AR — How and why did Hiut Denim begin?
David Hieatt — We started maybe a year and a half or two years ago. We had left our previous company, Howies, and were wondering what we were going to do for a living. Our town just knows how to make jeans. We had the biggest jean factory here [in Cardigan, Wales] and in 2001 it shut down; 400-500 people who knew how to make jeans didn’t have anything to do. The combination of our old company and just, luck, that our town used to make jeans and we wanted to make jeans. All these things came together at once, really. The ‘why’ of it, was to try to get our town to make jeans again, the ‘how’ of it was just to buy some sewing machines and start Hiut Denim Company and see if we can get some of the townsfolk their jobs back, and in the process, build quite a unique and creative denim company.
You have spoken about the history of objects—the personal journeys that indelibly inscribed into the quality items we own that last. Could you tell me more about the ‘history tag’ concept and how that idea developed?
The objects that we own tell stories about us. Where they went. What they did. Basically, all the things that we went through. I just thought it would be great if we could attach those memories to a pair of jeans through this marvelous thing called the internet which has the ability to tell many different stories. The interesting thing is, every pair of jeans will have a different story to tell. We just want to find a way to remember those stories. Even the most brilliant things that happen to us, through the ravages of time, we kind of forget the details. I just wanted to bring together two things: the desire of the company to make something last and the internet’s ability to tell stories. I think if we attach memories to things we will discard them a lot less in the future. As those jeans stand the test of time they’ll be handed down or end up in a second-hand store. The great thing is that their memories will go with them, and they’re not lost.
It used to be that we shouldn’t be attached to material things. What is the benefit of being emotionally connected to the things you own?
I think so. It’s easy to discard things if we have no relationship with them. For a while we all got stuck in throw-away culture where we’d buy this and buy something else and throw away this and discard it. If we buy quality and something is made to last then in a way because it’s going to last longer it’s going to have more stories to tell and have even less reason to be discarded. I think we discard things because we get a bit bored with them, or we fall out of love with them. If things mean something to us, we’re going to discard them a lot less.
How has the local community and economy of Cardigan been affected by Hiut Denim? Or, if it’s too early days still, what would you hope it accomplishes locally?
When the jeans factory closed in the town, that was 10% of the workforce. They had a huge bearing on the town, economically, and in terms of its competence and confidence. It was such a big part of what it [Cardigan] did. Suddenly that got stopped. A community can lose part of its reason to be by things like that happening. The townsfolk are really keen for us to succeed. The town knows how to do that thing, ever so well, to the point where they can do it better than most. If it’s got a second chance to show the world what it can do, then we’ve got to take it and see what we can do with it.
Hiut encourages participation or at least visibility and understanding—your website even has a constant camera feed of the workshop at all hours of the day. Why do you think people are curious about workshops? Why is it important to you to be open about the process?
Oddly enough, I think the banking crisis had some good come out of it. I’m sure it’s been true of Canada, and America, and Britain, I think they just wake up and think “If we can’t really depend on this industry maybe we should start to make things again. And if it means we have to pay a bit more for that stuff then we will, because we will pay a bit more for quality.” Just seeing it on a scale that they can understand is good. People like to get into it from the beginning so they can see what it’s all about. Maybe because we’re so small we can make that connection easier than big companies. Maybe we’re just using what we have in terms of our strengths, and our strength is actually that we are quite small so you can be a part of our startup too.
Do you plan to expand over the next few years? What would growth mean to you?
Well, we’ve got a really nice problem where we opened and we had more orders than we thought we would ever have. We’re trying to cope with that. In the first couple years, we just want to get great at this thing. Once we’re happy that we’re great at it we can say, “Ok, where do we want to go now?” But our focus is how can we be great at this thing? If we’re great then the phone will ring. We want to be in 20 great shops around the world, but we don’t expect one. For now it’s just “Be Great.” I always love that quote from Radiohead when they said, “We don’t want to be the biggest band in the world, but we wouldn’t mind being the most important.” So if we bring ideas to the denim market, and we do things that haven’t been done, and if we do things in some ways that are better than anybody else, the phone will ring. We’ll have to decide at that time, where we’re going to take it. But the focus right now is just to be great and do things that nobody has done. Nobody has done a history-focused denim yet. Lots of people are making jeans, but they haven’t looked at the internet and its abilities to tell stories. I find that quite interesting.
Makers have always existed, and every day many go out of business. It’s not because their work is not honest or good, it’s because they can’t market it. What's your view on that?
There are companies out there that are willing to make the time to make a great jean as well, so how do we rise above them? One way is to help the customer understand what we’re doing and why. Another way is by bringing ideas to the party. The first thing we have to do is make a great jean because if we don’t do that, then none of the other stuff matters. The other stuff is simply a way of connecting with our customers. I think that the best brands in the world make you feel something. We want customers to be proud of what they wear.
Not only are you actively changing your world, but you have initiated a project to inspire others to change things as well. How did The Do Lectures come about? How did this project get to where it is today?
It was inspired by Patagonia’s Tool Conferences that give people tools to do some things. The only thing was that it was great for the people who physically went there, but the people who weren’t there never got that information and inspiration. I thought it would be good for us to do something for all the doers in a world to teach and inspire other people to go do things, and to film it and to give those things away for free.
Later that day my friend sent me a text that said, “Don’t just stand there. Do something.” And that evening my partner, Clare, and I started preparing what we actually had to do to create what is now The Do Lectures.
Interactive lectures and conferences seem to be changing the landscape of continued education. How do you meet the demand for participants without diluting its intimacy and authenticity? You must get many requests, how do choose who is included?
We ask them to submit a form and from that we can feel how much they want to be there. The audience for an event is as important as the speakers at the event. In a way, it’s the left leg and the right leg and you need both to take you forward. If you’ve got a great bunch of speakers, but the attendees aren’t great, it can fall apart. It is a small intimate event because of that. We’re thinking of doing a festival because we would like more people to come and be inspired by it, but at the moment price is prohibitive. We are looking at ways in which we could allow more people to come along and feel a part of it because it is quite a special event.
Do you consider yourselves a conference, or are you aiming specifically for a lecture environment where it is a shared learning experience and more participatory? Assuming there is a greater demand for spots, do you have any plans for growth and expansions?
I like that it’s a small intimate event, there is nothing like it. The speakers and attendees get an enormous amount out of it. There are probably ways to keep some of that and allow a lot more people in. At this point in the year we always sit down and throw around ideas, “What if we tried this? What if we did that?” But as an event, it’s quite exceptional; there’s no separation between speakers and attendees. Everyone drinks together, eats together and sits together.
That is an interesting foil to the epic proportions of TED Talks; which feels enormous and there is more absorbing than interacting.
Our talks are there to create discussion and inspiration, but in the talk after that talks, that’s where it gets really interesting. When everyone is up in the canteen we judge the success by the decibel level and the amount of hubbub after the talk. Each year the decibel level goes up. Ideas need talk and friction. The organization is about that sharing and challenging of ideas so that they can become better.
Ideas, in a way, are one of the purest things around. They don’t care if you smell, or what college you went to or what sex you are or what religion you pray to. They can come to you at any moment of the day. They don’t care if you’re rich or you’re poor. Anybody can have a good idea. Sometimes you just need to be able to stop and recognize it.
Ideas are amazing things. Twitter didn’t exist 6 years ago, and suddenly they had an idea. We live in world full of ideas, the skill is making them happen.
How does motivating others help you?
Listening to 30 people and their stories about having done brave things, I guess that rubs off on me just like anybody else. Once you meet them you think, “My God, we’ve got to push! We’ve got to do this!”, and we all get fired up which is good because we all get trapped in the day-to-day. We forget about the things that we dream about. There is a halo effect for everybody.
What is the next step for The Do Lectures?
In time we can see growing, we’ll be building around the California one, we’d like to do one in India, we’d love to do one in New York somewhere, just slowly over time incline in special events. We’d like to take our time and get good at stuff. It’s just about making it special. The more special you make it, the more the phone will ring.
Have you always been in leadership roles?
Nah, I’m a rubbish leader. I’m just interested in making things happen. I’ve always been keen to understand what motivates people. Why do people have an idea, why are they so stubborn to make it happen and why do some people give up? It’s interesting to understand people’s drive and how they make wonderful things happen.
As someone who is clearly very involved in and attached to the idea of making, would you say this move towards DIY-everything is a fad, a trend or a revolution?
That might be more of a zeitgeist thing. It might be a reaction partly to the banking crisis, partly the fact that there is a disconnect when everything is outsourced, and there’s something in between in the void. I think it’s going to be a growing zeitgeist inasmuch as there is a whole bunch of people who want to get back to doing what they used to do, or have figured out that something’s missing.
With so much trash on the Earth, not only in landfills, but temporarily living on the shelves at Wal-Mart, why is it important for people to participate in the process of making things?
It’s good to understand how everything works. It wasn’t so long ago that all companies tried to make things that last, and now there are companies focused on making things so that they don’t last. I tend to think that there is a dissatisfaction with that sort of continual replacement. Understanding how a company works I understand that they have to make a profit... But I think there are bigger questions to ask in terms of the future. Will people own as many things? Maybe there will be new ownership models. Like communal cars. Maybe you won’t own a car, maybe you will own them for the days that you want them. Sometimes we buy things, and we use them once a year. There are probably 364 other people who would use it once a year too. The question of ownership is an interesting one, and how we use things in the future, whether we buy things or have them under services. The role of the Wal-Marts and the supermarkets, maybe they will be different in the future.
Is there a relationship between the environmental crisis and the maker movement? Or to buying wardrobe pieces that last?
The relationship between the environment and the economy is one that is going to have to narrow. We simply can’t carry on the way we’re doing it. Eventually the economics won’t add up because there are certain materials that we can’t afford to throw away. The likes of Nike, their challenge is that they are built in compounds that they won’t have in the future. They’re going to be forced into this thing, using materials that we can re-use and that are more sustainable. There’s a quote that basically says, “We’ve been messing up the environment for 200 years out of a billion, but unfortunately we’ve been really good polluters, exceptional, world-class polluters, in the last 60 years. I don’t say that flippantly, but, hopefully in the next 200 years we’ll understand that we can’t do that anymore, and we’re going to have to be world-class environmentalists.” Businesses will have to think that way because they’ll need materials, they won’t have any business if they don’t think that way. The economics of things, in the end, will pour into the environmental.
Are high-quality, long-lasting, non-disposable products a threat to the economy—the idea of buying less but buying better? Is it trickling down to younger crowds and not just affluent grownups?
I think the young generation is going to be smarter than any has ever been. I think they are going to be the most concerned about the environment of any generation. I think they won’t make the mistakes that our generation is going through. I think they will shop differently. I think they will continue differently. I think they will see lots of our mistakes and most will not want to repeat them. I’m very much an optimist on that front. I think they will make purchases by the idea that the less the better.
In the meantime, we’re going to make a quality product, and guess what, that product is going to last. For us as a company we’re going to have to understand that our customers probably won’t need to come back to us for 5-10 years, and that’s ok. We just have to find new customers in that time. It’s a bit like fishing. You’ve fished there, it’s time to move on to the next bit. A lot of these companies are just making a product cheaper and cheaper so that they can get the same customer back who are buying it simply because it is so cheap, even if they don’t really want it. It’s that idea that it’s a bargain, regardless of whether or not you need it, or want it, it’s a bargain. So you buy it and never use it. Hang on, is anyone going to put their hand up and say, “Isn’t that a bit dumb?”
Will people rent jeans in the future because they last so long? Will I buy a jean in its third year and let someone else buy the jeans in the fifth year? Anything is possible. We’re interested in bringing some different thinking into what we’re doing. Buying a jean for £250 would be quite a lot of money, but it might be that I like the look of them in the third year, so I’ll just buy them for the third year and I’ll let someone else buy and wear them for the first two. I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not, I just know that we need to think a little bit differently on some stuff.
The Hiut ‘Yearbook’ magazine you created was a very interesting idea, how did that come about?
There are a lot of decent startup companies; how do we separate ourselves from all the others? We’ve got a great story, we’ve got—because of the skill here—an ability to make a great jean, maybe the best. We needed to tell
people that just because we are small, it doesn’t mean that we’re not ambitious, that we don’t want to be great. Sometimes you just need to do something as good as you can and for people to go, “Ok, I get where you’re going to go.” You should start off with the intention that you want to be great. Know exactly where you’re going to go to and know how you’re going to get there. It’s important for other people to understand that and see where we’re going. The magazine was our way to say, “Guys and girls, we’re small, but guess what? We want to be great.”