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Identity Issue 4

Shape Shifters

Words By: Joanne Hart, joanne-hart.com

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David Hieatt is co-founder of the do lectures and Hiut denim, a cult brand of jeans. Both the lecture series and the Hiut factory are based in cardigan, a small market town in West Wales, which has played a central role in Hieatt’s life. Now he is shaping the town’s identity too, as Joanne Hart found out on a trip to meet him.

It was 1982, David Hieatt was 17 years old and he was going to Ireland – on a bicycle. That was the first time he saw Cardigan, a town of just 4,000 people nestling against the Celtic Sea.“I was with my girlfriend, Clare, now my wife. We were suffering. We had no idea how many hills our journey would involve and we’d overloaded our bikes! But we rode into town at 18 miles an hour and it was just a sea of green. I remember, even then, feeling quite comfortable here. There was an honesty about the town. It just felt right,” he says. Hieatt kept coming back, first as a teenager and then as a young married man, working in advertising during the turbo-charged 80s and 90s.

“Clare’s parents had a caravan here so we would come for holidays. Then we moved to London. Clare was working for the biggest design agency. I was working for the biggest ad agency. We both had super-busy lives. Cardigan was an antidote to all that,” he explains.

“I grew up in a very small, coal-mining town, Penpedairheol in South Wales. I pretty much knew everybody and I liked that sense of community. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was real. Cardigan’s like that too. It’s not gentrified. It’s not a second-home kind of place. People live here and work here. There’s a cattle market every Monday, where farmers come to sell their wares. It’s not trying to be something that it’s not. And there are values – hard work, humility, honesty. You have to earn your stripes to be accepted – and I like that,” he adds. While ensconced in the media world, the Hieatts decided to set up a clothing business on the side, Howies, derived from Clare’s maiden name, Howells. The business took off, with skate-boarders, mountain bikers and the BMX community clamouring for its edgy, environmentally friendly clothing.

Within a few years, Howies was cited as one of the top ten brands in the world, ahead of Adidas and just behind Nike. Seeing this in a book that he happened to pick up at work was a turning point for Hieatt.

 

We were in our mid-30s and we were at the top of our profession. I was the youngest person on the board of Abbot Mead Vickers and remarkably well paid. We’d been climbing the mountain but I had to ask myself if I was enjoying the view as much as I thought I would. Meanwhile, Howies was breaking new ground and we were only doing it part-time,” he says. “I’d just been offered a job in San Francisco but I realised that I didn’t want to do it for anyone else any more. I wanted to do it for myself and I wanted to do it where I wanted to live, back in Wales.” Within three months, the London home had been sold and the Hieatts were heading West with their baby daughter. Cardigan was their destination. “We could have gone to Cardiff or thereabouts but we thought, if you’re going to be a big-city defector, go to the far edge, make the break. And there was an almost gravitational pull to Cardigan. We’d got to know the town. We knew we couldn’t get cappuccino, we knew there were no great restaurants back then, but Cardigan was down to earth and that suited us,” Hieatt explains.

This is a makers’ town. It’s part of the town’s identity.

The couple began to work full-time on Howies - in Cardigan. The business flourished and, in 2003, it was sold to Timberland, on the premise that they understood the importance of Cardigan to the company. But it soon became clear that there was no real meeting of minds between Howies’ founders and the US giant. The business now has different owners and is in a different part of Wales but even as Hieatt left, the thought of creating a new jeans business had already entered his mind. And the key point of the venture was that it should be based in Cardigan, where a Marks & Spencer’s supplier had been making jeans for decades, until the factory shut down in 2002. “This is a makers’ town. It’s part of the town’s identity. Four hundred world-class jeans-makers worked here, the factory was the heartbeat of the town and in 2002, that heartbeat literally stopped. So, as I was leaving Howies, I wrote a plan. ‘We’re going to create a business that specialises in making jeans. We won’t do anything else but we will make them in this town because this town knows how to make jeans extraordinarily well so we will do this one thing and do it well.’ At the time, though, manufacturing was going away to places that were cheaper. The hipster movement, celebrating quality and craft, was years away and I felt rather deflated after the Howies experience,” says Hieatt.

 

 

Turning away from retail, Hieatt spent several years building up the Do Lectures, an annual three-day event, which attracts an array of leading, high-profile thinkers to a cow-shed in Cardigan, where they explain what they do and inspire listeners into action. The Do Lectures remain a key part of Hieatt’s work but, in 2011, an old friend asked what had happened to the jeans plan. Hieatt admitted that it was on a shelf at the back of his shed.

The factory was the heartbeat of the town and in 2002, that heartbeat literally stopped.

“I said I wasn’t sure if I wanted to run round the same track twice. But he said, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about getting this town making jeans again. And if you don’t do it now, then 40 years of expertise will just be lost because all those world-class jeans-makers will start retiring.’” The words hit home and Hiut Denim was born soon afterwards. Recently rehoused in the very factory where the former M&S supplier was based, Hiut’s location is a key part of its success. So is the ability to sell online, direct to the consumer. “For the maker, the internet is a game-changer. It’s built roads in the sky and if you can make a great product and tell a great story, those roads open up the world,” he says. “You used to go to the city to do interesting things and then you went to the country to retire. Now you can do interesting things in beautiful places and have a nice life, but also an interesting, fulfilling one,” he adds. The rationale does not just apply to Hieatt but also to Hiut employees and other townspeople whose lives have begun to change, following the company’s success.

“You hear about people losing their confidence, but the same can happen to towns; when you’re known for something and that something stops, you lose confidence. Now the town is becoming known for making jeans again. It’s the right town, with the right people, at the right time. Meghan Markle wears our jeans. The Arctic Monkeys wear them. René Redzepi, the world’s best chef, wears them. So we’re helping Cardigan to get its mojo back. Today, it feels like a town on the up. And when people ask me how I feel about that, I say I’m feeling pretty good,” says Hieatt.

Joanne Hart is an award-winning journalist and writer, whose interests span business, finance and society at large. She is the editor of MATTER.

This article appeared in Issue 4 - Identity

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