Right, wrong, and right on

Katharine Hamnett started it, and now the fashion world can't get enough of trendy causes. Is it just an ingenious marketing ploy or a force to be reckoned with?
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mrs Thatcher, hair encrusted with CFCs, shaking hands with Katharine Hamnett in her heretical "58 per cent don't want Pershing" T-shirt. Now there's an image to explode the Greedy Eighties cliche. Yet back then, in 1984, only Hamnett had the bright idea of turning fashion into agitprop.

In the following years, her hip, consciousness-raising slogans went down a treat with AbFab-style eco-yuppies. So too did her short-lived magazine, Tomorrow (sold at swanky shops like London's Browns, an attempt to mix fashion spreads with Paul Foot articles on Bhopal and Nicaragua). So much for rhetoric. She has since put her ideas into practice, sewing condom pockets into boxer shorts, launching Environmental Cotton 2000 (to investigate the use of pesticides in cotton-growing), railing, in one fashion show, against the Vatican for opposing contraception and abortion, and, most recently, pulling the plug on a PVC-based collection after hearing from Greenpeace that PVC releases toxic dioxins when manufactured. Put it to her that she might be in the wrong business, and the recycling queen replies: "People have to clothe themselves."

Displays of conscience in the fashion world were once regarded with huge suspicion. Nowadays they are at least more commonplace. In the latest, model agency Storm have produced a poster of celebs wearing "nuclear free Pacific" T-shirts, copies of which were faxed to Jacques Chirac's Elysee offices. Snapped by Vogue photographer Regan Cameron, who thought of the idea, Twiggy and Iggy, Johnny and Kate, Hutchence and Hynde, Jazzie B and Naomi agreed to bare their chests for free. Not that the French government has responded. Says Storm boss Sarah Doukas: "It's not surprising when you think how arrogant they have been all along."

Similarly, Kim Basinger and Cindy, Christy, Nadja and Naomi, in fruity no-fur-coat-and-no-knickers poses, graced a series of anti-fur posters created by high-profile, media-wooing Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Even Claudia Schiffer, the only supermodel who refused to sign its "No Fur" petition, has finally given in. Some might quibble that airhead supermodels and Tinseltown celebs should be the last to front an anti-fur campaign. But, says Peta campaigner Dan Mathews: "We're living in a tabloid era. We won't let the animals be invisible, so we've adjusted our campaigns for maximum visibility." Martin Raymond, senior lecturer in fashion journalism at the London College of Fashion, agrees: "If people argue that skinny supermodels are bad role models because they encourage anorexia in girls, then the reverse is true. If models choose not to wear fur, some girls might stop wearing it, too."

What's more, Peta's direct action - most famously the raid on Calvin Klein's offices which were spraypainted with anti-fur slogans in a "tasteful colour", resulted in Klein vetoing fur, including shearling (made from lambs' fur and skin). Within weeks of the invasion, Anne Klein and Donna Karan followed suit. In London, picketing by Peta activists forced top "fur salons" Jindo and Montana to shut shop last year. It surely can't be long before Philip Hockley in Conduit Street, Peta's current target, surrenders, too.

There's a huge difference between supermodels and designers endorsing right-on causes (even if only after prompting from pressure groups) and those who jump on the bandwagon once they feel it's safe to do so. "Hamnett wearing her Pershing T-shirt was a doubly unpopular move because designers at the time were trying to get Government funding for London Fashion Week," says Raymond. "Calvin Klein, on the other hand, wouldn't wear an Aids ribbon at first because he thought people would associate him with Aids - dirty word - and that sales would plummet. But his friend, David Geffen, convinced him."

Almost as insincere are those airy-fairy, carey-sharey designers who hover somewhere between Hamnett and Klein. In one gruesomely New Agey Donna Karan show, for example, wispy models wafted down the catwalk absentmindedly waving Evian bottles and copies of The Celestine Prophecy. Only marginally less twee was the press-release millennio-babble accompanying Red or Dead's spring/summer '96 collection. ("Models carrying bloodstained household implements symbolising a post-apocalyptic view of a world inflicting violence on itself ..."). Organic though it purports to be, this caring Zeitgeist is an ingenious marketing strategy. US fashion-forecasting guru Faith Popcorn, who speaks soothingly about "cocooning" and "downsizing", dubbed the Nineties the Decency Decade.

Significantly, the Decency Decade has also spawned some positively indecent Benetton ads. Why, to look at them almost makes you nostalgic for the melting-pot sentimentality of the original United Colors ads. Fusing Art (beautifully composed images) with Politics (Aids, Bosnia, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, yes, it really is a checklist), the newer ads simply aestheticise those unsavoury social realities Benetton cheekily imply it's our responsibility to confront. Presenting the ads as art is a vital part of the exercise: new campaigns are "unveiled" at the Royal College of Art or exhibited at the Venice Biennale. Photographer Oliviero Toscani tellingly described his image of a dying male Aids patient as "a pieta". But giving these inflammatory ads a "civilised" veneer hasn't stopped gay and lesbian Outrage activists kicking up a stink or German consumers boycotting shops, with the result that retailers were forced to sue the company for loss of sales. "Altruistic" Benetton, though, doesn't care. "It's very calculated," says Raymond. "They know that whenever ads are banned in certain countries, newspapers will carry stories illustrated with the posters."

While Benetton merely flirts with the issue of HIV and Aids, legions of fashion designers dedicate time and money to it. Take Rifat Ozbek, who imported the American Aids Memorial Quilt idea to Britain. Displayed two years ago in Hyde Park, it patched together contributions from Westwood, Armani, Versace, Lacroix and Martin Margiela to name a few names. And while Gaultier ads often feature a hot Latino stud, chest tattooed with the words "Safe Sex Forever", Betty Jackson, Jasper Conran, Paul Smith, Bruce Oldfield and Ben de Lisi are among a hardcore of designers who consistently support Fashion Acts, the British fashion industry's initiative to raise money for people affected by HIV and Aids. (It has so far generated pounds lm and targets groups, such as mothers with HIV babies, who fall through the net of government funding.)

Like last season's clothes, though, there comes a point when well-aired issues get shoved in the bottom drawer. "The HIV and Aids issue isn't as popular as it was," says Raymond, who is one of the trustees of Fashion Acts. "Now everyone's talking about breast cancer." As for exploitation of labour, Fashion Weekly has reported at length on the Dickensian treatment of outworkers (women and children) by prominent British high-street stores. Yet this issue never stays in the public eye for long. "The Government's blocking of the Social Chapter has turned Britain into a sweatshop," says Raymond resignedly.

No less horrifying is the news, revealed by a Christian Aid report, that Nike, Adidas, Puma, Reebok and Hi-Tec pay their factory workers in China, Thailand and the Philippines appalling wages. "A typical pair of trainers sells for pounds 50 in Britain," says the report. "But the 40 or so workers in the Philippines who make them will share just over pounds 1 of that price between them."

Fashion's attempts to be right-on are bound to be compromised by the fact that fashion has built-in obsolescence. But then isn't doing a Hamnett better than being, say, Karl Lagerfeld who designs furs for fashion house Fendi despite fierce opposition? As Sue Cooper of Greenpeace says: "Ecologically- aware slogans on T-shirts and people like Hamnett's refusal to use PVC do have a positive effect. Every little helps."