Interview with David Hieatt, Co-Owner and Co-Founder of Hiut Denim
2nd of March, 2012
I’ve been following the path of Hiut Denim for a little while now, so I’m pretty proud to present some photography from inside the factory, lookbook imagery and shots of the final product.
David Hieatt, the co-founder alongside Clare Hieatt, has quite an inspirational story to tell so it was a great pleasure interviewing him about this new venture and its concept. I greatly admire his vision so it’s going to be interesting watching Hiut Denim develop and evolve into something quite special.
You can find our exchange below which I think goes into great detail about the brand and what it means to him, also the differences between this and previous projects. I hope you enjoy.
1) For those that don’t know, what’s the basis behind Hiut Denim and how did it originate?
I believe in quality. I believe in skill. I believe in ideas. And I believe in my town. And through an odd set of circumstances and timing I was able to bring all those things together by starting Hiut Denim Co.
After 15 years of building up our old company, we had no choice but to leave it. We had to walk away and start again. Luck is a funny thing, what at the beginning feels like the worst thing ever, in the end turns out to be the best thing ever.
So here we are right now with our own factory, making our own brand of premium men’s jeans in the UK, and owned by no one. And with an idea that has never been done before.
We will be the first jean in the world to come with a historytag. Think of it as a way of attaching the memories you had in them to your jean via a website. It will let you see your jeans being made and, if you chose to, you can upload photos of where you went in them and what you did in them. It’s like an iPod for memories via the historytag.com website.
It means one day when they get handed down or end up in a second hand shop, their stories will go with them too. The historytag will become a badge of honour for those who want to make products that last.
Think of it like two roads coming together. One called ‘Geek’, which is the internet and its ability to tell stories, and the other called ‘Luddite’, which is a company who wants to make great products that last. And the more we can make a product that lasts, the more stories it will have to tell.
As humans, we have a deep-rooted desire to know the history of things. And objects have stories to tell. With the historytag it will be able to start to tell those stories.
2) You’ve got quite a past in the clothing industry, for example you were the co-founder of Howies. When you left Howies in October 2009 what inspired you to want to produce jeans? Was there a particular “eureka” moment?
When I left, it was a painful time for me. I decided I would go running. I would replace one set of pain for another. While I was up on the Preseli Hills, I would think about a plan of making jeans. I wrote the plan, then I put it on the shelf for over a year without looking at it.
Instead, I spent my time building The Do Lectures. It was a set of talks that myself and Clare started. I loved it. It was a good break for me. It was time well spent. The Do Lectures now takes place in Wales and California. It was nominated for best website in the world. It was recently voted in the top ten ideas festivals in the world by the Guardian. And the talks have been watched by millions. I am deeply proud of it.
Then one day out of the blue I had a phone call that changed everything. It was with our old designer Gideon, and he wanted to know why I wasn’t doing the denim plan because he loved it. He told me I should make my jeans in Cardigan, my home-town. I had thought of it before but had always dismissed it for some very sound practical reasons. But something just struck me as he said it. That was it.
I had worked out my “why”.
It wasn’t about starting another jeans brand. The world had enough of them. This jeans company was about getting a town that used to make jeans, to make them again. That was the why of it. It was all about the Town. And it is about bringing manufacturing back home.
3) Luck obviously had it that Cardigan was one of the biggest producers of denim in Great Britain. It must be really incredible working with the old factory workforce. Who’s behind the denim at the moment and what are their roles?
The thing with luck is to recognise it. And act upon it. You see my home Town used to have Britain’s biggest jeans factory. It made 35,000 pairs of jeans every week for 3-4 decades employing 400-500 people. That’s a lot of jeans. And also, a lot of skill.
The factory had left town in 2001. But the skills, well, they remained.
My joke about Cardigan is it’s a bit like Hollywood in one way. In Hollywood, it’s hard to find a waiter who isn’t going to be an actor or actress, a director, scriptwriter etc.
In Cardigan, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know how to make a jean. If you go to the coffee shop, they used make jeans. If you go the pub, they used to make jeans. If you learn how to drive, the driving instructor could also teach you how to make jeans.
Of all the towns in the UK, Cardigan probably knows more about making jeans than any other.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about having to do 10,000 hours to become a grandmaster in chess. In our town, we have people who have spent 20,000 hours, 30,000 hours, and in some cases, 40,000 hours making jeans. This town is full of grandmasters of making a jean. This had nothing to do with talent or judgment, but everything to do with luck. I had got lucky. But it took me a while to see the answer was on my own doorstep.
So now we have hired Elin, Jean and Amanda as our Grand Masters to make our jeans. And Claudio is our part time cutter and we have a part-time mechanic.
Our aim is to get 400 people their jobs back, so we have a long way to go. So we have 396 to go.
4) Could you explain to us a little about the process that each product undertakes as it’s made?
There are 41 stages of making our jeans. We only have to be great at 41 of them. We don’t wash any of our jeans. We only sell raw unwashed denim. When you order your jean, as part of your receipt you will get 7 pictures of your jeans being made. The Grand Masters have had to learn how to use an iPod touch.
At the moment, if we have some great music playing, and the coffee is strong, we can make 10 pairs of great jeans a day. Rolls Royce make more cars a day a day than we will make jeans. At least in the beginning.
But we are clear in our mind, we are here to make the best jeans we can, not the most jeans we can.
5) What would you say is the bigger mission for Hiut as a brand? And what do you hope to see from revitalising the area and starting up the factory again?
If we want to get 400 people their jobs back, we will have to be very special at what we do. We will have to change the jeans industry in some way. And not just get people to change their brand of jeans, but to turn an entire industry on its head. The reason I like ideas so much is that they can change things quickly. They change the status quo. And ideas don’t just go to those with the most money or the most history. They go to those who think about things differently.
Our mission is to be the most creative jeans company in the world. The historytag is just a start of a company that wants to bring ideas to this industry. And along the way, get those 400 people their jobs back.
6) With the majority of brands heading to Asia to create cheaper clothes, why is it so integral that people support British manufactured brands such as Hiut?
The zeitgeist is changing in our favour. In an odd way, the banking crisis was the start of that change. Something pivotal happened in that moment, and no one has really articulated it. It was a profound moment for Britain. A jolt. People felt vulnerable. They knew the country no longer made as much as it used to, and we didn’t grow as much as we should do. And both of those things unsettled everyone.
So I think an odd consequence of the banking crisis, is it will get Britain making more things again. And another odd thing is in tough times, people tend to buy less but tend to go for quality. So maybe, the wind is with us rather than against us.
That said, we know for us to be a global brand we will need to have ideas as well as craftsmanship. We are under no illusions about that.
Sentiment alone won’t build a great business, it will need ideas that change things. And the great thing for Britain is we do have the craftsmanship and we are a nation with ideas.
7) It’s seems to us that with Hiut you’ve strengthened your philosophy personally and have got back on the horse so to speak, which is really admirable. From your experience what advice can you give to others that have taken a knock in business and are unsure of the next step to take?
Pain makes a great teacher. Its lessons are rarely forgotten. I always worry about people whose values change with the seasons. I call them the firefly’s, when a bright light shines they fly toward it, and then when an even brighter light shines, they fly off toward that. You never know what they really stand for. And the companies they build, are inconsistent. They can’t stick to a path. And in the end, they build nothing of any meaning.
My philosophy has only been strengthened by falling off the horse. The real important thing is go and prove that those philosophies can build a successful business. One that is committed to quality, to skill, to ideas. And to this town.
As for advice: If you fall down 7 times, get up 8 times.
8) What would you say is different about your approach this time around and what lessons have you learnt from owning a “clothing” brand before?
Our approach is to do one thing well. Like crazy good. We will make jeans. That’s it. Nothing else. No distractions. Nothing else to steal our focus. No kidding ourselves that we can be good at everything. No trying to conquer the world. We’re happy to conquer our tiny small bit of it.
So no bobble caps. No sweat-shirts. No t-shirts. Just jeans. And only jeans.
I think the great companies are defined by the things that they say no to. And not just what they say yes to. With time being the most precious resource of all, we have to decide what we can do well. And what we can’t do well. We believe we can make a great pair of jeans. That in itself is a huge undertaking.
The other key learning is to work with people who are great at what they do. Build a great team. Trust them. Allow them enough slack to let them shine. I want to create a culture that people can do their best work.
And my last bit of learning is don’t play small. Dream big. Dream in colour.
9) You seem to have an attraction to Cardigan. What is it about this area and why does it hold a special place in your heart?
We are underdog town. Honest, hard working and humble with it but not on everyone’s radar. I believe in the underdog. I believe in the underdog spirit. I believe in punching above your weight. I believe that ideas are the best way of punching above your weight. So, I believe in ideas with a work ethic.
10) British manufacturing also plays a big part in all of this. What inspires you about locally made products?
We can’t outsource everything. We can’t afford to lose all that skill and knowledge. Look at what is happening in San Fran. Lots of interesting start-ups making stuff in America.
I think the most interesting products of the future will use the skills of the past and make them relevant to the world that we live in today. The Dodocase (a protective case for your iPad and Kindle) does this well.
It uses techniques developed hundreds of years ago by the bookmakers of San Francisco and combines it with an idea, and some understated design, that gives it a reason to be sought after today.
The DODOcase philosophy is simple enough, manufacture things locally and help keep the art of book binding alive and well by adapting it to a world of e-readers and iPads.
Sounds like a good bunch of people. Bet they ride nice bikes too.
11) I think young people are concerned about the lack of opportunity around, so what would you’re advice be to an individual looking to get involved in something creative like Hiut. Have you considered the younger generation within your vision for the brand?
One day, the idea for the Hiut Denim Co is to do a summer camp for would be jeans makers. We will share all our knowledge and they can learn how to make, how to cut, how to market jeans. Oddly, the original idea for the Hiut Denim Co was for it be run like a school. So each year 10 kids would run it.
12) Are there any other brands out there that you admire, and would you consider any collaboration projects in the future?
In a different field, I love Patagonia. In jeans, I think Nudie do Nudie well. They have my respect. I think Raleigh and Roy have done it well too.
I would like to do a collaboration with New Balance, just because I run and they make in Britain. I would like to work with Björn Dahlström, who designed a great set of pots and pans for Hackman back in the day. If I look through my scrap-books, I am sure lot more names will pop into my head. I think the simple rule is to work with people whose work you love. That’s a good rule.
13) Obviously with a story like yours it definitely needs to be showcased, how will you go about this and what ideas do you have in place for your website?
In this world, we have to be as good at telling our story as we are making our jeans. And everything we do will be important.
Steve Jobs called it Impute. How everything you do adds a sense of quality into the product. So every decision matters. Everything sets the tone. You finish because of the way you started.
For us, we will tell our story via a Year Book. It will be 150 pages. It doesn’t make any sense when you think that will be making just two pairs of jeans to begin with. But it will say a great deal about where we are aiming for.
Of course, we will be launching our full website on Feb 27th. Again, we have taken our time to keep it as simple and as beautiful as we know how. And we will be soon be putting up a series of films that show us making our jeans in the factory. And I will be doing a series of films about what our thinking is behind the Hiut Denim Company. So our shops get what we are trying to do.