The husband-and-wife team behind design agency House of Hemingway discuss their ventures – from launching fashion label Red or Dead, to tackling housing issues, to boosting independent traders with their upcoming Classic Car Boot Sale
Wayne Hemingway We first met as teenagers at a northern soul night at Angels nightclub, Burnley, in 1980. Me and two mates put a fiver each into a kitty with the winner being whoever got a girl’s telephone number first. Gerardine was on the dancefloor wearing a self-made Andy Pandy suit. I handed her a piece of paper with the line, ‘Will you be my angel?’ Luckily, it paid off.
Gerardine Hemingway He got paid for finding a wife! Within a year, we were engaged [they married in 1982]. Wayne went to university in London, and I visited every weekend.
Wayne Hemingway We never had any money, forcing me to empty my cupboard and sell my old clothes.
Gerardine Hemingway Our stall was in Camden Market and we also sold jumble sale items. By 1983, we had 16 stalls and a Kensington shop.
Wayne Hemingway We were buying things for 10p then selling them for £100. Cool young Londoners would buy our clothes, then the Japanese and French started visiting with big black sacks. We had no borrowings, no mum and dad helping out.
Gerardine Hemingway During one London Fashion Week, Macy’s placed an order. I remember writing it down, thinking, ‘How am I going to make all this?’
Wayne Hemingway The next thing we knew we’d set up a factory in Blackburn. All these textile mills were empty and we got a council grant. We bought the machines from an old nurse’s uniform factory through Exchange and Mart, my mum helped out, Gerardine’s sister packed in her job…
Gerardine Hemingway During the 1980s, Bros fans sported our ‘watch shoes’, and Demi Moore was on Time magazine’s cover wearing our stuff. People think fashion is just parties. It’s not. It’s hard work.
Wayne Hemingway We’ve never been fearful of anything… Red or Dead wouldn’t have worked without us. Because fashion takes the dressmaking nous that Gerardine has, it started off as womenswear. But fashion also takes a mouth, which is what I’ve got, as well as the ability to come up with marketing ideas that resonate with the media. All Red or Dead collections had a story or theme, which came from me. But Gerardine did the detail, turning it into clothing people could wear.
Gerardine Hemingway Wayne was working from early morning until teatime, with me working later. By the mid-1990s Red or Dead started franchising and opening international stores. We were getting too big.
Wayne Hemingway In 1995 we sold Red or Dead to Facia group. By that stage, we were a large-scale company but still hands-on running the business, writing cheques and unpacking boxes coming in. I was starting to dislike the fashion industry – it was too up its backside. Having kids early, in our twenties, kept us grounded.
Gerardine Hemingway We were aliens, proper aliens. We had to work really hard to get onto catwalk schedules because they didn’t think we were good enough to be there, because we hadn’t trained.
Wayne Hemingway A year later, Facia collapsed, enabling us to buy back Red or Dead at a cheap price before selling it to Pentland Group.
Gerardine Hemingway Then, housing… Fifteen years ago, you could drive from Land’s End to John O’Groats and see yellow signs for housing developments. Each one was the same. You just thought, ‘The [building] industry must have more style than this’.
Wayne Hemingway I debated with housebuilders on Newsnight, which led to the Wimpey chairman asking us to work with them. We started on 700-odd homes in Gateshead that had been empty for 12 years. The Staiths project had a massive impact, shaking up housing. Gerardine designed around the clock while I was political, cracking heads with planners.
Gerardine Hemingway We got approached to do chi-chi London apartments, but said, ‘No, we want to do some proper housing. We want to show that outside of London, design can be for anybody – it doesn’t have to be expensive.’
Wayne Hemingway Today, we’re a multidisciplinary design agency. We’ve designed uniforms for Transport for London and McDonald’s and worked on the £30m regeneration of Margate’s Dreamland amusement park. We’ve also branched into festivals – our Vintage Festival [celebrating five decades of British cool] has been held since 2007. House of Hemingway’s a family firm too – our two eldest kids, Jack and Tilly, are partners. We’ve got our ‘festival-for-a-fiver’ Classic Car Boot Sale happening this month… And to this day, Gerardine still hasn’t got jealous of me doing all the telly.
The Classic Car Boot Sale is on 16-17 April. To find out more visit classiccarbootsale.co.uk
House of Hemingway vital stats
Founded London, 1983 (as Red or Dead)
Location The couple split their working week between north London and Chichester homes
Projects Started off as fashion label Red or Dead in 1983, launching catwalk collections, footwear, accessories and global stores before being sold in 1995. HemingwayDesign was founded in 2000, with the company working on flooring/wallpaper ranges, making forays into housing design and founding the Vintage Festival.
Staff 11 full-time, over 50 more working freelance on House of Hemingway projects
Finance Turnover from fees is £1.1m. Figure does not include House of Hemingway products or events.
Coming soon The Hemingways are part of a team planning a ‘festival of making’, a manufacturing-led shindig for the autumn featuring everything from “jet engines to cars right the way through to somebody who makes clothes in their living-room”.
Did you know? The Hemingways designed the interior of the IoD’s former building at 123 Pall Mall, winning a Design Week award in 2002