I was recently asked to do a talk about how we started one of the UK’s most successful spectacles brand Red or Dead as part of an optical industry trade show “100% Optical“. As with most of what we did back in the day with Red or Dead or we do today with HemingwayDesign we didn’t go about creating Red or Dead glasses using traditional methods!
I told the story about how we got started in business in 1981. A story of that fateful day when I spent the rent money that Gerardine and I had saved in the tin on our mantelpiece for the rent on our flat. I spent it on funding rehearsal studio time for the band I sang in, Diversen. Squirreling that cash from that tin was the best thing I have ever done, it prompted Gerardine and I to clear our wardrobes of the clothes she had made and didn’t wear anymore and my excessive collection of second-hand clothes. We took them down to a new section of Camden market that was opening, paid a rent of £6 a day and over the weekend took almost £300. The rent on our flat was only £18 a week. We were quid’s in and raring to return to Camden next week. We spent every spare minute scouring charity shops, jumble sales, rag and shoddy yards (now there’s a story for another day!) for stock and within weeks we had a few stalls and were taking £2000 a weekend. We then started to add used and old stock of Dr Martens into the mix and it wasn’t long before it was £5000 a weekend.
Gerardine opened a stall in the magnificent and sorely missed Kensington Market, took her sewing machine in there, made 8 styles of women’s clothes with fabric bought on Blackburn Market, within a few weeks she had her first wholesale order, a massive one at that, from Macy’s New York! We had to come up with a label, the name we came up with was Red or Dead (now there is another story to tell one day!), my mum set up a manufacturing unit in Blackburn, other family members including Gerardine’s sisters chipped in as seamstresses and we not only delivered the Macy’s order but started to sell all around the world.
We went on to add shoe collections, bag collections, win a designer of the year award at the British Fashion awards for three years on the trot, open 15 or so shops around the world and with an amazing set of offbeat individuals created an iconic brand that still thrives 15 years after we sold it.
In the mid-90s we were approached by Vision Express who were interested in my (as glasses wearer) and Red or Dead’s take on spectacles. Just as we had had no training in fashion (other than years spent dancing in discos or watching bands in clubs, adapting and making our clothes and coming from homes where the whirring of sewing machines was the norm), we had no training in designing eye wear. However, we have always been collectors and had been saving our best second-hand glasses finds and I had relished wearing them. Others we kept in the museum of popular culture artifacts that we co own, The Land of Lost Content. These collections were our education in becoming eye wear designers.
We also found that we had all these weird and wonderful images, adverts, magazine tear sheets, brochures and amazing photographs of models and celebrities wearing eye wear through the decades.We did what we always seem to do, we looked into our own experience, found a rubbish picture of me wearing big specs in a photo booth and this set the scene for our designs and then our marketing. We are pretty sure that no other designer brand of eye wear has ever launched in quite this way.