Designing the future

Wayne Hemingway at the 2015 Designs of the Year awards in London’s Design Museum. © Getty Images
  • Designer Wayne Hemingway delivered the latest in the Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) – Masterclass Series supported by NatWest
  • Hemingway is one of a number of inspirational speakers sharing their knowledge and expertise in the current series of masterclasses
  • He discussed the importance of having clear values at the heart of every business decision, and maintaining passion in a growing business

Wayne Hemingway is one of the UK’s leading voices on design, sustainability, social mobility and culture. He brought his trademark directness to the latest Lancaster University Management School masterclass.

Wayne Hemingway’s rise from a Camden Market stall to international success with a £25m-turnover fashion brand would be a remarkable enough story on its own. But the fact that he has, along with wife and business partner Gerardine, developed a successful second act – becoming one of the UK’s most influential players in areas from crafts to planning, urban design and renewal – is nothing short of breathtaking.

Hemingway took the lessons from the success of Red or Dead, the funky and provocative fashion label they founded back in 1982, and applied them with the same passion and drive to Hemingway Design. Leading the UK in innovative housing and social design, the agency has worked with the likes of Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, Coca-Cola, the National Trust, B&Q, Argent, eBay, the Southbank Centre and Royal Mail. Throughout his career, Hemingway has championed innovation, social justice, support for start-ups and iconoclastic thinking.

Starting up

All of that was firmly in evidence recently when Hemingway delivered the latest in the Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) – Masterclass Series supported by NatWest. And the event was something of a homecoming, with the Morecambe native reminding the assembled guests that his success was built primarily on northern grit and can-do spirit.

“I was given great freedom as a child, and once we’d moved to Blackburn when I was seven years old, it was a time when young people with enlightened parents were able to experiment – we were given the chance to fail. Our parents understood the value of going out there, trying and failing again.”

With that sentiment ringing in his ears, Hemingway embarked on a journey that took him from a £6-a-week stall in London’s Camden Market, via countless jumble sales hunting for vintage clothes, to the first Red or Dead shop in Kensington, and eventually 23 shops across the world, from Tokyo to Vancouver via Copenhagen.

By the late 1980s, Red or Dead was perhaps the best-known insurgent fashion label, loved by the fashion establishment and the underground press in equal measure.

Stirring the pot

So how did they pull off such a trick, establishing a brand with such broad appeal?

“There was a real ethos behind what we did,” said Hemingway. “All the way through, despite not taking any professional marketing advice (or borrowing any money), we kept true to our principles.

“And we understood very early on what the brand should be: we wanted to be the world’s first affordable designer label. We also embedded our own family values into the brand. That meant putting social justice at the heart of what we did – everything we did was rooted in that.

“Along with that, everything we did had a message, whether that was partnering with Greenpeace in its battle with a big oil company or plastering our shop windows with derogatory headlines from certain unfriendly newspapers. Our following loved that.”

Having built the brand on the back of provocative statements, Hemingway says the success allowed them to break one of the cardinal rules of marketing. “You cannot be all things to all people, and hope to appeal to everyone,” said Hemingway. “You don’t need to be liked everyone, just by enough people who love what you do. Ultimately, we found that there is real value in polarisation.”

“To be daring, to be brave and to not be afraid was the key element, and it helped us break down the barriers that stood in our way when we entered the urban design world”

Wayne Hemingway

That ethos has certainly informed everything Hemingway has since done, from Red or Dead’s controversial decision to have a collection made from hemp by prisoners (“Being hated by the Daily Mail can give your street cred a real boost,” he joked) to the almost accidental entry into the world of housing design and regeneration.

“To be daring, to be brave and to not be afraid was the key element, and it helped us break down the barriers that stood in our way when we entered the urban design world.”

Hemingway has long believed that design – whether of clothing, homes, cars or anything else – is all about improving the things that matter in life. Keeping that in mind was useful as he launched his second great mission: to improve the quality and liveability of new housing in the UK, something that has long been close to his heart.

Since its launch in 1999, Hemingway Design has developed from sofas and rugs into actual housebuilding, as well as the design work on new housing that began in Gateshead back in 2002. They’ve also branched out into events, notably the annual Vintage Festival, Classic Car Boot Sale and the Festival of Thrift.

“It’s important in business to keep doing what you’re good at,” Hemingway explained. “If you can succeed doing that, it gives you the base to pursue what you’re passionate about.”

Going on the attack

He then described how passing a new development led him to publicly call developers and planners out for their lack of vision.

“I made no secret of my dislike of the ‘Wimpeyfication’ of the UK housing stock,” he said. “It’s a difficult balance to strike, but it’s really important to sometimes be aggressive and assertive. Going on the attack to a level that gets people engaged in what you’re talking about is the key thing.”

The cheeky approach – using press and other public forums to criticise developers and councils in order to stimulate debate – paid off. Soon, Hemingway’s core brand values – questioning, bravery and generosity – were all in play when he recalled how he came to work closely with Taylor Wimpey finance director Peter Johnson on the landmark Staiths South Bank housing project in Gateshead.

Since its completion, the development has won multiple awards, with much of the acclaim centring on the ethos of fostering community, encouraging generosity and celebrating the bravery of championing new ways of thinking.

“We are designing tens of thousands of homes across the UK,” said Hemingway. “We had no training, and to be able to provide a better place for 2,500 people to live in is the thing we’re most proud of out of everything.”

Running through the course of Hemingway’s story is the passionate – and entirely genuine – commitment to supporting entrepreneurs (particularly young ones) through their start-up phase. “There’s no doubt that the barriers to entry in the UK are high, and social inequality has got a lot worse in recent years. But that said, I firmly believe that, with the right commitment at high levels, that can change – although it may appear to be an uphill battle.”

If there’s one lesson to take from Hemingway’s journey, it’s that anyone can succeed – they just need to be given the chance.

Click here for more information on the Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) – Masterclass Series supported by NatWest.

Updated: 23 May 2019