CARDIGAN, United Kingdom — Few people immediately think of Wales as having been impacted by the tide of outsourcing that has forced factories across the United States and Europe to shutter. But in the small community of Cardigan, in Mid Wales, the growth of outsourcing and offshoring has been devastating.
Once upon a time, Cardigan bustled with Britain’s biggest jeans factory, which produced upwards of 35,000 pairs of jeans per week for over 30 years, supplying large retailers like Marks & Spencer and Gap. But in 2001, when its biggest customer, Dewhirst Group, moved production to Morocco, the plant — by then, the last factory left in the area — was closed, leaving 400 craftsmen without employment. For years afterwards, Cardigan suffered the fate of so many former manufacturing towns: crumbling factories, overgrown fields, unemployment and a general loss of pride within the community.
Now, entrepreneur and Cardigan native David Hieatt and his wife and business partner Clare — who together built ethical clothing label Howies, which the couple sold to Timberland in 2006 — are stirring things up. In 2011, with the goal of bringing jeans-manufacturing back to the town, Hieatt, a former copywriter at advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, founded the Hiut Denim Company, selling men’s denim proudly manufactured in the first jeans factory that the UK has seen in a decade. “It wasn’t about starting another jeans brand. The world had enough of them,” said Hieatt. “This jeans company was about getting a town that used to make jeans to make them again.”
Hieatt’s manifesto for the company, which he refers to as a “user manual,” is simple and straight-forward. He firmly believes that to build and maintain momentum, companies must have a purpose; they must be clear about, not just what they do and how they do it, but why they are in business.
For Hiut, the purpose is two-fold. Firstly, the company aims to bring manufacturing back home to Cardigan. And secondly, Hiut is focused on craftsmanship, doing only one thing and doing it well: making jeans. No t-shirts, no sweatshirts — just jeans. “There are forty-one stages to making our jeans. We only have to be great at forty-one of them,” joked Hieatt.
In order to remain true to his purpose and “keep making jeans in this town when there will always be cheaper places to make them,” Hieatt has built an ownership structure that protects the company’s vision from dilution. Indeed, the company aims to operate without bank loans and has raised money for working capital by selling only non-voting shares, while the company’s founding manifesto refers to a “silent shareholder called planet earth.”
Hieatt has also embraced a modern sales tool that Cardigan’s businesses of yesteryear did not have: the Internet. Launched in February 2012, Hiut’s website allows customers to purchase the company’s jeans online. But current sales have outpaced production by such a degree that Hiut has temporarily stopped taking orders, so that the company’s artisans can work through the backlog.
Hiut’s use of technology doesn’t stop with e-commerce. Each pair of Hiut jeans also comes with what the company calls a “History Tag,” a unique code that customers can enter into a website to retrieve photos of their specific pair of jeans being made. Customers can also upload photos of themselves in the jeans to further add to their garment’s virtual history, which can be accessed by new owners should the jeans be passed down or end up in second-hand shops. “The more we can make a product that lasts, the more stories it will have to tell,” said Hieatt. “As humans, we have a deep-rooted desire to know the history of things. And objects have stories to tell. With the History Tag, [we] will be able to tell those stories.”
Although, currently, Hiut only produces around 10 pairs of jeans per day with a team of three skilled artisans — who Hieatt refers to as “grand masters” — one part-time cutter and one part-time mechanic to keep the company’s 24 sewing machines up and running, Hieatt aims to grow Hiut into a £30 million global denim brand that can produce 20,000 pairs of jeans per month and, ultimately, employ all 400 craftsmen who originally worked at Cardigan’s jeans factory.
“The real important thing is to 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,” he said. “The customer will tell us if we are good enough to succeed,” he continued.
“I believe in quality. I believe in skill. I believe in ideas. And I believe in my town.”
Shelby Catino is an independent journalist and researcher based in Boston and Milan.