There’s something about London and fashion that just works—even a smiley-face T-shirt or an organza apron looks good in England’s capital. British-bred designers Katharine Hamnett and Martine Rose can tell you that from experience.
If you know anything about these two designers, you know they’re not only responsible for how men—and more than a few women—dress well beyond London, but they have made a significant impact with their unique perspective. Even though they’re from different generations, there is a consistency in the way, as women designing for men, Hamnett and Rose channel their personalities, experiences, and beliefs into their work—doing so boldly, and with purpose.
Hamnett comes from what she calls “a long line of witches,” and a childhood spent absorbing the height of 1950s Parisian couture. One of her first forays into design was an apron made from a silk organza purchased by her mother in France. Now, her own brand of fashion magic combines flawless patterning and proportion with a deep sense of social and environmental responsibility.
After becoming a mother in the late 1980s, Hamnett shifted her focus from wealth and fame toward “right livelihood,” the Buddhist philosophy of compassionate work that does not cause harm and is ethically positive. She has shown us that making desirable objects with little to no negative impact on the environment uplifts not only the people who wear her products, but also those who manufacture them. While ethically conscious clothes, Hamnett says, have to be glamorous to be good, her own “right livelihood” and “right design” ethos has shaped the world of fashion quite beautifully. Including everything from graphic slogan T-shirts and stretch denim to luxury interpretations of military dressing, Hamnett’s archive has been a reference point for more than a few of today’s designers and influencers.
For Rose, her first memories of fashion formed amid her large extended family, equal parts Jamaican and English. While seated on a bed in the family hub—her grandmother’s house—she’d watch as cousins dressed for nights out at clubs of various flavors, from acid house to dance hall. It was one of these cousins that gave Rose her most treasured possession: a T-shirt with a huge “acid” smiley face, a nod to the drug and nightlife culture of the time.
Now a mother of two, Rose still feels the rhythms of youth in herself and the young people she surrounds herself with, from interns to nieces and nephews. “I see myself as the same, in a way,” she says. “I’m interested in what they’re interested in, in what they have to say, in what they wear. I’m interested in them, like we’re on the same level.”
Her connection to youthful exploration and experimentation sets the tone for her own eponymous brand as well as Napa, the 1990s-streetwear-influenced collection she launched with outerwear label Napapijri, and Balenciaga, where she has consulted on menswear with Creative Director Demna Gvasalia for several seasons.
In her career, Rose has also shied away from established paths, meticulous planning, and, pointedly, social media. She prefers to “dip in and out, skirt around the edge” of fashion, to not obsess over celebrity, and seems entirely content with wherever she is and whatever she is doing at any given point. The genius of Rose’s clothing is found in those margins, notably in the way fits are purposefully off, and in the way gender lines are blurred. Harmonious clashes of color evoke the feeling of adolescent struggles to both belong yet stand out. “I think it’s really sexy when men can wear feminine things and still feel really strong in it. And I think girls equally look really sexy when they’re wearing men’s clothes. It’s that tension that I find really interesting.”
As women who design for men, Hamnett and Rose mine that tension, and yet both designers were drawn to their craft for the simplest of reasons: They love it. They ended up dressing men not to be different, or as part of a mission to break into a male-dominated space, but because of the joy they find in making men look great. “The clothes that really work,” Hamnett says, “are the clothes designed for people with love.”