Made in Britain is about creating something that lasts, says the co-founder of Red or Dead and Hemingway Designs.
You’ve just signed up as a non-executive director of trade show Best of Britannia, which exhibits more than 200 UK-made brands including fashion. How did you get involved?
The show’s creator Antony Wallis got in touch to link up with Vintage Festival [an event founded by Hemingway that focuses on vintage British design] and I thought it was a good fit. It felt very akin to what we were doing. There hasn’t been anything that gets the whole Made in Britain thing together, but this does exactly that. There is growing demand for designers to manufacture in the UK, so this is coming at the right time.
Do you think customers care where something is made?
There really is public demand - when you’ve been in a downturn and seen people lose their jobs, it’s not about jingoism, it becomes real. When you have retailers such as John Lewis saying they can sell products faster if it’s made in Britain, it’s a fact. It’s also about the security of supply - Britain is no longer as important to China as it was 10 years ago because their purchasing power dwarfs ours.
How does this compare with when you were starting out?
When we started Red or Dead in the early 1980s manufacturing was on a downwards trend, now it’s on an upwards trend. We had a social attitude to business at the time, and maybe we were a bit rare. But our contemporaries were aiming more
at the yuppie consumers and it was the time of the Sloane Ranger - but my wife Gerardine’s mum worked in a mill, so it was ingrained in us. Today’s generation is growing up with a very different attitude. It’s more about making something meaningful, something that lasts.
Do you think the government should be more involved in bringing manufacturing back to the UK?
It will do its bit, but you have to get on - the government doesn’t run us, we have to run it. When we opened a Red or Dead store on Neal Street in Covent Garden, there was a hoover shop, a TV shop and a kite shop. It wasn’t the government making the street, it was people like us.
Have you always been interested in British manufacturing?
My businesses have always had strong political and social elements. Red or Dead was devoutly British, although I wouldn’t have put Union Jacks on everything. But we decided to make a range of denim at Full Sutton York prison here in the UK, for example.
It would have been cheaper to make it in Portugal, but by doing it our way we could teach people skills they didn’t have before.
That thinking was in everything we did, until the factories were shafted by the high street chains.
Does the UK still have the skills to meet the demand for British manufacturing?
The DNA is still there. If you look at Derry/Londonderry, that used to be the centre of the British shirt-making industry and there are still people around who could teach the next generation. It’s not too late. About 80% of what we produce at Hemingway Designs [which Hemingway and his wife founded in 1981] is manufactured in the UK. I reckon we can expand that.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
We’re very proud of what we achieved with Red or Dead. It was a different beast to how it is now, it had an edge. They won’t like me saying that, but it’s a fact - although it still makes money. The thing I’m most proud of is that we built a brand that is more than 30 years old and is still going strong, even after the founders left [Red or Dead was sold to Pentland in 1996].
Did it come as a surprise to you that it had such lasting power?
We didn’t set out to create a company, it just happened. But we had a mission - we set out to try and change the fashion industry. In the early days we wanted to be the world’s first affordable designer label. We asked why people at London Fashion Week couldn’t sell clothes that people from our backgrounds could afford.
I remember being criticised for being an uncouth Northerner. That attitude was everywhere; everyone hated Topshop at the time, and now it opens LFW. So Red or Dead and its attitude achieved a lot. For me, that stands above the brand we created.
Can Best of Britannia have a similar impact?
Manufacturing became a dirty word, so it is about creating something, about skills. If we just come up with ideas but we don’t make them, we are not fulfilling what creativity can do for Britain - if all that creativity could get made in Britain, we would be rocking and rolling. It’s less about the glamour and more about the nuts and bolts.
- Best of Britannia takes place at the Farmiloe Building in Clerkenwell, London, from October 2-4. www.bestofbritannia.com