Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway, founders of Red or Dead clothing label
PUBLISHED: 12:42 19 November 2010 | UPDATED: 16:35 20 February 2013
The creative duo Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway made a fortune after founding the Red or Dead clothing label. Angela Wintle meets Wayne at their Sussex seaside home.
It can be only a matter of time before Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway take over the world. Theirs is one of the great entrepreneurial success stories. They started with a small stall at Camden Market selling secondhand and customised clothing, and built up their business, Red or Dead, into an international fashion label.
In the mid Nineties they also achieved the unthinkable winning the British Fashion Councils Street Style Designer of the Year Award three times in a row. But then, without warning, they promptly sold up and quit the fashion business becoming multi-millionaires overnight.
Most 30-somethings with that much lolly might have been tempted to take early retirement. But within a year they had founded HemingwayDesign, specialising in affordable and social design, and producing everything from water butts and garden sheds to large-scale housing developments.
Wayne made it big in telly, too. Remember his days as a cheeky fashion tipster on The Big Breakfast? In 2006, he and Gerardine also picked up MBEs for services to design and architecture. They even squeezed in time to have four children. Clearly, we have a lot to cover.
But Gerardine dislikes giving interviews. So instead its just Wayne, 48, who greets me at their home on the West Sussex coast near Chichester. And what a home. Designed by Gerardine, its white, modernist, open-plan and very spacious. You could house a light aircraft in their first-floor living room. But I barely get a chance to drink all this in before Wayne leads me onto a balcony overlooking their breathtaking garden, which might have been transplanted from the show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show.
On the face of it, Wayne and Gerardine are chalk and cheese. She loathes public attention; hes the mouthy front man. But they dovetail very neatly. While Wayne talks up the Hemingway brand, Gerardine quietly hones the fine detail and sees their projects through.
Wayne speaks with the innate self confidence of a man who knows who he is and what he stands for. Hes clearly his own man and never imitates others. By the same token, he doesnt believe in hiding his light under a bushel.
Ive got a very high IQ, so exams have never posed a problem, he says. And I can look at a written page and memorise it. Ive also got an amazing ability to remember things, particularly trivial stuff about music. I can hear a tune and know where its from and what I was doing when I first heard it. Later, he adds that he has the ear of the highest people in government.
I dont doubt what he says, but I cant help wondering how these bold statements play out in public. Fortunately, Wayne has never sought the approval of others. He says he doesnt care about his public image well actually, he puts it a little more strongly than that. And hes content to be his own judge.
But while there might be something slightly Spockian about Wayne, I cant help admiring his chutzpah. His energy and enthusiasm seem limitless. And he is fearless, with terrier-like tenacity.
Theres also something very admirable about these two level-headed visionaries who have refused to buy into the excesses that surround the modish worlds of fashion and celebrity. Theyve clung to their no-nonsense northern roots and take pride in their close-knit family life.
I hate the cult of celebrity, Wayne says witheringly. Sometimes people refer to me as a celebrity and I loathe it. A celebrity is somebody who goes on some crappy reality TV programme or attends the opening of a crisp packet. We never go to openings or dos. Similarly, at the height of their fashion career, they never took drugs. Lifes always been too good to risk. People ask us why we were so successful. Well, we went to all the happening clubs, knew what was going on in fashion and music, and moved in the right circles... but we didnt get plastered or off our heads. We were creative because we got up with a clear head every morning.
Sussex love affair
Their love affair with West Sussex began 21 years ago when they started taking their young family to West Wittering for seaside holidays.
Wed had never heard of it, but Doreen, our accounts lady, said it was the nearest sandy beach outside London. We thought it was absolutely lovely and started coming down every weekend eventually buying a weekend home at Itchenor [before selling that, too, to design their current house].
My favourite thing is getting up at the crack of dawn and running around Itchenor and West Wittering. I also love cycling with my mates across the Downs or along the beach to Littlehampton and back. West Sussex is a great place for trips out, though its not full of great places to eat or great architecture. The East Beach Cafe at Littlehampton is about the best and thats quite a long way from us.
There should be loads of restaurants, but because of the attitude of locals theres nothing. The daft thing is, weve got all this money and we spend it in London. Everyone we know does and thats really sad.
He says the backward-looking attitude of towns such as Chichester has encouraged three of their children to move back to London to set up businesses there. Theres nothing for them when they get to a certain age. The town is run by old people for old people.
In a bid to improve the quality of life in the area, he chairs the South Coast Design Forum, a not-for-profit organisation comprised of designers, architects and creative people from across the region.
There are a disproportionately large number of creative people living down here, many of whom work for big agencies in London. The Forum pools those skills, offering their services to large companies who would normally go to London. Gradually, were becoming a say in Chichester, offering the forward-thinking look on planning decisions that every town needs.
Waynes rags-to-riches story is truly the stuff of fairytales. An only child, he was born in the seaside town of Morecambe in 1961 and grew up in neighbouring Blackburn. His father, a Native American known as Billy Two Rivers, was the heavyweight wrestling champion of the world, but left the family home when Wayne was three. Waynes role models were his mam and nan, who dressed like film stars, even though they ran up all their clothes at home on a rackety old sewing machine. Not content with perfecting their own look, they soon worked their magic on Wayne regularly parading him up and down Morecambe Pier dressed as a Beatle or Elvis or Tarzan. Wayne didnt mind because he was mad about clothes, too, and experimented with every look going from Northern Soul to Disco, Punk, New Romantic and Rockabilly.
He strutted his stuff at local discos across Lancashire and met Gerardine at Angels in Burnley. Instantly attracted to her fancy footwork and the sense that she shared his fashion tastes, he asked her to be his angel. She accepted, and they later hot-footed it down to Londons Camden Market where they set up a stall selling their distinctive wardrobes.
It was an instant success, so they acquired more space at Kensington Market where Gerardine began making her own clothes, running up eight pieces a week from her tiny lock-up. Her look was Russian peasant and her talent was immediately spotted by a buyer acting for the US department store, Macys.
Red or Dead
Wayne and Gerardine married in 1982 and Red or Dead followed soon after. The title was a reference to the political saying better red than dead and flagged up their ethical approach to design. Their anti-nuclear stance and support of Greenpeace became integral to their brand.
The company also stood out because it was the first designer label to sell good design at affordable prices. Wed become increasingly angry at the absurd prices charged by labels that supposedly existed to serve us, says Wayne. I remember my shock when visiting the Kings Road in London at the height of the punk era and seeing a T-shirt on sale for 60 in Vivienne Westwoods cutting-edge shop, Seditionaries.
But while Red or Dead was an instant hit with the public, they faced sustained hostility from the fashion industry. We were never accepted as part of the catwalk scene and were initially refused shows at London Fashion Week because our clothes were too cheap. Our contemporaries frowned on our enthusiasm for selling to High Street retailers such as Top Shop and Miss Selfridge, and sneered that we were demeaning design. But there was no mention of us not being good designers.
By 1999 Wayne felt worn down by their long working hours and told Gerardine he wanted out. We had to produce a collection every eight weeks and Id get up at a quarter to five in the morning and start work again when the kids had gone to bed. I kept telling myself we had to keep going because we were employing all these people, but I wasnt being a proper dad.
He has never regretted the decision to sell, but Gerardine had tears in her eyes when she signed away her company. She said it was like our fifth child and its the only time weve ever had a major business disagreement.
Nevertheless, they have since given birth to their sixth child HemingwayDesign. Their highest profile project to date has been The Staiths South Bank, a development of 800 affordable homes in Tyne and Wear for Taylor Wimpey Homes.
How they got to this point is well known. Wayne unleashed one of his customary public assaults on the soul-destroying dullness of Britains new housing and the Wimpification of Britain, and, much to his surprise, Wimpey invited him round for talks.
He thought they were going to sue him; instead they offered him a 70m contract to design new homes for ordinary families. We wanted to give people at the lower end of the income scale real choice and took the family as our starting point, says Wayne. Theyve since worked on many more housing projects and are currently setting up their own housing development committee.
Next year theyll also be sprinkling a little Hemingway magic right here in Sussex bringing a new event called Vintage at Goodwood to the Goodwood estate near Chichester. The Festival of Speed and the Goodwood Revival may be hot tickets in the automotive calendar, but now Lord March is aiming to add a third.
Vintage will run in August next year and will be a celebration of five decades of popular British culture spanning the Forties to the Eighties. The idea is to create five zones, each representing a decade, where there will be live music, DJs, period beauty salons, film screenings, crafts and vintage clothing. The Hemingways want visitors to be a part of it either turning up in an outfit befitting their chosen era or signing up to a makeover on the day.
Whatevers your thing, the event will be a big family dressing-up box, a collectors dream and a joyous, creative feast for all ages, says Wayne.
But thats a celebration of the past. What of the Hemingways future?
We never make plans, but well still be working, he says. The biggest thing me and Gerardine have is common sense and drive. Were also, hopefully, decent people but critical.
Were critical of a lot of things, but were in a position to do something about it. And if you are, you should.
MY PERFECT SUSSEX
What do you love most about where you live and why?
I love the house we built, love the land we have and love the usually easy rail access to London.
Describe your perfect weekend
Playing sport with the kids, running along the coastal path, cycling on the South Downs with friends, sitting round the pool in our garden with Mrs H or listening to music.
Name your favourite Sussex pub and restaurant?
The Richmond Arms, the former coaching inn on the Goodwood Estate, which serves locally-sourced British dishes, with an emphasis on the best seasonal ingredients. We also love East Beach Cafe in Littlehampton. Thomas Heatherwicks award-winning design was inspired by driftwood washed up on Littlehamptons pebbly beach and the seasonal menu offers everything from a full English to beer-battered fish and chips.
Whats your favourite Sussex view?
The view from our balcony across our land. I also love the scenery across Chichester Harbour.
Where do you like to shop in Sussex?
Any seaside secondhand shop.
Whats your favourite place to visit in the county?
Goodwood. The new Vintage at Goodwood event on August 13, 14 and 15 will be in an amazing location, which visitors havent experienced yet.