miserable and you don’t know why. You’re just miserable and depressed. And I think that’s probably quite normal.
Who is your favourite designer right now? Apart from you and me.
Katharine, you see, I couldn’t tell you that, because I actually never look at fashion magazines. Seriously. I’m not just avoiding the question.
The New Scientist – there’s a proper mag. Do you like the New Scientist? It’s fascinating.
The New Scientist. It’s like a popular science mag. It’s really good, I recommend it. I’ll write it down.
I sometimes read The Week and stuff like that. But I don’t listen to the news much anymore because that depresses me for sure.
If you had your time again would you do anything differently?
Yes I would. I didn’t want to do fashion at all.
Neither did I.
What, you didn’t either?
No, I wanted to be an archaeologist and my parents wouldn’t let me. They said you’ve got to have a private income, you’ve got to earn your own living. What about you? What were you going to do? What would you have done?
I don’t know. I left school very early, very working class. I did go to art school but realised I couldn’t get a job being an artist so I went to teacher training college, thinking, well, I’ll take art as my first subject and then if I don’t become an artist I’ll be a teacher. So I became a teacher. If I had my time again I’d probably study French literature. And I love drama. I think that’s a wonderful thing to study, because it would give you a kind of survey of the past through theatre and I think theatre is just so important. It’s the first thing people close when there’s any censorship. I would like to work in theatre if I ever have the time to stop and do it.
Why has age not withered you? What’s your secret?
Thank you very much, but it is withering. Physically you can see. But I don’t care about it. I’m happy with my looks. I think I’m quite fortunate to be reasonably good looking. I think my advice to people would be to get a flattering mirror. That’s what I do. I think, ‘Oh I look great’, and I just go out and that’s it. I don’t care about age, or the way I look. I don’t really care at all.