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Ethos meets Wayne Hemingway

Designer and Red or Dead co-founder Wayne Hemingway talks to Fiona Shaw about his lifelong preoccupation with sustainability...
Published —
05.18.20
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“We came to London literally with £50 each in our pocket, because there were more clubs to go to and bands to watch and more youth culture than there was in Blackburn and Burnley,” says Wayne Hemingway, of his arrival with then girlfriend, now wife, Gerardine in London in 1980. “I joined a band and blew the rent money we’d saved up on rehearsal studios, so we had to get money to live. Gerardine spotted that this new market was starting up – so we emptied out our wardrobe onto it…”

Though they mainly spent their time clubbing, the pair were on to something. “I’d always worn secondhand clothes and learnt how to customise them,” says Hemingway. “It was my only way of expressing myself because I couldnt ever have afforded new clothes – but I certainly didnt think I was being sustainable.” That weekend the Hemingways paid £12 for their pitch on Camden Market, and made £300. “For the first time we had money in our pockets and we didn’t look back.”

A couple of months later Gerardine opened a stall in Kensington market, selling her designs, and within a year the couple had 16 stalls in London. A Macy’s buyer, in town for London Fashion Week, stumbled across the Kensington Market stall within its first month and placed an order. Red or Dead was born.

“It was very apparent, very quickly, that we were very different to the rest of the industry,” recalls Hemingway. “We knew that, with the background that we came from. We did become very well known – and very few people from our towns – people who’d been to neither design nor art school – did. And we had kids very young. People just thought we were different. We were still young when Red or Dead became big and it became the brand of club culture – not just in London and Manchester, but internationally – in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Toronto and Copenhagen too.”

By 1988 and the Second Summer of Love, Red or Dead was flying and had become the brand of the Acid House movement. “We were catapulted above brands that had been building for years and that leads naturally to jealousy,” admits Hemingway. “We knew we were kind of not liked in the industry. There was that jealousy and we didn’t speak their language; we didn’t go to dos or hang around with them. And at Fashion Week we’d have this bunch of free range kids running around.” 

The Hemingways stuck to their roots. “We thought, ‘let’s stick to our background; where we’re from.’ Our aim was to become the world’s first affordable designer label, so we started to add to that. The ethos around ‘design is about improving things that matter’ became central to what we did. We became cause-led – partly out of wanting to do things that would upset the rest of the industry.”

Hemingway admits they enjoyed their role as the anti-fashion side of the industry. “We were the first to make our workwear collection in a prison, at Full Sutton Prison in York. People like the Daily Mail were appalled that we were paying lifers, but we really believed in retraining and giving people a purpose. We knew it was great publicity and we knew there was a movement of people thinking like us.”

In 1995/96 Greenpeace was campaigning against nuclear testing by France at Bikini Atoll. Red or Dead covered up London Fashion Week’s branding at its catwalk shows, replacing it with the word ‘NON’, Greenpeace’s campaign slogan. “We banned all of the French buyers,” says Hemingway. “They made up around 20% of our turnover that year, but we knew that it would build our brand. And we believed in it, too.”

Red or Dead’s mental health-themed catwalk show earned the label ‘the sick face of British Fashion’; it used only non-models for catwalk shows, turning down Kate Moss in favour of people who’d literally walked in off the street. One show featured indie band Ultrasound’s lead singer, Andrew ‘Tiny’ Wood, striding down the Red or Dead catwalk in knitwear, with extremely xxx belly exposed and plastered with the word ‘unique’.

“It was great marketing,” smiles Hemingway. “But absolutely genuine. That was our scene. Our collections revolved around what was going on in the news; in society.”

The word ‘sustainability’ still wasn’t on anyone’s lips when Red or Dead used hemp in its first denim collection, becoming the first designers to do so. “We knew it would get us publicity about cannabis,” says Hemingway. “Greenpeace came to us to collaborate – people gravitated towards us, sensing that we’d be the first to do something.”

Hemingway’s upbringing had a huge impact on his outlook. “My nan, Ida… If she was alive now you’d think she was the most sustainable person,” he says. “She knew how to be thrifty. She taught me how to use hotel shower caps instead of buying clingfilm. And my grandad made toys, so those skills were passed down. They weren’t saving the planet – who was? – but the principles were about reuse and upcycling. My whole life was steeped in that.

“Then it started to be talked about as ‘the right way’ and it was great – I’ve always lived like this and thought ‘bloody hell, now we’re cool and doing the right thing’. It was just a complete way of life for us. My mother was a single parent and we all lived together in one house, with my nan and pop; growing vegetables – not because we were middle class, because it was the way to do things.

“At the same time we were wearing secondhand clothes – that was when my nan said ‘that’s what poor people do’. ‘But we aren’t rich,’ I said. ‘We’ve no money.’ But she was insistent – it was a sign that you’ve got no money. That’s prevalent in some working class households still – the pride of having something new, to show that you’re not poor. And it’s hard to blame people for that. It’s about pride. It’s a very delicate thing.

“Recycling figures in middle class areas are much higher than working class areas,” he points out. Charity shop growth is driven by the middle classes. “When pride’s at stake, the transition to being more sustainable isn’t as easy. When you start to get wealthy, you care less about the status symbol car, but when you haven’t got much, status symbols count – they help people feel good about themselves.”

That outlook guided the Red or Dead approach, which continued selling secondhand clothes for ten years after the brand took off. “To this day I have an eBay shop,” Hemingway admits. “I still go into most charity shops I pass. I can have one glance around and look at fabrics and be out in five minutes with a bag of stuff.” He has, he reveals, around 900 items in his eBay shop right now. But insists on keeping its name a closely guarded secret.

Red or Dead continued to build its brand, working on collaborations with people like Traid, Shelter and Oxfam and scooping the Designer of the Year award for three years in a row. “We became the ‘go to’ people to link up with – because we knew what we were doing and meant it,” says Hemingway. “We were the only ones really, at that stage, in what in today’s language is sustainability, purpose and social benefit.”

Public consciousness of what we now call sustainability, or environmental issues, came courtesy of someone who Hemingway describes as ‘a complete and utter hero of mine’. “Anita Roddick, at The Body Shop, was brilliant. She really meant it. That was the turning point for the public. She had a very hot brand and was in your face with it in the store. It was the first time that people could see, whenever they went shopping, another way of looking at things. We were still a clubby, niche fashion brand – albeit with a £20m turnover – but they were the Gods of this movement, with shops in every town.”

The Hemingways sold Red or Dead 22 year ago now, in their mid thirties. There were a number of reasons behind the decision and Hemingway admits that it’s the only time there’s been a major split in thinking between him and Gerardine, who was initially against the sale. “When you come from nothing, and you’re in a position to sell for a decent amount of money, there’s a lure in that,” he says. “And the fashion industry is really really hard work. I can’t describe how hard that industry is – you’re doing your next collection before you know if the last one is successful. And with four kids it was really really really tough. The kids would come with us to work before school and after and we thought we were doing the wrong thing by them, at the time. They all adults now and it’s clear they gained from the experience. But the chance to get off this treadmill with a decent amount of money… it’s a draw,” he admits. “I was never totally in love with the  fashion industry. We wanted to do other things, but weren’t sure what. So we asked ourselves ‘what other things bother us?’”

One of the first things was housing. “I wrote something for the Independent about the Wimpeyfication and Barratification of housing. We’ve always cared about things that would matter to the families that we left back in Lancashire. We are still those people. Our footwear ranges were made in the Midlands and our manufacturing base was back in Blackburn. Our first proper shop was there. Our families remained there. And our football clubs. I’ve been in London for 41 years now but I still care about the north an awful lot, because it’s what made me. Gerardine and I met in a Burnley northern soul club. It’s what’s helped us to stay grounded.”

With an instinct for selling ideas, the Hemingways revel in making a splash. Their first post-Red or Dead project was for the Institute of Directors. “I was turned away from their building for not wearing a tie,” he says. “I was presenting on the Big Breakfast at the time, and made a real fool of them on air. To their credit, they got in touch. They knew they had a declining, ageing membership. So we designed them new facilities, three doors along, where you didn’t have to wear a tie. New branding, design and the office was our first job.”

Wimpey, too, took the bait, and engaged what was by now called HemingwayDesign. They worked with Taylor Wimpey on a Gateshead development called The Staiths, introducing a European-influenced, more communal style of living to the new-build estate, including cycle paths, shared outdoor areas and daylight-flooded first-floor living areas. “It’s still the project we’re most proud of,” says Hemingway, of the scheme that ran through four phases and now encompasses 760 homes. “It was a change of direction, and quite radical. We had no experience except our lived experience.”

 

Margate’s Dreamland theme park followed, alongside festivals focusing on thrift, making and vintage; masterplanning for occasionally forlorn, forgotten seaside towns; and staff uniforms for Virgin Trains and the London Underground. More housing too. Using design to improve things that matter to people.

Most recently, HemingwayDesign jumped at the opportunity to completely rethink what a global business festival might be like. “It was coming off the back of doing new brands that were purpose and values-led, for FTSE 250 companies. It was clear that all businesses worth their salt were on a journey and that the public was demanding change,” says Hemingway. In response, they created the Good Business Festival. “It seemed like a no-brainer, but whenever we visited various conferences that existed around it, none of them were the broad church, that would be a sounding board and invite everybody – wherever they were on the curve. It felt like they were preaching to the converted – but we believe that you get further by embracing people and bringing them along…”

The team is working in partnership with Culture Liverpool, after several collaborations in the city –including a fashion show that broke the world record for the biggest catwalk show. “We are creating a business festival that feels like a proper festival,” he admits. “Something that people look and go ‘OK, that’s how you treat this subject matter.’ Something that has legs and longevity. And we’d like to prove to central government that the money it gave to Liverpool in 2012 to create the erstwhile International Business Festival has really paid off. Show that, if you invest in the north and cities like Liverpool, it does pay off. Demonstrate that the ‘levelling up’ they’ve promised can work alongside creating a feel good factor for the city region. Something that feels great for both the businesses and the public there.”

Ethos is a content partner and editor-in-chief of the Good Business Journal. Read more here.