David Hieatt, Founder of Hiut Denim – Exclusive Interview
Over the last couple years, we’ve kept a close and interested eye on David Hieatt and company at Hiut Denim. This attention wasn’t just because of their high quality products but also because of their long term commitment to their town of Cardigan, Wales.
Since story telling is such an integral part of raw denim, both for the brands and the customers, Hiut Denim‘s ongoing story of rebuilding the jean-making industry in Cardigan and recreating the jobs that disappeared after their main factory closed down is one that we feel is worth listening to. We figured who better to tell their story than the founder himself so we reached out to Hieatt to talk more with him about the brand and their grand vision.
RD: It’s clear that you have a very clear and defined focus on making quality jeans, but how did you first get into denim and into the denim industry?
DH: If you are incredibly lucky in your life, you get to find out what you love doing early on. I found out when I was 16 years old. I had borrowed £500 from my dad, which was most of his savings, to go and start my own thing selling iconic sports brands in the market stalls of South Wales. Within 6 months I had lost all his money. When he asked me what I had learned from the experience, I told him I had found something I loved doing and his advice was for me to learn how to be good at it, so I could always do what I love. He never mentioned the money again. I think he figured it was a cheap way to learn a great life lesson.
You see, I had found that I wanted to start my own thing. I loved great quality. I loved innovation. I loved great brands. I loved how those truly rare great ones would make you feel something for them. They made you feel something because they wanted to change something, and you want to be part of that change. So I decided early on that I would go and start my own company one day. I would try and build a company that would change things as well as make things. I wanted it to have ideas.
Back in 1995, I started a company called Howies. It was seen by many as the Patagonia of skateboarding. We started making jeans for our teams. It wasn’t until Gideon Day joined us from Paul Smith that we started to take denim seriously. Gideon was a true denim geek. He has blue blood. The more he taught us, the more we loved it. He was a good teacher for us. So that’s pretty much how we arrived here.
RD: Hiut has two main types of denim that you use for your jeans. Why did you choose these two specific types of denim and are there plans to use different types of denim as well?
DH: The idea from the very beginning was to be narrow in our offering. We see our job as the one of an editor. The best editors find you the best. And leave out the rest. So our job is to search for and find great denims from great mills and use them to make jeans of the highest quality. Our job is to make the best jeans we can; not the most jeans that we can.
Right now, we offer two types of raw denim: One, a selvedge from Kuroki Mill in Japan. It uses real indigo and is hand dipped ten times; it is a beautiful, beautiful denim. And two, we use an organic denim from Isko in Turkey. For us, organic isn’t a fashion trend to follow for one season. It is how we always will do business.
From time to time, when we find other notable denims, we will offer them as part of a limited edition ranges.
RD: One of the greatest parts of your story and the brand is bringing jean manufacturing back to your town. Since Hiut has started, how has the town changed?
DH: A town can lose confidence just like a human can. When your biggest employer in your town closes for good, when 400 people lose their jobs in a town of 4,000 people, that’s a big knock for a small town to recover from. So for us, starting to make jeans again is real important to the town. It is important not only in terms of jobs, but also because this town is world class at making jeans. We have to fight to keep that skill and knowledge here. We have no choice but to build a global denim brand. We have created 10 jobs. We have 390 jobs to find.
RD: It definitely doesn’t seem easy to bring back an industry back into a town. What was that process like? What have been some of the hurdles you’ve faced?
DH: Let me tell about the story of two photographs. One is from 2005. It is a picture of the audience that gathered for the election of the Pope. If you look carefully, you can just about see two people with mobile phones.
The other photograph is from 2013. It is of the audience that gathered for the election of the Pope. If you look carefully, you can just about see two people without mobile phones. The reason I tell you about those photos is to let you know that if we had started Hiut Denim Co in 2005, we would have failed. The internet and the smart phones mean the march of the maker is becoming real. More makers are bringing manufacturing back home. They can’t be cheaper. That battle has been fought. And we didn’t win that one. But in terms of quality and innovations, well, that, battle is one we can win.
In terms of setting up the factory, it is always easier when you surround yourselves with people who have already done it. So I did just that. I was lucky. Lucky, that I knew them. And lucky, that they wanted to help me.
Stories are powerful things. I told everybody what I was trying to do: I was trying to get our town making jeans again. Most of the barriers that stood in front of us came down when faced with that story. I didn’t know where all the machinists where in town, so I told the local newspaper. Next week, it was the front page. From that, I found our machinists, who we now call GrandMasters, as they have spent so many hours making jeans.
Our marketing budget is around the same size as our coffee budget. So how do launch when you don’t have a penny to spend in paid for media? Well, you just tell the world that your town is making jeans again.
Like I said, stories are powerful things. Everybody wants David to beat Goliath.
RD: What is it about raw denim that you think has made it so popular and what are some of the most important things you look for in a pair of jeans?
DH: Raw denim is the truth. It is yours to shape. You make it as much as we do. Those creases are your creases. So that’s why raw denim is the most pure starting point for a pair of jeans.
I think the fit is the Holy Grail for a pair of jeans. Get that right, and everything else will fall into line.
RD: Hiut jeans seem to be a blend of old proven techniques with modern stylings with features like the iPhone 5 pocket. Was this vision of combining old and new ideas something that you guys had set out to do from the beginning?
DH: There more we work in the future, the less competition we will have. And yet, the denim industry had it most inventive day in 1873 when Mr. Davis and Mr. Strauss got handed a patent for a 5 pocket riveted jeans. In the last 140 years not a huge amount of innovation has happened.
If we want to get all those jobs back, we will do so because we have ideas; Ideas that haven’t been done before.
So when we launched the Hiut Denim Co, it was the world’s first pair of jeans to come with a HistoryTag. It is a unique number, and when you register it online, it shows you 6 photos of your jeans being made, and then, you can update photos of where you go and what you did in them. Even if the jeans end up in a second hand store, their stories will go with them too.
And now we have introduced The Denim Breaker Club as a Beta test. The idea of The Denim Breaker Club is that members are going to break our selvedge jeans in for our customers. They will have to agree to not wash them for 6 months and to update the jeans’ HistoryTag. They have to pay a small deposit, which we will refund upon their safe return. When we get them back, we will expertly wash them and then we will sell these beautiful broken jeans. When we sell them, the member of The Denim Breaker Club will have 20% of the sale. So in effect they will be paid to wear jeans.
If we want our town making jeans again, we will have to do things that have not been down before.
RD: What are your favorite details about Hiut jeans?
DH: I love the fact each one is signed by the GrandMaster who made it. All artists should sign their work.
RD: I like how you have the specific focus on making jeans and doing it well. What are the next steps for Hiut?
DH: Our aim is build a culture of ideas. To have ideas that scare us, to find new ways of doing things, to disrupt old business models, to defeat the status quo, to work with some of the most creative people on the planet. And to make this ride as fun as we can.
RD: Any other last thoughts?
DH: If you want to start something, watch this. It’s called: An Invocation for Beginnings.
Find out more about Hiut Denim on their website.