Rags to riches

By The Drum, Administrator

February 25, 2004 | 5 min read

It’s a cold wintry night in Birmingham and sitting within the confines of The Custard Factory, warming up with his complementary copy of Adline, is one-time fashion designer, pop-culture commentator and all-round creative aficionado, Wayne Hemingway. The co-founder of the world-famous Red or Dead clothing brand is in town for the re-launch of the Midlands Creative Circle, where he has been asked to recite his life in work.

Capitalising on his flying visit, Adline thought it a fine idea to check in with the co-creator of Hemingway Design to talk fashion, design and the power of the brand.

Fashion was a career Hemingway hadn’t planned – a wannabe musician, his path into the world of catwalks, models and tantrums came as a result of he and wife Gerardine emptying their wardrobes onto Camden market to make a quick buck.

Within four weeks, the Hemingways had 16 stalls, selling second-hand clothes and Gerardine’s own creations. The company became Red or Dead and took off in a big way.

“We did all sorts of very strange things – if it had never been done, we thought ‘let’s do it’. We came up with the idea of attaching a watch to Doc Martins shoes. Celebrities like Kylie and Bros were photographed for the front of magazines wearing these shoes and people wanted them – we became the distributor of Doc Martins and that’s about the time when we started to think about what a brand could be.

“Our raison d’être was to create a brand unlike any other in the fashion industry and to sell to people who didn’t have lots of money. We got into high street stores like Topshop and Miss Selfridges. But the fashion industry resented us for this.”

The feeling of resentment was mutual, as the Hemingways were never fans of the fashion industry way. “We applied to get on the London Fashion Week but got refused three years in a row simply because we sold to the likes of Miss Selfridge.

“We found ourselves having to try and justify our decision to use these stores, but that was what made Red or Dead what it was. When it came to making our decision to sell Red or Dead, it was kind of a relief because we didn’t want to continue putting up with industry rules that we didn’t agree with.”

There was very little strategy and planning that went into steering the Red or Dead brand – as Hemingway explains, spontaneity was the key. “We made it up as we went along. That was the appeal – planning always spoiled things, but it needs luck and real originality to continue like that – it couldn’t have lasted for ever.”

And so the time came to sell up, a decision inspired by the intensity of running a big company and a family – they later bought the Red or Dead brand back, before selling it later that day. “We always liked money and selling Red or Dead the same day as we had bought it back was largely because we knew what we were doing financially,” Hemingway added.

Since departing from fashion, Hemingway has been rooted to his soapbox, establishing a name for himself as somewhat of an opinionated so-and-so. All with good intentions too – Hemingway’s passion for improving the way we live is evidently his motivation for his work. “Too many designers are hung up on creating things that look great. I wish I had designed this.” Hemingway points out a standard rotary airer. “It’s simple, it just spins in the air – it does a great job. That’s real design – things that make a difference.

“The trouble is we’re obsessed by name, price and appearance and it’s creating a warped society. There are currently about 180,000 students in the UK studying creative design-related courses and we need to get them focused on creating simple and sustainable designs.

“There are too many designers, wages are low and something has to give, but there will always be a market for creativity: it just doesn’t have to mean names and labels,” Hemingway told Adline.

His outspoken ways have landed him in hot water on a few occasions, but it was one particular rant that earned Hemingway Design (Wayne and Gerardine’s new company) its latest project. “I wrote a feature in the Guardian, identifying the Barrettification and Wimpyfication of today’s housing designs. This country is full of soulless estates and I think it is possible to design property that is different, giving people choice, such as garden space.”

In response to the article, Wimpy challenged Hemingway to make his actions speak louder than his words. And so Hemingway Design has been working on the Staiths South Bank project in Gateshead, creating an estate with individual and affordable houses.

“Architecture is the thinking man’s I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here – so many young designers want to be architects – we’ve got to get them to look at the wider picture – it should be about creating something people really want, instead of what they have to settle for.”

Throughout Hemingway’s varied and hugely successful career, his premise has remained consistent – that he hopes to make a difference to people’s lives with his designs, whether they are clothes or houses. While there are more housing design projects around the corner, Hemingway hasn’t ruled out moving into other markets – I suppose it depends on whom he pisses off next.


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