We Were Able To Create A Fashion Label Available To All – Things Aren’t So Easy These Days

A blog about how affordable rents helped us get started and how through the markets we curate we are, in a small way, helping start-ups “have a go” by providing low cost opportunities. 

I grew up in modest background to the sound of whirring sewing machines and with a mum and a nan who always looked the most stylish in our town and as good as anything in the old magazines that were always lying around in the doctor’s surgery. If these clothes in the magazines had been available in trendy boutiques in Morecambe, then they wouldn’t have been able to afford them anyway but with their sewing skills they didn’t need to worry about that.

In 1976 when punk hit Blackburn (where we had moved to) there wasn’t a Kings Road or a Seditionaries’ (not that I could have afforded Vivienne Westwood’s early designs!) but there were jumble sales and army surplus stores a plenty and with all the sewing paraphernalia around the house it wasn’t difficult for me to turn some old army pants into bondage trousers or to deconstruct a t shirt.

Four years later, in a local disco, I was to spot a young lass, in brilliant individual home-made clothes. Gerardine and I hit it off and as teenagers moved from our North East Lancashire homes to “that there London”.

The story then gets juicy when one fateful day I took the rent money that Gerardine and I had saved in the tin on our mantelpiece for the rent on our flat. I spent it on funding rehearsal studio time for the band I sang in, Diversen. Squirreling that cash from that tin was the best thing I have ever done, it prompted Gerardine and I to clear our wardrobes of the clothes she had made and didn’t wear anymore and my excessive collection of second-hand clothes. We took them down to a new section of Camden market that was opening, paid a rent of £6 a day and over the weekend took almost £300. The rent on our flat was only £18 a week… we were quid’s in and raring to return to Camden next week. We spent every spare minute scouring charity shops, jumble sales, rag and shoddy yards (now there’s a story for another day!) for stock and within weeks we had a few stalls and were taking £2000 a weekend. We then started to add used and old stock of Dr Martens into the mix and it wasn’t long before it was £5000 a weekend.

Gerardine opened a stall in the magnificent and sorely missed Kensington Market, took her sewing machine in there, made eight styles of women’s clothes with fabric bought on Blackburn Market, within a few weeks she had her first wholesale order… a massive one at that, from Macy’s New York!! We had to come up with a label, the name we came up with was Red or Dead (now there is another story to tell one day!), my mum set up a manufacturing unit in Blackburn, other family members including Gerardine’s sisters chipped in as seamstresses and we not only delivered the Macy’s order but started to get interest from other retailers.

All our friends were from similar working class backgrounds and yet we were all the coolest kids on our blocks. DIY and street fashion have always had that edge and fast paced reactivity to culture that mass produced or designer fashion can never have. Early on in building our first brand we developed a philosophy that went “Red or Dead would be the world’s first affordable designer label for people that grew up not knowing what design was and if they did couldn’t have afforded it anyway” Admittedly this was a bit of a mouthful and ultimately we shortened it to “The first affordable designer label”.

We had to work incredibly hard to achieve this in terms of sourcing materials, construction techniques and factories that could deliver on this. We were initially all but ostracised by a fashion industry and media that thrived on one-upmanship and believed that we were going against everything that designer fashion was and we were heavily criticised when we partnered with Topshop and Miss Selfridge as main stockists. At that time these high-street retailers didn’t employ design teams and did send buyers out to copy but we laid down the law and they behaved and the sales achieved and the factories they introduced us to give us a sound and profitable start.

Our star rose as people from our background were able to buy Red or Dead products that were as good as anything out there yet available from our own low cost, off the main drag shops and from high streets all over the world. We won major awards at British Design Council’s annual awards ceremony for an unprecedented three years on a row.

Back then rents were truly affordable (Kensington Market was £12 a week and a leased shop in Neal Street Covent Garden was a mere £60 a week). Now things aren’t so easy for a new generation Wayne and Gerardine Hemingways with much of the UK’s retail real estate owned by pension funds and property businesses whose sole aim is to maximise safe income by working with multiple retailers with big bank covenants.

However today many of the high-street brands do employ good designers and in the case of brands like COS are taking high street fashion to a new level. Oh and a Topshop catwalk show is one of the main events at London Fashion Week nowadays. “Affordable” and “designer” are two words that can sit together nowadays.

But it is still not easy for start-ups and that is why at HemingwayDesign we have a whole series of events that aim, in some way, to replicate what Gerardine and I had available to us. Our event SAMPLE showcases the latest emerging creatives from the worlds of fashion, beauty, art, design, homeware with their archive, one off show-pieces and previous collections. Classic Car Boot Sale in King’s Cross again gives independent vintage traders the chance to get their collections in front of thousands of visitors. With Festival of Making deliberately set in the producing heartland of Blackburn, the festival will explore and celebrate the present day diversity skills UK-based making. And Festival of Thrift  in Redcar, Yorkshire, the UK’s only national celebration of sustainable living, sees our events always champion the independent trader.