"He's unstoppable," I had been warned by Big Breakfast presenter Vanessa Feltz. "I've rarely encountered such a stream of creativity. He's also very unpredictable. He has a quite ferocious mind." A nondescript industrial estate in Wembley, north London, seems, at first, an odd place to find the headquarters of Red or Dead, three-times winners of the British Fashion Council's Street Style award. Still, it's handy for Wembley Stadium - "The only thing I find relaxing is watching football," Hemingway confides, "oh, and cricket" - and when you learn about the company's ethos, it comes to make a kind of sense.
Wayne Hemingway was born in 1961, and has early memories of being dressed as Elvis, or Tarzan, or a Beatle, and paraded by his mother and grandmother up and down the seafront. "It's no wonder I ended up in this industry," he says. "I didn't stand a chance."
His Native American father, Billy Two Rivers, a former world heavyweight wrestling champion, who used to hold the young Wayne aloft in the ring before bouts, is now a heavyweight political activist, campaigning for land rights in Canada and elsewhere. "He's a giant of a man," says Wayne, seeming to imply something more than physical presence. There is a reluctance here, though, to say more, and father and son have not seen one another for the past five years. "The wrestling was all fixed. I didn't realise at the time. I suppose my dad was more an acrobat than anything else."
Oddly, Hemingway has inherited none of his father's bulk. He is slightly built, cheeky, chatty. He is married to his childhood sweetheart and business partner, Geraldine, and is the father of four children. "I quite surprised myself when we had our first child. I loved it. I didn't think I'd make a good dad. People in my line of work think fashion and kids don't go together," he says. "It's almost frowned upon, you know." But then Hemingway is not the archetypal fashion designer, but a man steeped in the traditions of the working-class North. "I maybe go out once every couple of months to fashion events. You can name the designers who are down-to-earth: Paul Smith, Capellino. The rest are out there, living the life, pandering to the chi-chi press. I think there's so much more to life than fashion."
Although he and Geraldine are the same age, Hemingway calculates, literally to the minute, that by the time she reaches 70, he will be 82, such is the length of his waking day. A recent psychometric test identified his major weakness as intolerance of those who could not keep up in the work place. "I'm up at 5am. I like to pack it all in. We waste years sleeping."
On the other hand, "It's so important to me to be home when the kids get back from school, I never leave the office after 5pm. I probably spend more time with them than an unemployed man would." He was once told a story by a successful businessman who retired, only to realise that his children had grown up and graduated, and he didn't know them. This tale took on the aspect of a parable for him.
Hemingway is disarmingly down-to-earth. He has refused to adopt the airs that so often come with wealth, and resists the myriad temptations of an industry which elevates designers to the status of gods.
"We have a no-advertising policy at Red or Dead. That way, it's what we produce and who we are that has to be noticed. Working on The Big Breakfast not only gets me out of here, but is also a good profile-builder for Red or Dead. People come into our shops, having seen the show, asking for items that were featured, even though they aren't usually ours."
As a fashion- and music-conscious teenager, Hemingway progressed from northern soul, to embrace the punk movement. He would travel to London's King's Road to hang out at weekends, but quickly became disillusioned. "I thought it was all about working-class rebellion, getting rid of the Queen, and anarchy. Up north, being a punk was about being with like- minded people. It meant you wanted to change something. It made me a lot of friends. It was a philosophy as well as a look. But, in London, punk was a designer statement. I could afford to buy the music but not the fashion items. I ended up going to Brentford Nylons - the people who made those sweaty nylon blankets you would sleep under when you stopped over at your Nan's house - and cutting up fabrics to make my own clothes. I started buying second-hand gear as well, and I suppose that way of life has stayed with me. I haven't bought any new clothes for about five years."
Hemingway appears acutely aware of where he has come from, and he integrates that sensibility into his working practice and ethos. In a world where everybody has mass access to fashion through magazines and television, it seems to him almost cruel that most people can't afford to buy into the fantasy.
"Ideally, we would like to sell at Bhs prices, but we can't. It's just not possible. Still, we are our own diffusion line. We cut corners to keep prices down, and get criticised for it. I want Red or Dead to be seen as a creative and intelligent label, and we will continue to look at pricing. I'm happy if someone buys something from Red or Dead and wears it with something from somewhere else, whatever."
Red or Dead has built its reputation on irreverence and honesty. Hemingway seems to have an almost superstitious fear that to rip someone off or to slight someone would be to tempt fate. On The Big Breakfast, he insists that if an item of designer clothing is featured in a demonstration, its pounds 10 near-equivalent must be sought out from a second-hand shop and brought to the public's attention. He is known to drive researchers to hysteria in his pursuit of a bargain. This holier-than-thou attitude might be insufferable were it not for his mischievous sense of humour.
Only in Britain, he is convinced, could a venture such as Red or Dead have sprung up. It has its origins in Camden Market, where, in 1982, Geraldine and he set up a stall to sell second-hand clothes. "In Britain, youngsters are encouraged to leave home early. In Japan and Europe it's different. It nurtures an independence of spirit and means people are broke more often. You have to find a way to be creative for amusement's sake, to beat the boredom. Why else did we produce all the great youth-culture movements, teddy boys, mods, hippies, punks, and so on?"
I remind him about the great fashion houses, such as Givenchy and Chloe, based outside Britain, that attract away some of our best designers. He answers that the high street is far stronger in Britain than anywhere else. Fashion boutiques selling designer labels dominate in Europe,where the concept of high-street shopping as we understand it, doesn't really exist. In addition, industry in Britain is sceptical and reluctant to encourage designer houses to grow. It fears that designers can't work with accountants and marketing people, that they will go over budget. For quite other reasons, Hemingway himself would be reluctant to invest in a designer. They tend, he says simply, "not to be decent human beings". His point seems to be that Britain is at the forefront of youth culture, and of street culture, and always has been, but that, somehow, the refined fashion emporia of Europe are inimical to our national character.
Red or Dead is trying to bridge the gap between the high-street and designer- fashion ends of the market. Yet to progress on a larger scale, Hemingway must, he realises, remain pragmatic in approach. After buying back Red or Dead from Stephen Hinchliffe's Facia Group when it collapsed (Hemingway had been sunbathing in his back garden when he heard on the radio that Facia was to mortgage Red or Dead to an Israeli bank to raise funds), he recently sold a 75 per cent stake to Steven Rubin's Pentland Group, while remaining firmly at the helm.
"Pentland has the infrastructure worldwide to provide a platform for our expansion," he says. "It understands what good values are and ensures that employees get all the attendant benefits they deserve, from pensions to health schemes."
Meanwhile, Hemingway is shortly to host his own television show - although he won't say on what channel or when it will be - and is about to go twice- weekly on The Big Breakfast, appearing with Denise van Outen on Fridays, to look at what to wear and where to go at the weekend. He is highly critical of the current standard of fashion television. "The Clothes Show is unwatchable. It's so saccharine. I want to make a style programme that has wit and irony and that focuses not only on fashion, but on other aspects of youth culture. I want the programme to be watched by anybody who listens to Radiohead - who, by the way, make Oasis look stupid - go to clubs, do housework... It has to have a wide appeal."
Hemingway may be Britain's most self-denigrating extrovert, but his media profile is sure to grow over the coming months. Unless, that is, he spontaneously combustsReuse content