Sustainably stylish

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:
Designer Wayne Hemingway (Photography: Charlie Milligan)

Fashion designer Wayne Hemingway lets rip on our wasteful culture and attitude to litter, and explains the roots of his frugal ethos. Geraldine Faulkner reports

The late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen once said: “Some designers are so airy-fairy, people can’t connect with them.”

There was no danger of that happening with McQueen, and nor is there a risk of the same thing occurring with his peer Wayne Hemingway MBE – both of whom were born in the 1960s and both of whom are responsible for iconic designs in fashion.

Indeed, Hemingway’s forthright views, particularly on sustainability, are well known within the world of social housing design and, increasingly, within the resource management sector.

“I can’t abide waste; it seems wrong at every level,” he says, looking fierce. Indeed, thrift is ingrained in Hemingway’s DNA.

“I was born in the seaside town of Morecambe, Lancashire and until my mum met my stepdad and we moved inland to Blackburn, we lived with my nan and pop – Ida and Colin. The Hemingways were a working-class, Yorkshire family, thrifty and careful,” recalls Hemingway before adding: “I continued this thrifty upbringing into adulthood. There is always a use for old plastic bags (what’s the point of bin liners?). Bags of compost may be cheap, but home-made compost saves the odd fiver, and as my mum always said, ‘If you watch the pennies, the pounds will always look after themselves’.”

Importance of thrift

Thrift is a theme that runs through Hemingway’s approach to life (like remembering to turn off the lights when you leave a room. “How can you walk out of a room and leave the light on? When they were young, my kids knew that you couldn’t, but it cost them a 50p fine every time they did.”)

He recognises that his thrifty tendencies have made a seamless transition to sustainability. “My early introduction to thrift and my lifelong adherence to thrifty principles happily make me sustainable. Once I was considered ‘tight-arsed’: now the media come to me to discuss environmental issues,” says the co-founder of the Red or Dead fashion label that he and his wife Gerardine set up in the early 1980s and which they went on to sell in 1999.

Hemingway’s strong views on thrift leads him to what he feels is an unchallengeable reason for everyone – including climate change sceptical American presidents – to embrace sustainability.

“When I was young, being thrifty was done totally on a financial level with the ‘waste not, want not’ philosophy dominating attitudes. It’s much easier to get through to people through the economics of it all as they can feel the difference about money in their pocket; the environmental aspect is much less tangible.”

Dealing with people who litter

One of the most tangible aspects of modern life and its wasteful aspects is litter. With his company Hemingway Design, which specialises in affordable and social design, based in a busy residential area in Wembley, there is a constant stream of motorists and pedestrians going past the designer’s drive along with, sadly, the ensuing litter.

Hemingway says he finds it difficult to comprehend “where we’ve gone wrong” with people’s throwaway approach to rubbish.

“You see someone throw down some packaging, and I find this hard to understand on every level. It costs people when they throw it down as they are tax-payers and it means the state has to clean up after them. This means less money on things like education, and I find that disconnect very hard.

“Sometimes I have a conversation with someone who I have seen throw down litter outside my office, and on occasions I get asked, ‘What’s it to do with you?’ So you have to decide if you can reason with them. ‘Who do you think pays for picking up the litter?’ ‘The council.’ ‘Where do they get the funds from?’ ‘They get it from the government.’ ‘That means less money to spend on things like education.’

“You eventually get to the point where people realise their actions cost them money. It’s much easier to get to people personally as they can understand the difference it makes to the money in their pocket,” he explains.

Festival of Thrift

No conversation with Hemingway would be complete without a reference to the Festival of Thrift that he founded in 2012 with Gerardine.

“The Festival of Thrift is a large-scale national event that has reuse at its core. Reuse is the complete DNA of the festival that is joyous, uplifting and fun. That is the bit that has never been achieved before,” Hemingway says before commenting: “Reuse as a subject matter can be dry, whereas the festival is engaging and has been recognised internationally.”

Last year, more than 35,000 people attended the event to be “entertained, inspired and educated about how to live thriftily and sustainably in style”. This year the festival returns to Kirkleatham Museum and Grounds near Redcar on Saturday, 23 and Sunday, 24 September.

It will come as no surprise to hear that Hemingway believes it takes a creative mind to present things in a more appealing way.

“We always bring fun into things and make them more engaging, it’s a natural thing for a creative mind to do as subjects like recycling can be very dry. When recycling first got going, it was exciting doing something new. However, recycling rates are going down now, and I can totally understand why. People need a fresh way of looking at it. At the moment, all you hear is that it’s not getting separated and it’s all going to landfill. There’s a negativity that can be overcome by implementing interesting things and enabling artistic things to happen.”

Lasting the course

Hemingway turns to another of his favourite themes: making things last.

“In 2003, we bought a demonstration Toyota Prius when it was launched in the UK. I asked the car dealer: ‘When you’ve finished with it, can you let us buy it?’ Since then, it has gone twice round the clock and I think there’s a chance of getting another 250,000 miles out of it. In fact, it could do double that. In fact, I didn’t buy my Toyota Prius because some Californian celeb had one; it was because of the emissions issue and also because I can get over 70 miles to the gallon. Now I’m thinking we need never have to buy a new car again. That could be a saving of £25,000 every few years. This is a big chunk of money, so if we could educate people to buy less, it would encourage the right way of living,” he says firmly.

Influencing the way people live (as opposed to dress) is now part of Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway’s day-to-day work at Hemingway Design. Indeed, the Hemingways forged an unlikely alliance with George Wimpey on the 760-home Staiths South Bank development on the River Tyne in Gateshead, built by George Wimpey, but designed by the Hemingways.

Not that the course of true harmony always ran smoothly between the two parties. The designers frequently had discussions with the housebuilder over issues such as wheelie bins.

“Gerardine doesn’t like wheelie bins as they tend to dominate the street scene on an estate,” explains Hemingway. “This was the first Wimpey development where everyone didn’t automatically get a wheelie bin, apart from internal bins. It created an absolute furore. Instead of wheelie bins, we proposed large communal bins for every 15-20 homes. We were told that ‘it’s taking away liberties. If a woman is in her negligee and wants to dispose of the remains of a curry, she would have to walk all the way to the communal bin to dispose of her waste’. We suggested she might meet the man of her dreams at the communal bin. But on a serious note, we argued that a communal recycling point would act as a social meeting point.

“Also, there is anecdotal evidence from Europe that communal points encourage people to recycle more. We got our way and the Staiths development has gone on to win awards for its design and layout. It is a win-win situation.”

Looking to the future and, as always, unafraid to espouse what some would argue are outdated notions, Hemingway predicts: “We are entering an exciting new era, I hope, where we are prepared to demand that durability be put back on the agenda as an essential ingredient for sustainability.”

Wayne Hemingway CV

For more than 35 years, Hemingway Design has conceived creative concepts and social design projects for major brands and agencies.

Hemingway co-founded Red or Dead with his wife Gerardine, starting with a small stall at Camden Market selling second-hand and customised clothing. They built up their business into an international fashion label and now operate a multi-disciplinary design agency led
by two generations of the Hemingway family and a wider team of designers.

From affordable and social design such as Staiths South Bank on Tyneside, to Dreamland Margate, and work with clients including Coca-Cola, John Lewis, Sky TV, Sony, G Plan, the 2012 London Olympics and Unite Students, Hemingway Design is recognised worldwide with a core philosophy of aiming to “improve things that matter in life”.

Five things that make my life better…

  • Family: Wife, kids, grandkids, Hemingway Design team, dogs
  • My running shoes
  • Communication technology such as phone and laptop
  • Free chocolate when travelling first class on Virgin Trains
  • Sliced jalapeño chili peppers

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