It was the turn of the 80s and Gerardine (my girlfriend and future wife) and I were new to London from Lancashire. We were having fun – records, clothes, nightclubs – and we fell into our business all thanks to a market, something that showed us for the first time that you could make money from fashion.
I had blown the rent for our flat on my band. To raise some cash, we hired a stall at a new market in Camden, North West London, that I’d read about in Time Out. It was just up from the Electric Ballroom and only £6 to rent a pitch, which wasn’t a lot of money even then. You didn’t have to be wealthy or go to the bank with a business plan to get a loan, you could just have a go. I had always had a good eye for clothes and so I sold some of my second-hand ones and Gerardine sold some of the clothes she’d made for herself. On that first Saturday we took over £100. We came back the next day and took almost double that. This was the start of a couple of decades in the fashion industry. Within a year we had 16 stalls and were selling second-hand clothing and footwear that we sourced from all over the country and abroad, and within months we had started our fashion brand Red or Dead, which went onto to become world renowned.
Those early months and years were an adventure for a couple of wide-eyed kids just coming out of our teens. One memorable adventure was our discovery of ‘Rag Yards’ or ‘Shoddy Yards’, as they were known in Batley and Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. We hadn’t heard of ‘shoddy’ (other than understanding it as a term for poor quality) but it soon transformed our lives. We couldn’t get enough cool second-hand clothes to keep up with demand at Camden. It was my Nan, Ida, ever keen for her only grandson to “make it in that there London”, who asked the rag and bone man who collected from her street in Morecambe what he did with the old clothes that she offloaded onto his cart (before she fed his horse an apple). He told her of the shoddy yards where he would weigh in his rags for cash.
At that stage of life Gerardine and I were not interested in the history of shoddy, but rather just filling our battered old Luton Transit vans with booty. We would leave examples of all the clothing items from the 20s through to the 70s that we wanted them to put under their sorting benches and save for us, rather than drop down the woollen cotton or mixed fibre chutes to be baled and then recycled. We would tip them per item and if they found some real 20s gems of dresses, a mint demob suit or a 50s full circle skirt, we would slip them a note rather than coins. We would then weigh our haul and pay the mill owner.
There was something Dickensian about these shoddy yards with the gritty women, their colourful pinnies and head scarves (and equally colourful language) with a fag hanging out of the corner of their mouths. The shoddy yards were Gerardine and I’s education of the history of fashion. Thousands of items passed through our hands (and we have kept a substantial haul of real bobby dazzlers). Shoddy yards were our replacement for design college and helped us develop ‘the eye’ that served us so well in setting up Red or Dead in the early 80s, and still serves us so well at HemingwayDesign today.
Check out Wayne's column every month in Homemaker.