I've been quite inspired after speaking with David Hieatt, listening to his stories and journey in and around business since meeting him a while back. As someone who appreciates the intensity of a journey, from the bare bones inception all the way through to a physical interpretation, I felt I needed to turn my questions into an interview with David. He and his wife Clare are doers, in the most literal sense of the word. They are the Founders of The Do Lectures which is about inspiring people to get out there and do what they love and this vision has quickly spread into North America and beyond. Creating something from nothing is not an easy undertaking but creating something extremely special in the process is priceless.
In this interview David discusses a little about his experiences with building a brand, some life changing moments and how that combination brought him full-circle to the creation of Hiut Denim.
"I had learned the answer is probably right in-front of you. You just have to have your eyes open."
Interview by Darian Hocking
To David Hieatt & Hiut Denim Co.
What were some of the life experiences that led to the conception, planning and development of Hiut Denim?
In 1995 we started a company called howies from our living room floor. And we sold it to Timberland in 2006. The problem was we weren't ready to sell it. We were still in love with it. In the end, we had to leave howies as it was just too miserable having someone else own it. It was an important lesson in life: Do something you love and never sell it.
My next lesson was to stop looking elsewhere for answers. They may well be right under your nose. You just need to recognise what you have.
We (Clare and I) had started The Do Lectures- a set of talks that exists to inspire you go and do amazing things and it was brilliant. It is a cross between Ted, Burning Man and Where the Wild Things Are. But it had never had any of our time. We were always too busy. So I had a moment were I just noticed how beautiful it was.
I put on hold my plan to start our denim company. And I gave The Do lectures my time. I worked for no pay just love and I loved it. It was a special time and it was time well spent.
The Do Lectures now takes place in Wales and California. It was recently voted in the top ten ideas festivals in the world by the Guardian. It was nominated for best website in the world and the talks have been watched by millions. I am deeply proud of it.
Then almost as I had completed my task of making The Do Lectures able to stand on its own two feet, I got a call. And it would only change 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, in 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.’ And the answer was right under my nose.
I had learned the answer is probably right in-front of you. You just have to have your eyes open.
My last key learning is about luck. At the time of leaving Howies I thought I had bad luck, but it turned out it was the best of luck. I now have my own brand again, I have my own factory. We are independent and are going to stay that way. We are introducing an idea that has never been done before with the History Tag and here’s the best bit. My town knows how to make jeans. My 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 and the answer was right under my nose. But the most important thing about luck is to recognise it and act upon it. Our aim is to get 400 people their jobs back, so we have a long way to go. We have 396 to go.
Are you still involved in The Do lectures?
Yes, as the co-founders of The Do Lectures, we oversee pretty much everything. We have built a small talented team and we are doing two events in Wales this year. One in the Spring, one in September, then Do USA is happening in September too. It has music, talks, workshops, great local food, a great pub. And you can jump in the river if the mood takes you. It’s one of those things you do in your life just because it interests you but you don’t give it so much time or so much attention. And yet it grows up into this beautiful thing. And then one day, you realise it is incredibly special.
You've been refreshingly transparent on multiple facets within the Hiut Denim brand. What led you to this approach?
I think the important thing is to be yourself. That way you don’t have to act, you never get found out, and you don’t have to lie to yourself or anyone else. It is much easier this way. I want to create one of the most creative denim companies there has ever been. I want to change how business models work not just which brand of jeans you buy. I want to put our energy into that and not trying to get people to believe we are cool, or the next fad. We will be judged by how great our ideas are. I want to be transparent about our dreams.
I've found that looking through the pages of Hiut even back before the launch, was extremely inspiring with the various stories and candid thought sharing process. What have you found the response to be like from your community, customers and fans?
I want to bring manufacturing back home to my town. I think it’s important to tell people why you are doing something and not just what. ‘Why’ is emotive and ‘What’ is factual. I believe that your first 1000 customers are your real fans. They can help you get to the dream. They need to know the dream and the plan to get there. So yes the response has been, well, just very humbling. It's a tough world, but it is good to know that there are so many amazing people out there.
What made you decide on offering two types of Denim for the launch– Turkish Organic Denim and Japanese Selvedge Denim?
We want to keep the choice small to work with the best mills and use great denims. Our thing in our mind is to do one thing well. To perfect what we do and learn to say to no to things. Be happy to be good at the small bit of our world.
How many people are currently working with you at Hiut Denim?
3 machinists, or Grand Masters as I call them. A Part time cutter and a part time mechanic, myself and Clare. And Jon Heslop. Think small, and then divide it by tiny.
It's not often that you come across the ability to buy your denim with your preferred inseam. Was this always a part of the plan for Hiut?
We have two fits, two fabrics. We are narrow. But we are so narrow, we can offer lots of options to our customers in terms of finish and sizes, etc.
The idea of the History Tag is quite special as it allows the wearer to essentially document their own wear and tear with your denim. How did you come up with this brilliant idea?
The History Tag is a big idea. This is a moment in time when products are now able to tell stories. It's like two roads coming together. One road is called the internet with its ability to tell stories and the other road is called quality. The longer a company makes something to last, the more stories it will have to tell. In time, History Tag will be used by many companies. It will be a badge of honour for quality. As humans we have a deep rooted desire to know the history of things, we just like to know. The irony of History Tag is that right now it is like an iPod without any music on it. The memories are the music and it will take time to add those memories. And isn’t nice to know, that it will take time.
Cardigan is such a small community who were producing 35,000 pairs of denim a week. Since that was so long ago– was anyone skeptical about your dream to bring denim production back to the town?
If you are Welsh, you are born skeptical. But also, the Welsh are born to believe in the underdog, it’s in the blood. We all know that the odds are against us. Our costs are greater than our rivals, they have better distribution than us, they have this, they have that. That said, history is scattered with stories of David beating Goliath. If we don’t believe in that story, we shouldn’t be doing this.
You've just about sold out of the first 200 pairs in one week, which you were telling me you thought you would sell through in one months time. How does that feel to know the launch was so well received?
We have been planning The Hiut Denim Co for the last two years in a vacuum. On that journey there are two things that come along for the ride: insecurity and belief. So it is very humbling when you tell the world: This is us. This is what we make. This is our story. This is our idea. So when they tell you that they like you, it is very humbling. You have left the vacuum, you exist.
Aside from already launching a brand once before, are there a few people or other companies who have inspired you towards a certain direction for Hiut?
Like anyone else, I have my heroes. Yvon Chouirnard at Patagonia, I like the way he has built a brand around his values and interests. I love Jake Burton’s creativity. I love how Bill Shankly built Liverpool FC. I love how Warren Buffett invested for the long term. I love how Steve Jobs built apple. I love how Radiohead are changing the music industry. But more than anything I love how creative people change this planet. And yup, I want to make their jeans.
Tell us a little bit about the yearbook project. Though it is ultimately produced for yourself as a story of the last year, does it serve a bit of a dual purpose to keep everyone involved accountable for growth? It's such a simple concept and it is put together quite nicely.
The year book project is our way to tell our story, tell people what inspires us, tell people what we make and why, what our ideas are. And there is something nice about the same group of people coming back together each year. With a limited budget compared to our rivals, we have to choose where we can win. I think we can do this as good as the best. I know when it lands on people’s desks, they are going to say ‘Who are these guys?’ Steve Jobs called it impute. It’s a funny word, but it just means how people form opinions of you from everything you do. So how well you do something, will in the end determine how your customer thinks of you.
I'm also very curious about this 10 Year Farm project. How did you decide to build this into the plan for Hiut?
It’s not a location, it’s our home. It’s a real project and we don’t have to make anything up, it’s for real. The people who come on the year book shoot are people with skills to help us re-build it. The lovely thing, overtime, you can see the farm get rebuilt, you see it find its purpose again. It just feels good to be doing that.
For people out there who may not be able to tell the difference between one pair of denim to the next, how does Hiut stand out?
Like coffee, like wine, like bread you have to start with great ingredients. We work with the best mills from all around the world. You also have to know what to do with those ingredients. We are unusual for a start up as we have over 100 years of experience of making jeans. And then you have to get the fits right. That is a dark art. Because we are only doing two styles, we can spend the time on them to master them. I think the great companies do less and not more. You are governed by what you say no to. We only make jeans, nothing else. Just jeans. We want to do one thing well. Of course, we are also going to bring ideas to the industry, like we are doing with the history tag. We will be the first jeans in the world to have a history tag because your jeans have some great stories to tell.