Wayne Hemingway has arranged to meet me at his favourite building in London. And as I make my way across a wind-lashed Hungerford Bridge towards the South Bank, the Thames grey and choppy beneath my feet, I have to wonder why this prime example of Brutalist architecture – this post-war block of concrete and glass – holds a special place in his heart over, say, the Natural History Museum, St Paul’s Cathedral, Somerset House, the Savoy?
But the Royal Festival Hall says a lot about Hemingway and his design ideals. The 52-year-old son of a Native American wrestler (Billy Two Rivers was his name) and a Morecambe rebel of a mum, he spent his childhood being paraded up and down the pier dressed as, variously, Elvis, Tarzan or a Beatle. He built up the world’s first “affordable designer brand”, Red or Dead, from a stall selling his old punk clobber at Camden Market. And when the brand was at the height of its financial power, he went and sold it.
Then, with credibility and financial clout behind him, and with his pick of design projects, what did he do? He chose to redevelop council estates and build affordable housing instead. So it’s fair to say he’s never going to be conventional. “I like the fact that the Royal Festival Hall has been here for 62 years now and still feels modern,” he says from the members’ area on the sixth floor, with a killer view across the water in front of us, the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Westminster to our left.
“Look at it. It has actually got better, and things that get better with age are quite good, aren’t they? Not many of us can manage that. It still does exactly what it was supposed to do, which was to create a democratic space. Anyone can come and enjoy culture. To me it’s the cultural heart of London, even more so than it’s ever been. It has managed to ride the storm of being hated for being a Brutalist and now it’s a loved part of London. It has managed to enhance the view of a great river. It attracts all sorts, all cultures, it’s attractive to just about everyone now but it has maintained its elegance and its integrity.
“It was a bombsite,” he continues. “This part of the river was not liked by the wealthy and intelligentsia, so it democratised the area. Everything I stand for, this place stands for. And I’ve learned so much from what it stands for and what the Festival of Britain did for Britain. I love it.”
He does business from here a couple of times a week, he says. Business being anything from collaborating with Hush Puppies, G Plan and Graham and Brown wallpaper to redeveloping the Dreamland amusement park in Margate and, the real reason we’re meeting, his Vintage festival – a kind of grown-up version of the summer festival, with all the fun and the music and the fashion but without the mud and the overflowing chemical toilets and the falling over drunk. The event will be coming to Glasgow for the first time this summer, as part of the Merchant City Festival.
Glasgow is a city he already knows well. “We had a shop there and saw the Merchant City in its early days. We’ve been back enough times to see it is still rising. It is one of Britain’s primary cultural cities.”
As well as live music and clubs, there will be dance classes, hair workshops, vintage cars and food, make-up masterclasses, clothing stalls ... Does it take him back to those early days at the very beginning of the 1980s, selling his and wife Gerardine’s clothes to pay the rent? “Definitely,” he says. “We learned everything we know about design from that time. And what a fantastic time. I’ve just been filming something for The Culture Show at Camden Market and I passed our stall – it’s still there, and the shelves we had made to put the shoes on are still being used 25 years later by the person we gave the stall to.
“I remember getting my old punk stuff out. Punk had been about four or five years before, but I’d kept everything – the jackets, the ripped T-shirts. Gerardine brought the clothes she had made, but I also remember two dresses my nan got out of her wardrobe and said, ‘Sell these.’ They were two 1950s full-circle skirts. I have the picture of her wearing one of them – I found it in a box of old photos. Gerardine wasn’t sure if she wanted to sell these dresses or if she wanted to keep them, so we didn’t sell them on the Saturday.”
In the end, though, they had sold so much on the first day that they went on the stall on the Sunday and fetched, he reckons, around £25 each. “I regret that because it would be nice to have my nan’s dresses. But back then, that was a week’s rent. And we were broke.”
He may no longer need the cash – Red or Dead reportedly fetched many millions in a cash sale in 1995 – but he is still proud to be thrifty. In fact, it’s something of a style statement. “It was the way I was brought up,” he says.
“Mum always made her own clothes, Nan always made her own clothes, Pop was always making things in his shed. All my toys were made by him. He even made my toy soldiers from lead – he moulded them himself. So I was brought up in a creative household where thrift and making things were the only way.
“Gerardine was exactly the same – one of five daughters who all made their own clothes, a dad who grew all their vegetables on an allotment at the end of the lane. We got together over a shared love of music. We weren’t interested in education, just going out and dancing.”
Music and dancing and style – the themes recur over and over in our conversation. From Hemingway’s early punk days and his love of soul, to the way music brings generations together at Vintage. “When you look back at pictures of my nan and my pop, number one: they were very stylish and into dancing and music. My mum was a rebel in Morecambe – she wore the cool clothes, and I was born to an affair with a Red Indian wrestler. Bloody hell!”
Today he’s wearing a fetching tweed suit by Daks that he found in a second-hand shop – “it was eaten by moths and our housekeeper has darned it; you can’t see the repairs” – and a pair of brogues bought on Ebay – “1970s Loake’s, and I got them for £26; they’re nicely worn in. Obviously I don’t need to be thrifty,” he says. “I could go out and get a new version of this suit and it would probably cost me £1,500.
“I could afford to go to Savile Row and spend £3,000 getting one made. I could buy a new pair of Loake’s for about £250 or I could get some hand-made shoes for £1,000. But I’d rather give my money away than do that. And I know there’s something inherently cooler about being able to do it the way I’m doing it. It’s far more sustainable and I can be proud of the fact that I’m reusing something. It reinforces the values of Hemingway Design so it would be wrong to go and do the things I could do with my money.”
For the record, Gerardine didn’t want to sell Red or Dead. “It’s the only time we’ve had a big disagreement in business,” says Hemingway. “But I’d had enough. We had been doing it for 17 years and we had never planned to have a big fashion business that had 400-odd employees and 23 shops around the world which completely dominated our lives.”
The money, too, was attractive. “The idea that you could have come from the background we had come from to then have the security of that money in the bank that would allow you to sit back and think about what you wanted to do with your life; to get off the treadmill for a bit.
“We had four kids [two now work for Hemingway Design, another for Marc Jacobs, while the youngest is a talented cricketer], and the fashion industry is very unforgiving of people who have kids. The kids would argue that they loved it – we took them out of school, took them to trade shows – but for us it didn’t feel as though we were giving them the normalish childhood we wanted to give them. I didn’t feel I was being the dad I wanted to be.”
The money meant they could build their own home, which he considers a real luxury. They also have a place in Australia – “but we bought it in Perth when Perth was a backwater. We have two cars – both have done over 180,000 miles. We don’t buy designer clothes, we don’t eat in posh restaurants, we cook at home, we only travel economy, though occasionally we get a first class deal on the train.”
He describes himself as a socialist – “very much so” – and also a realist. “Most people who are socialists also want to make their lives easier, and money makes your life easier. But you can still do things that are populist and the right things to do.”
Doing the right thing includes giving something back in the form of fun. “We don’t make any money from Vintage. Not really. It keeps a few of our staff employed. But put it this way: if we used the time we put into the festival to design a house for a posh person we would make shedloads more money, but we wouldn’t be giving anything back in terms of fun for people.
“Throughout our career we have been asked to do exclusive design, but we would much rather regenerate a social housing estate and get paid a fraction but know at the end of it you can feel good about yourself.”
The main thing, then, about the festival is its inclusivity. “Whereas a summer festival – let’s say T in the Park – has a very set demographic, mainly a rite of passage, this is, in theory, a lot more evolved than that. You hope a 16-year-old would get something out of it, in that they’re learning something about where the music they’re listening to has come from because everything has provenance.
“My son at the moment is into Bastille and Parma Violets. It’s quite good that he’s looking at where that came from. You find out they were influenced by all different groups all the way down to punk. Then you develop an interest and think, ‘I wonder where punk came from?’ And you can look at rock ‘n’ roll, bands like MC5 from America.
“Churchill said it very well: the further he looked back, the further he could see forward. The whole point of Vintage is that. But, above all, that you can have fun.”
It’s also an opportunity for the generations to get together, “a time for sharing”. He cites a letter – and there are many – from a man in his late 40s who had been to the festival with his son and his mother. “It made us all cry at the office,” says Hemingway. “This fella said he had the time of his life.
“He went to the Torch Club, which plays a lot of 1930s and 1940s music and has a big dancefloor, and his mum, who was in her 70s, started telling them about what it was like listening to this music on the radio. Then she got to telling them things that happened in the war, about the air raid shelters. Time just flew past. Then they got up and danced and they had so much fun learning to do the Lambeth Walk and things like that.
“The next night they took her to the Soul Casino, and she immediately recognised the music he used to play and they danced – all the generations: him, his wife, his son, his mum, were all dancing. Now, once a month on a Saturday, they go to swing and jazz class, and all three generations are learning to dance together. How good is that? That’s what it’s about.”
Anyone can still get involved, from helping with fashion shows to running upcycling workshops, to showing off their old cars and selling their wares in the marketplace. Dance teachers, hairdressers and make-up artists, vintage food vans. “Women might come down in the morning deciding they want a 1940s hairdo, then by the afternoon they’re changing it to a 1960s beehive. They might be going to a rock ’n’ roll event in the evening, so they could go to a workshop in the afternoon and make themselves a skirt.
“There’s no style fascism. It’s not like going to the coolest club you’ve ever been to, where you feel out of place. People come, they eat, they drink and they have a good time, but it’s really civil.” Much like Hemingway, and his favourite spot of democratic London.
• Wayne Hemingway is giving a free talk at the Old Fruitmarket, Candleriggs, Glasgow, 23 April, 6pm-8pm (waynehemingway.eventbrite.co.uk); Vintage Glasgow (www.vintagefestival.co.uk) is part of the Merchant City Festival (www.merchantcityfestival.com), 27-28 July