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Wayne Hemingway, the pop culture pundit who turned a second-hand clothing stall at London’s Camden Market into Red or Dead, the internationally acclaimed fashion label, in little more than a decade, is keeping busy.
Potential clients calling the suburban London headquarters of Hemingway Design, which he runs with his wife Gerardine, may get an answerphone asking them to leave a message because “we’re all busy out doing stuff”.
The Hemingways have come a long way since they sold Red or Dead for an estimated £25m in 1995, and then bought and resold it 18 months later to Pentland Group, after Facia, the retailing conglomerate that had first bought Red or Dead along with Sock Shop, had gone into receivership.
These days Mr Hemingway is more likely to be found on a building site in the north of England than on breakfast television, which did so much to cement his reputation as a fashion designer – a monicker he hates. “There is much more to life than frocks and blouses,” says Mr Hemingway, who is working on a number of ideas that just might repeat the success of the Red or Dead label, but in a completely different business arena.
The Hemingways have designed carpets for Milliken, wall coverings for Graham and Brown and tiles for British Ceramic Tiles. They are in partnership with a museum to launch an internet-based design resource tool later this year, and are backing another joint venture, called Shackup, to market trendy garden sheds.
Although they no longer run a high-profile fashion chain, their business philosophy remains to make good design available to everyone.
Roll back to 1981 when Mr Hemingway, a penniless undergraduate student from Blackburn, north-east Lancashire, was studying geography and town planning at University College London. He urgently needed money to finance his rock band.
He and Gerardine, a former wages clerk also from Lancashire, rented a stall on Camden Market to sell some of their old clothes. They took £100 on the Saturday and the same again on Sunday. “It is hard for outsiders to understand how much money you can make by selling second-hand clothes”, says Mr Hemingway. Soon the couple had 16 market stalls, and he was scouring the nation’s second-hand shops and textile recycling bins for fresh supplies.
“We would be taking £10,000 a weekend, and paying less than £400 for the clothes,” says Mr Hemingway, who still kits himself out in second-hand outfits.
Gerardine began making her own clothes to sell at Kensington Market. One of her first customers was Macy’s of New York but, unfortunately, it went bankrupt before the bill was paid.
Profits from the sale of second-hand clothes were enough to finance a small manufacturing operation in Blackburn (run by Mr Hemingway’s mother) and the first of a chain of shops that eventually included franchised outlets in Tokyo, Vancouver and Hong Kong.
The Red or Dead label was born – the name inspired partly by Mr Hemingway’s father, Billy Two Rivers, a Canadian Indian chief and Gerardine’s first Russian-style clothes collection. The next big coup was taking on Doctor Martens workwear boots and turning them into must-have customised fashion items. Red or Dead was initially shunned by the fashion establishment for its cheapness, but it won the British Fashion Council’s Street Style Designer of the Year award three times in a row in the 1990s.
Profits were rising steadily and the group was self-financing. It had sales of £14m a year and more than 100 staff. But the business was at a crossroads. While his wife still loved the industry, Mr Hemingway was bored. “I had never planned to have a fashion company and did not want to become a middle-aged man obsessed with fashion,” he says.
Red or Dead had become a “bit of a monster” and grown to a size that was keeping him away from his young family. In addition, there were buyers prepared to pay a sizeable amount.
“It is quite rare for the founders of a fashion company to make money,” says Mr Hemingway. After months of dithering, and “lots of tears from Gerardine”, they sold out in a deal that meant they never had to worry about money again.
They have resisted offers to return to high street fashion. But they are “both busybodies and the last thing we could ever have done was retire”, says Mr Hemingway.
Perhaps it was being a busybody that made it one of Mr Hemingway’s first challenges after the sale to get inside the Institute of Directors club on the West End’s Pall Mall, which had barred him unless he wore a business suit and tie. He demanded to see the dress code and returned not only in a woman’s business suit but accompanied by television cameras. The upshot was that George Cox, then IoD director-general and now chairman of the Design Council, asked the Hemingways to design its new, more informal venue, IoD at 123, a few doors down from the HQ.
His next target was Britain’s volume housebuilders, which stood accused of building the “slums of the future” by erecting the same “little boxes” on mass market housing estates. Mr Hemingway criticised the “Wimpeyfication” and “Barrattisation” of Britain in several national newspapers.
Stung by the criticism, George Wimpey asked the couple to advise the company on the master planning, architecture and landscaping of Gateshead’s Staiths South Bank, an 800-home development in a rundown area of north-east England.
The Hemingways are not architects but their input has led to the development winning some high-profile awards and the estate’s success is reflected in a rise in property values. Residents have priority over cars, homes are in clusters of 16-25 properties with pocket parks and shared areas.
Peter Redfern, chief executive of Wimpey’s UK operations, says working with Hemingway Design has “changed our thinking and opened up our minds”. Hemingway Design is working on further big Wimpey housing estates outside London. Dwell, a small developer, has hired the couple to design affordable apartments at the Birchin in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.
The Staiths project was “more exciting than anything we have done in our lives”, says Mr Hemingway, who is keen to fend off suggestions that the Hemingway name is just a celebrity seal of approval.
Nevertheless, the Hemingways do not want just to help Wimpey and other developers win public accolades. They would like a share of the profits.
“We want new house buyers to be better served than they are at the moment. There is a long way to go,” says Mr Hemingway, who has had approaches from other housebuilders to go into partnership in a mass market housing operation. The names and websites have been registered, he says.
Attracting the staff and the capital will not be a problem. But Mr Hemingway does not want to commit himself until his youngest child is well into his teens. “At the moment I enjoy going home and not having to worry about loads of employees,” he says. “With a small team you know they are happy because you see them every day.”
However, Mr Hemingway has not lost his entrepreneurial flair. “I still think we could do a ‘Red or Dead’ for the housing industry with a Hemingway Homes. But it is six years off at least.”
‘KIDS NEED A PLACE WHERE THEY CAN SET UP A SMALL BUSINESS’
Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway got a taste for business when they began trading from a market stall in London’s Camden Town to raise money for their band. They have some ideas about achieving entrepreneurial success:
■Market stalls. Every town should have a place where kids can set up a small business on a “ridiculously low rent and have a go”.
■Husband and wife businesses can work. Wayne does the strategic thinking and Gerardine the detail. Wayne loves public relations, Gerardine hates it.
■Family business: build the company around the family, not the other way round. “We have set up our life so that it does not feel like you go to work any more. The children are part of it... we may sound like bloody hippies but we answer our e-mails every day wherever we are.”
■Challenge conventional wisdom. Red or Dead created a new market by proving that fashion labels need not be the preserve of an elite niche. Hemingway believes he has widened the customer base of both the Institute of Directors and Wimpey by challenging their working practices.
■Design schools: “Design is about questioning society. You do not need a qualification to be a designer, just a brain that can see things and wants to push them forward.”