2013-04-16

Co.Exist

Selling Artisanal Denim—And A Story Of Economic Revival

Can Hiut Denim, a small Welsh jeans company revitalize a town once the big clothing mill has left?

"It seemed like a great thing to fight for," entrepreneur David Hieatt says of bringing manufacturing back to the small town of Cardigan, Wales. Cardigan had long been home to the largest denim factory in Wales, producing 35,000 pairs of jeans a week for four decades. When the factory shuttered its doors and took production to Morocco in 2001, hundreds of skilled local craftsman were out of work. Making jeans was the only living they had ever known.

In 2012, David Hieatt and his wife, Clare, reopened the factory with the idea that Cardigan’s "grand masters" would once again do what they did best: make jeans. "The knowledge in this town is incredible. Some of these masters have been cutting jeans for 40 years. It would be a shame to lose that knowledge," David reasoned. The Hieatts combined their last name with "utility"—they planned to make a rugged, utilitarian product—and Hiut Denim was born.

Their company now produces 100 pairs of jeans a week, a fraction of the output the factory had seen in the past. Embracing quality over quantity, Hiut Denim’s business model is centered on the idea of doing one thing well. But can a company achieve profit making only 100 pairs of pants a week?

Within their first two weeks of operation, Hiut received six months worth of back orders on their website. The jeans are also for sale in 10 stores throughout the U.K. At roughly $350, Hiut Denim—available in organic or selvedge, slim fit or regular—is selling a story as much as a product.

There’s the story of reviving a small town’s economy, a narrative that any conscious consumer can feel good about. Then there’s the story of a life told through jeans. Hiut Denim features a "History Tag," a unique product number that can be uploaded onto HistoryTag.com, where consumers can Tweet, Instagram, and otherwise use social media to tell the story of where their jeans have been.

This clever bit of marketing grew out of the belief that emotions are attached to our favorite objects: "We have the Luddite desire to make a long-lasting quality product. We also have a geeky desire to use the Internet to share stories of products that impact our lives. History Tag is a way to document memories so that they last as long as the product we’re making."

Using the story of Cardigan as its springboard, Hiut Denim hopes to build its brand around its customers’ stories. Hieatt recognizes that the story of reviving Cardigan is a sentimental one. "Great business is not built on sentiment alone. We have to make a great product too. So that’s where craftsmanship, skill, and quality materials come in." With 40,000 hours of training under their belts, Hiut’s grand masters certainly deliver a great product. Whether consumers can generate demand through History Tag remains to be seen.

So far, History Tag’s feed is a collection of Instagram photos of cuffed jeans and cool sneakers. Hieatt hopes that in time, History Tag will evolve in the same way that an iPod evolves from blank slate to music library. While it may be lofty to assume that a life story can be told through a pair of pants, History Tag is a clever marketing technique that will likely be mimicked by other clothing companies.

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