Wayne Hemingway: Red or Dead

The co-founder of Red or Dead and Hemingway Design tells us how customising old clothes turned him into a designer

Wayne Hemingway is a humble man despite his stash of honorary doctorates and MBE. The co-founder of groundbreaking fashion label Red or Dead says the recognition – and it comes from all sides: from the Queen to the British Fashion Council – sometimes makes him feel a bit embarrassed.

A successful designer, entrepreneur and commentator, Wayne now runs Hemingway Design with his wife and life-long creative partner, Geraldine. The scope of their work covers everything from affordable housing to foldaway bikes and novelty items like their water butts shaped like bottoms. It’s not exactly what you’d expect from a geography and town planning graduate from Lancashire.

It all started when Wayne and Geraldine found themselves short on rent money in London in the early eighties: setting up a fashion stall in Camden Market to sell customised, second-hand clothes seemed like the perfect idea. 

“It was total chance,” Wayne explains. “Both myself and my wife had been customising clothes anyway – that’s how we’d gone through our teenage years. So it was just an extension of what we were interested in.”

After an outlay of just £6 for the rent of the stall, they took over £100 home on the first day. It took off. Realising money could really be made from fashion, Wayne and Geraldine became hooked: they came back to sell for another decade of weekends, sourcing a lot of their raw material at the ‘shoddy trade’ mill in Dewsbury.

Red or Dead proper was born when the pair moved to Kensington Market, where they were able to take a 5×3 metre lock up unit in a prime location for around £18 a week. With a sewing machine from home and some fabric bought from a stall at Blackburn Market, they made eight items of clothing. Two weeks later, they got their big break: a buyer from Macy’s New York visited the market and ordered 200 pieces.

They had to act fast to capitalise on the coup. Wayne and Geraldine’s families opened a manufacturing unit in Blackburn with the cash they earned in Camden Market, and helped them deliver the order. It grew from there.

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Wayne says family has always played a big part in their story. “We’ve got quite a strong family unit, including our kids now,” he says. “If you haven’t got a family to help you, then you need to make your business like a family, I think. When people care, they do a better job.”

In just five years, they expanded hugely nationwide. They never borrowed or made acquisitions, funding all their growth organically. Red or Dead shops opened everywhere from Covent Garden to Manchester, but Wayne insists there was no defined structure to the growth . “It was a steady upward spiral. We’ve never, and we still don’t plan anything to this day. We never went out to look for shops. If we saw a shop that looked and felt right for us, then we’d do it.”   In the mid-eighties, they partnered with high street heavies Miss Selfridge and Top Shop, and also sold collections to national mail order retailers. The pair consulted to Marks and Spencer, Top Man and Dr. Martens, too. They were at the height of their success when, in the mid-nineties, they won the British Fashion Council’s Streetstyle Designer of the Year Award for three years running.

Then, after 21 consecutive seasons at London Fashion Week, Wayne and Geraldine sold Red or Dead, and left the company in 1999. Even though Geraldine felt it was ‘like selling one of their children’, they decided it was the best next step: “We sold it in 1996 and stayed with it for a few years,” Wayne says. “I had had enough of the fashion industry and I also wanted to spend more time with the kids. After starting out of nothing, I wanted to have the security that kind of money gives to you.”

The pair’s life after Red or Dead has been a busy, sprawling affair. Branching out of the fashion world, in 1999 the pair jumped into socially-minded design with new company, Hemingway Design, now a successful multi-disciplinary agency that comes up with ideas on everything from social housing – see their multi award-winning Staiths Southbank affordable housing design – to regeneration projects like the Boscombe Seafront, where they are turning the 1958 Overstrand building into ‘super surf pods’ for Europe’s first artificial surf reef. Fun, green design is at the fore too with their ‘Shackup’ sheds, water butts, and innovative interiors.

Despite its success, with new and interesting commissions and plaudits coming all the time, Wayne says Hemingway Design was actually totally unplanned: “We never really set it up, it just happened,” he explains. “People came to us because our name was quite strong and because we’d had the success. We just had to sort out which projects were good and which weren’t.”

But for a man who has survived the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of the fashion world, and come out on top in the design world despite its infamous clique-ishness, Wayne makes setting up a successful business sound very easy. He says the trick is nothing more than being unafraid.

“Don’t be fearful,” he insists. “As long as you’ve got a passion for what you do, you’re prepared to work your backside off, and you’re prepared to get on with people, then you know you’re off to a great start.”

**  Wayne is speaking at the ‘Creative Capital’ event at London’s Canary Wharf this week.


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