The Interview: Wayne Hemingway

Morecambe-born designer Wayne Hemingway MBE announced details of 2015’s Vintage by the Sea festival this week, and took time out to talk with MALCOLM WYATT about that, his upbringing in the resort and past projects

Friday, 27th March 2015, 8:00 pm
Wayne Hemingway and his son Jack cycle along the promenade ahead of the Vintage Festival.
Wayne Hemingway and his son Jack cycle along the promenade ahead of the Vintage Festival.

In September, Vintage by the Sea will return to Morecambe, aiming to build on the success of last year’s event which attracted some 40,000 visitors to the resort.

The two-day festival will see the seafront and its landmark venues transformed, the event co-delivered by the town’s Deco Publique, Lancaster City Council and HemingwayDesign’s Vintage Festival team.

This latter includes the Morecambe-born Wayne Hemingway himself, his wife Gerardine, originally from Padiham, near Burnley, and their eldest son Jack.

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And for Wayne and Gerardine it’s a further chance to give something back to the county they left in 1982 to set up the world-renowned Red or Dead fashion empire.

As with last year, the festival, backed by Morecambe Town Council, celebrates music, fashion, film, art, design and dance from the 1920s through to the 1990s.

Organisers promise a seafront rich with music, people, classic cars and glamour, making use of the coastal setting, art deco Midland Hotel, iconic Winter Gardens and Morecambe’s old railway station in a multi-venue playground.

From dance workshops to live performances, DJ sets, classic car shows, air displays, catwalk shows, food and cocktails, decade-specific hair and beauty makeovers and vintage shopping opportunities, it promises to be a visual feast.

Wayne is already buzzing about the prospect of helping bring the event back to the town, promising ‘a feel-good factor that spreads far beyond the local community.’

“We’ve been doing it for a few years now, and have a good local team, so it’s a lot of work, but do-able. A lot of those involved worked on the Preston Guild too.”

Wayne’s no stranger to Morecambe’s seafront, having early memories of being dressed up as Elvis, a Beatle or Tarzan and paraded up and down the pier by his mother and grandmother.

Since 2010, the Vintage Festival has seen the Hemingways help organise events from London’s Southbank Centre to Glasgow, via Morecambe and Preston.

Could he and Gerardine ever have imagined such an event when they upped sticks for the capital all those years ago?

“We never planned anything when we left, but it is nice to do something that has such a positive impact on a place that means such a lot.

“There’s so much to do in London and people tend to focus on the capital because of the sheer numbers of people and the amount of money that’s around.

“For that reason alone, it’s obviously a first choice for events, with the best chance to get it underwritten. But now we’ve worked out how to do it in the north.

“Preston Guild was the first of our festivals in that respect. That worked such a treat, with around 200,000 people coming along.

“So to be able to carry on working in Lancashire and in the town I was born in – and such a great seafront location – is really something.”

With the revival of the Midland Hotel, a football league team of its own, the Eric Morecambe statue and much more, it seems Morecambe is back on the rise.

But how does it compare to the 1960s town where Wayne, 54, spent the first seven years of his life, before relocating to Blackburn?

“It’s not quite back to the vibrancy it had when I was growing up, but it’s certainly in a better position than quite a few seaside towns. It also has something quite a few of those don’t have – that amazing view across to the Lakes.

“There are very few things more dramatic than watching the tide coming in and going out at Morecambe Bay at the speed it does.

“And it’s blessed with a pretty good climate and a lovely long seafront you can cycle or walk along.”

Wayne’s childhood was punctuated by key moments, not least when his father – Canadian Mohawk chief and former wrestler Billy Two Rivers – returned to North America when he was just three.

Is there a bit of the outsider in that Native American heritage that helped Wayne stand on his own two feet as a businessman?

“Well, you never know. Obviously, he was a rebel and an outsider and did things differently, and I have done too.

“But he didn’t bring me up.

“I like to think it came from my Mum really.”

His father left in 1964, and it doesn’t take much research to realise how much of an influence his mother and grandmother were.

“Yeah, my Nan and my Mum were both very feisty, very stylish too, and did things very differently. That’s where I think it all rubbed off.”

Wayne has never forgotten his Lancashire roots, regularly returning in recent years to see his mother, who was based in Garstang.

She passed away just 10 days before we spoke, at the age of 78, after a battle with lung cancer, family and friends holding a party to celebrate her life last weekend.

“She was always a fighter, trying to do things better, rise up from the background she came from, with great aspirations.”

It might surprise a few people who just know about his fashion roots that Wayne, with 10 O-levels and four A-levels under his belt, studied geography and town planning at degree level at the University of London.

Some of that background later came in handy, but it was never the draw.

“I went to the capital for London itself rather than for the university. That was my route.

“Not having much money, Blackburn Council paid for me to go, with a scholarship. But I didn’t think I’d have that much interest in geography and town planning.”

The Red or Dead fashion label was the result of a permanent move to the capital in 1982 alongside Gerardine, the couple initially selling items from their own wardrobes on Camden Market, making £80 that first day after spending just £6 to rent a stall.

The rest is history, their brand receiving global acclaim and the couple winning the British Fashion Council’s Streetstyle Designer of the Year award for an unprecedented three consecutive years from 1996.

But initially, Wayne, then 21, had other aspirations, the idea of the stall being to buy equipment for his band.

“I attempted to sing and attempted to play saxophone, but neither of them very well. We were into indie funk at the time, bands like A Certain Ratio.”

From Northern Soul to the disco, punk, new romantic and rockabilly scenes, this was a lad who loved his music. And music and fashion often go hand in hand.

“Yes, especially back then, the two went together. You could stay underground a lot longer then because there wasn’t the internet – that movement had time to mature.

“Me and Gerardine met in a nightclub and were going out dancing and watching bands.

“It was a very exciting time, and a lot of pretty famous people came out of the club culture scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s.”

One of the pair’s founding business ambitions was to create affordable fashion for youth, a principle that often put them at odds with the more elitist fashion industry, but something that clearly remains important to them today.

“Again, that’s the background we came from, and I think we’ve stayed pretty true to our roots.

“We’re not the kind of people who got money then started to buy Bentleys. I find that all a bit obscene. We live reasonably nobly.”

The pair went from one to 16 stalls within a year, two decades of successful ownership of the Red or Dead empire following, first setting up in areas like Soho and Covent Garden. Was Wayne a natural pitcher?

“No, I never needed to, and we never borrowed money. We’ve always done everything ourselves, never having to approach money people. We’ve always been in control of our situation and our lives.

“London wasn’t really the expensive place it is today. You could rent shops at £20 up to £60 a week.

“We were just good at finding cheap locations and building followings. We’ve always seemed to have that ability to spot opportunities.”

It must have been hard to keep so fresh and see off the competition.

Was it a case of recruiting the right people around them to keep tabs on the scene and the market?

“We’ve always had a brilliant team around us, and now our eldest kids are well into their adult years and are partners in the business.

“They add that nice fresh thinking we had when we were in our 20s, and we had the elder statesman with the experience to add to that – it’s quite a good mix really.” Wayne and Gerardine sold their fashion business in 1998 after 21 consecutive seasons on the catwalk at London Fashion Week, in a multi-million cash sale.

“The fashion industry can almost be like being on a treadmill really, and I think it was good to get off and do something different.

“Neither of us started out as fashion designers, but both of us were really pleased we had the chance to do that then do all the things we’re doing now – from regenerations to festivals and housing, furniture, product design, branding and graphics.

“It’s also useful if you’ve built up a business to sell it. That gives you the security to go and try other things.”

Like their first enterprise, HemingwayDesign has been a major success, their initial ambitious affordable housing development on Tyneside winning a series of high-profile awards and setting the tone for all that was to follow.

“That was the first really large-scale project, with 700-odd homes. It’s been a massive success too, there’s no other way of putting it.”

Today’s HemingwayDesign is a multi-disciplinary agency led by two generations of the Hemingway family and a wider team of designers, working to a core philosophy that ‘design is about improving things that matter in life’.

From further housing and regeneration projects to interiors, company uniform design and even dabbling in an alternative amusement park, it’s no doubt been a steep learning curve.

“Yeah, but it’s not rocket science, it’s all common sense. You wouldn’t want someone unqualified doing heart surgery on you, and you can’t teach yourself those skills.

“But designing houses, and designing anything really, is about common sense, understanding the human being and what life is all about. You can teach yourself anything in that respect.”

These days, Wayne and Gerardine spend most of their time between London and West Sussex, where they brought up their four children, now aged 27 down to 19.

Life remains as hectic as ever for the Hemingways, who became MBEs in 2006 for services to the design industry.

Wayne for one is now part of the South Coast Design Forum, Building for Life and a patron of the Unite Foundation.

Then there are the charity projects with the likes of Oxfam, the Prince’s Trust, Shelter and Traid, the coffee table art books and writing, the talks and lectures.

Does he remain as passionate about today’s projects as he did with Red or Dead all those years before?

“Probably more so. Red or Dead was just fashion, after all. It’s not quite as important as some of the things we do today.

“I always felt very responsible for everything we did there and all the staff we employed, but sometimes now you’re holding more responsibility.

“You might be dealing with communities and people’s lives. If someone’s bought a blouse and it doesn’t fit, it’s not the end of the world.

“But if you’re designing a house or doing a regeneration scheme, the potential impact of doing something wrong is a lot more.”

Looking back, would he do anything differently, given what he knows now?

“I’d do it all again. There’s no point looking back, thinking you could have done things differently. That would be pointless.”

The adages about mixing business and pleasure or working too closely with a loved one don’t seem to apply to Wayne and Gerardine. So what’s the secret of their success?

“We’ve been together since we were so young, always working together. We don’t really know any differently.

“Our lives have been wrapped up in it all, and all the way through the kids have been too. Gerardine, as soon as she had a baby, was back at work almost a day after.

“When we went on business trips to wherever, more often than not, the kids would come with us.

“At the time we thought it was possibly the wrong thing to do, but they all absolutely loved it.

“We thought we were being cruel dragging them round trade shows buying shoes.

“We dragged them around housing estates all over Europe when we were studying all of that, instead of going on holiday. But they loved it and found it all fascinating.”

Vintage by the Sea runs on September 5 and 6, with more details at, the VintageFestival Facebook page, @vintage_2015 Twitter link and