How Wayne Hemingway reinvented the DM boot

Having already built up a well-known British fashion brand, Wayne Hemingway turned his entrepreneurial eye to urban regeneration.


Wayne Hemingway: seeking out new ideas

Putting together enough money to fund start-up costs is a big obstacle for many would-be entrepreneurs. But it wasn't a problem for designer and retailer Wayne Hemingway, now 55, when he began selling clothes in Camden Market in 1982.

Hemingway and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Gerardine paid just £6 (£20 in today's money) to rent a stall in Camden Market, with the sole aim of making enough money from their extensive second-hand clothes collection to pay the rent. However, after they ended up taking in around £100 in just one day, they realised that they had stumbled on a bigger business opportunity.

The couple made several return trips to Camden to sell second-hand clothes, while Gerardine found another indoor market in Kensington where she was able to rent a stall for £12 a week to sell clothes that she made on her sewing machine. A buyer from an American department store spotted the clothes and placed an order, meaning that they needed to come up with a brand name in a hurry. They chose Red or Dead (a reference to the Cold War), and what would later become one of Britain's best-known fashion labels was under way.

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Wayne says he was always optimistic that the venture would be a success. His optimism was quickly justified, as the fledgling company grew enough to enable the couple to acquire a chain of boutique stores. One key turning point was their role in the reinvention of the Dr Martens boot as a fashion item. This heavy footwear had originally been used by workmen, but the Hemingways realised it fitted in well with the prevailing fashion aesthetic.

Championing it in their shops, they played an instrumental role in turning "DMs" into one of the most iconic items of 1980s fashion. Despite resistance from some parts of the fashion establishment, their clothes became a fixture on the London fashion circuit, winning a host of style awards, and Red or Dead designs appeared on the catwalk at fashion shows around the world.

Meanwhile, the company's stores expanded far beyond London, with outlets around the UK, Europe and even Tokyo. By 1998 turnover had reached £10.3m. One year later, the Hemingways sold Red or Dead to Pentland Group, a company that manages a large number of fashion and sports brands. After the sale, the couple pursued their wider interests in design, setting up Hemingway Design, a consultancy. Through this, they work in a wide range of areas, from interior design to uniforms. Their projects have included the furnishings and interiors for the post-games redevelopment of the Athletes' Village at the London Olympics.

Housing is the Hemingways' big interest today and they have been involved in several major urban regeneration projects, including ones in Boscombe, Dorset, and King's Lynn, Norfolk. The design of many new housing developments in Britain is substandard, says Wayne. There needs to be much greater effort on the part of government, lenders and developers to encourage better design, including renovations of existing buildings, and more investment in building houses.

He is critical of the lack of competition in the housebuilding market, which he believes encourages companies to restrict the supply of new properties in order to push up prices.

When it comes to advice for new entrepreneurs, Wayne is keen to emphasise the importance of good mentoring. He has mentored many people himself, and is also a regular speaker on entrepreneurship at business conferences. He also stresses that all entrepreneurs not just those starting out need to make an effort to seek out new ideas. These may come from reading magazines and journals, but many of the best suggestions will come from speaking to suppliers and customers.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri