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Wayne Hemingway MBE: How to get one over on the establishment in business

Speaking at ACCELERATE 2016, creative entrepreneur Wayne Hemingway talks to Startups about ethics, social conscience and “bastards in business”

The journey of Wayne Hemingway MBE from working class boy to multi-millionaire is one borne of hard work, passion, innovation and ethics.

Alongside his childhood sweetheart and now wife Geradine, the couple built their fashion brand Red or Dead from a small Camden stall to a £25m turnover business, consisting of 300 odd staff with 23 shops scattered around globe.

After selling Red or Dead in 1999, the couple founded Hemingway Design, a company ‘firmly planted in societal needs’ which has designed everything from UK built furniture for John Lewis to sustainable staff uniforms for McDonalds and affordable living apartments in the Olympic village.

It’s an inspirational journey but does he think a similar success story is possible today? The simple answer – Yes. “The pop-up culture is growing and supply chains are increasingly wearing their sources on their sleeves.”

Speaking to in Liverpool at ACCELERATE 2016 during the International Festival for Business, Hemingway shared his secrets on how to go against the grain and get one over on the establishment in business…

It doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re going

Raised by a single mother in Morecambe, Hemingway certainly wasn’t born with a sliver spoon in his mouth. Similarly, business partner Geradine left school at 15 with just a GCSE grade C in art before getting a job as a trainee wages clerk. Indeed, Hemingway admits people from their background weren’t usually tipped for success. “From both our backgrounds, the idea that you have your own business just wasn’t there.”

The pair met in a local disco and quickly realised they shared a whole host of interests: “We shared a passion for music, going out, dressing up, buying records, watching bands, all the things to me that are still the most important things in life – now that the kids have left home!”

“You’re never too young and if you fail, who cares?”

Upon hearing on what the London night life had to offer, the pair moved to London when Hemingway was 18 years old and with just £50 each in their pockets, the pair decided to rent a flat. Unlike his other housemates who chose to draw the dole, Hemingway took a job behind the bar in a pub to fuel his nightlife and dream of becoming a popstar. It was this desire to succeed, and an ambitious attitude that would soon pay dividends for Hemingway and his future business.

“How many other people start a fashion company at 18? You’re never too young and if you fail, who cares? We just would have gotten on with something else!”

Never fear failure

From a young age Hemingway admits he used his jealousy of others to spurn him on and as a result he became extremely competitive – not that he considers jealousy a bad thing, albeit in small doses. Attending a relatively mixed school, Hemingway would always look up, not down, when pitching himself against people.

“I didn’t ever like coming second best even though there were loads of posh people in my school – people who had come from a very settled background and I couldn’t bear the thought of them doing better than me in anything, whether it was the football team, cricket team or running. I just didn’t like being beaten.”

“One of the worst things you can say is ‘I wish I had’.”

Always maintaining everyone should have a dream, he admits he’s genuinely never feared failure and thinks this phobia is holding too many young people back from achieving success. He suggests that even if your initial ventures aren’t wholly successful – you’ll still learn a lot and have no regrets.

“I always wanted to become a popstar. But unless you make it, it’ll cost a lot of money for rehearsing or whatever – but you’ll have fun. You don’t want to be in a position when you’re 35 years old, halfway through your life and you’re doing something and say ‘I wish’. One of the worst things you can say is ‘I wish I had’.”

He admits that while there was a naivety about the duo’s business in its market stall days, they put themselves out there and most importantly ‘had a go’. He reveals Geradine once even accepted an order of 1,600 pieces from Macys New York during London Fashion week – only having to be told what both were!

Remember business is not about shafting people

“To be competitive is not such a bad thing, as long as you don’t take it to extremes where you become a twat!” exclaims Hemingway, and the Northern lad is quick to remind people to keep their ‘bastard levels’ down in business: “You meet plenty of ‘em [bastards] in business. Most of them don’t get very far.”

“There’s no point being rich and unhappy or rich and unpopular.”

Donning ACCELERATE 2016 in second hand clothes, Hemingway is certainly a man who never forgets where he came from and urges that being rich yet unpopular is no consolation prize in life. “There’s no point being rich and unhappy or rich and unpopular. If you don’t like to be liked, you’re probably not human.”

Stick it up to the gutter press

Despite always having one eye on helping others, Hemingway’s good intentions haven’t always been met in the same way. When word went round that one of his denim collections was being manufactured from hemp by prisoners in Full Sutton Prison, Red or Dead (a political reference to the cold war) came to the attention of, what he calls, ‘the gutter press’.

“They were camped outside my kid’s junior school and said ‘Can you explain yourself Wayne Hemingway that you’ve been smuggling cannabis on a roll into Peter Sutcliffe?’. You first think ‘I’m finished’ but then you think ‘but it’s not true is it?’.”

Rather than go on the defensive, Hemingway used it as a perfect opportunity to rub the noses of the tabloid press and get one over on the so-called establishment. Newspaper headlines such as ‘The sick face of British fashion’ and ‘bloody disgrace’ soon became the brand’s calling card.

“Be intelligent with words, be provocative!”

“It drew attention but behind it all there was a message and a showing up of the press for what they can be. That takes a lack of fear. It was confrontational for all the right reasons.”

The brand’s fightback against the lies put their sales through the roof and gained them national attention. No longer an underground business, Hemingway said he knew then the brand would always have a political voice.

“That was the moment we knew to stay political, stay environmental, to follow our beliefs as human beings, to not just be a fashion brand.”

His advice for start-ups in a similar position? “Be intelligent with words, be provocative!”.

Stay ethical

After the initial success of the Camden market stall, Hemingway would spend his days trawling through jumble sales and charity shops in a bid for bargain to sell on. After visiting a Shoddy and Mungo yard, the young entrepreneur began to develop more and more of a social conscience – something that would define his business dealings for years to come.

“There was a lot of these old ladies who’d drop blue cotton down one shoot and read cotton down the other and it would all get compressed at the bottom and made into something new so we learnt about recycling but we also learnt about these ladies being paid below minimum wage – so we used to tip them, and in the end we were paying them more than the mill owner!”

“It’s nearly old fashioned to even say ‘ethical business’”

Now, Hemingway Design ensures ethics is at the heart of everything it does and it will only work with other companies that share similar philosophies regarding the environment, sustainability and people before business.

When asked whether modern day start-ups adopt an ethical approach, Hemingway’s opinion is clear: “Why would they not? It’s nearly old fashioned to even say ‘ethical business’. It should be clear; your values should shine through. Human beings are supposed to be human beings!”

Be passionate

While Hemingway always had an interest in alternative fashion and counter culture, Red or Dead was originally conceived from a ‘needs much’ situation. Not having enough money to pay a looming rent collector, Hemingway emptied his wardrobe to sell in Camden market– and it was from this that his real journey began.

“The best plans in the world won’t get you anywhere, but passion will.”

Believing that the ‘best businesses are never planned’, and as someone who’s always had a kinship with his products, Hemingway asserts that running even the brightest business with a whopper USP will ultimately fail without a raison d'état. “The best plans in the world won’t get you anywhere, but passion will.”

Look towards your family for support

Having always been in business with his girlfriend and now wife, it’s no surprise that Hemingway has called upon his family in times of need – a good piece of advice for anyone with an immediate problem. While searching for the right type of vintage clothing to sell, it was Hemingway’s nan that suggested going after the rag and bone man – a decision that once resulted in selling a 50p jacket for £300!

After receiving the enormous order from Macys, Red or Dead’s family rallied around in support with Wayne’s mother leaving her job as a barmaid and Geradine’s sister quitting her job in a snooker table manufacturer to get behind sewing machines and complete the order!

A real life antidote to the idea that nice guys finish last, Hemingway embodies everything that can be right about running a business by placing emphases on providing better products for consumers and better environments for suppliers and workers alike – rather than just focusing on getting rich by any means necessary.

His advice for anyone with a social conscience looking to go into business? “Think about what human beings need, and not just like a flash car, but things they actually need. Think about what makes people happy!”


(will not be published)