The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0052

Slow Fashion

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“Dreams shouldn’t be sensible.” In 2011, David and Clare Hieatt launched Hiut Denim in a small Welsh town that had been home to a jeans factory for 40 years. The Hieatts saw an opportunity to restore those lost jobs—and to do it in a way that fit with their ideas about building a sustainable business. In this episode, David Hieatt talks about taking the slow money; what it’s like when a mega celebrity endorses your brand; and his efforts to reduce the environmental impact of a ubiquitous item of clothing.


The Full Transcript:

David: [00:00:00] I’ll tell you about a bus ride I had as a kid and you know we grew up in, two hours from here in the South Wales valleys and that was a coal mining district. I mean on the trip to school, I mean every day on our left in the morning were the coal miners and they’d be holding their sandwich tins. And then at 3:30 when we would come back from school, they would be on our right. They’d have blackened faces after a hard day’s work and then one day they weren’t there. The entire industry had gone. We witnessed firsthand how suddenly community that had been brought up on a single industry went away.

[00:00:39] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:00:41] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.

Wailin: [00:00:47] And I’m Wailin Wong. Today we’re talking about a topic I know you are super into, which is jeans, specifically fancy jeans.

Shaun: [00:00:56] I am very into fancy jeans.

Wailin: [00:00:57] How did you get into fancy jeans?

Shaun: [00:01:00] I think it was on a trip to Japan and I was like, oh, what are some of the things you can only buy in Japan that I want to take back with me? And it was tea, knives, weird anime toys and denim. And then I started, you know, doing all the research into raw denim and selvedge denim and just spending way too much money on trousers.

Wailin: [00:01:23] So what kind of jeans did you come home with?

Shaun: [00:01:25] I came home with a pair of Kapitals, which were so stiff when I got them. You could stand them on end with the legs pointing straight in the air.

Wailin: [00:01:32] How did you fold them to put them in your suitcase? I actually brought an extra suitcase for all the crap I bought in Japan. And I also came back with an absolutely beautiful pair of Pure Blue jeans. They might be called Pure Blue Japan, but they’re beautiful, over dyed, like, really deep indigo.

Wailin: [00:01:52] And you can really tell the difference between these jeans and the ones that you’ve gotten in the US?

Shaun: [00:01:57] Absolutely. You know, had been buying Levi 501s for as long as I can remember.

Wailin: [00:02:02] They’re a classic.

Shaun: [00:02:03] Mm-hmm, and putting on Japanese raw denim was just absolutely life changing.

Wailin: [00:02:08] I have, since becoming a suburban mom, tm, only worn stretchy pants, but, it’s been, my kid’s almost seven, so maybe it’s time for me to get back into jeans with a button.

Shaun: [00:02:20] Well, did this interview that our listeners are about to hear get you more interested in fancy jeans?

Wailin: [00:02:27] I think so, especially because this interview is with a company, a fancy jeans company that made a pair of jeans worn by my fave—

Shaun: [00:02:36] Your hero.

Wailin: [00:02:36] —my she-ro, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex.

[00:02:41] It’s been estimated that at any given moment, half the world is wearing jeans. The vast majority of people wear mass produced jeans. They’re made quickly and inexpensively and when they stretch out too much or go out of style or get ripped up, we usually throw them away and then they end up in landfills.

Shaun: [00:02:58] The company on today’s show does things a little differently. You could say that they do things more slowly, very rework-y. Their jeans take longer to make. They’ve stayed small and grown cautiously and they want to be around for the long haul. Just like the jeans they make.

[00:03:11] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

David: [00:03:18] My name is David Hieatt. I’m the co-founder of Hiut Denim. The other cofounder I know pretty well and I’ve been married to her for 25 years. And that’s Clare, so, as she reminds me, she has one more share than me. So.

Wailin: [00:03:31] Hiut Denim is based in Cardigan, a small town in Wales. Clare Hieatt’s parents had a camper there. So David and Clare got to know the town from visiting her parents.

David: [00:03:40] The uncanny aspect of it is, I mean, we just happen to be, by luck, be in a town in West Wales, pretty remote. 4,000 people, many more sheep than people. And, but it had Britain’s biggest jeans factory. And in 2002 it closed, and 400 world-class makers had nothing to make.

[00:04:02] Dreams shouldn’t be sensible. And this one definitely isn’t. You know, we had this dream that what if we could get 400 people their jobs back in this small town.

Wailin: [00:04:14] The Hieatt’s had previous experience in the fashion industry. They’d founded an ethical active wear company called Howies and sold it to Timberland. When they decided to get into denim, they contacted a jeans maker in Hong Kong that they’d worked with before and asked them to recommend the best denim mills.

David: [00:04:31] Yeah. There’s four or five elite denim mills in Japan and you go, great. I mean the good thing is they’re all busy and then you have to go and persuade them. Like, they don’t need any more customers.

Wailin: [00:04:43] Yeah. So then how do you convince them?

David: [00:04:44] Well, I told them I was going to get 400 people their jobs back and I wanted to produce the best jeans in the world. And I was gonna build a global denim brand and I’m going to do it not through advertising. I was going to do it through skill and using the best denim mills in the world. And, and if we were to do that, we simply had to work with them. And if that didn’t work, I sent them chocolates.

Wailin: [00:05:05] So if you were to explain to a lay person like me, the difference between really high quality denim and the kind of denim that’s mass produced that you would find out in the fast fashion world, what are the main differences in how that denim gets processed?

David: [00:05:23] I mean, automatically when you go to selvedge denim and selvedge denim, just for the lay person is, that’s how they used to make it. And so it’s almost the difference between vinyl records and CDs. It’s on old shuttle looms, not very efficient but incredibly beautiful and slow. And so it takes like 2.2 meters of selvedge denim to make a pair of jeans where, you know, the mass produced stuff only takes maybe 1.1 meter. And so that, that quality is also how many times it’s dipped in the indigo dye. And sometimes you can dip it 10, 12, up to 20 times. And what that does, it means the dye goes in the very, very core of the cotton and so it is a very deep, deep denim. But if you’re making really cheap denim you can dye it maybe once, maybe twice and it’s fine because you know the indigo’s just on the outer layer you wash it once or twice and it kind of fades like crazy. Initially to look at, you can’t tell the difference between a selvedge and the mass stuff and then one or two washes in you go, wow, okay. You know the selvedge gets more beautiful with age and by and large the mainstream denim gets pretty ugly after just a few washes.

Wailin: [00:06:41] And I like this idea of slow denim because I think the concept of slowness permeates a lot of aspects of your business. And you had written a piece about fundraising where you said find the slow money and I was wondering if you could explain what that means and how you practice that when you were setting up the capital structure of your business.

David: [00:07:04] I see, like, a lot of founders and they’ve raised a bunch of money and I look at them and I think God, like, I don’t know if they’re really enjoying the thing because they’ve taken very fast money. They’ve set super high targets and they’re beaten by a stick when they don’t hit those targets. And sometimes discarded because of it and everything I know about business, everything I believe in business is you have to give patience to something for it to be really great. We tend to judge things way too quickly and we don’t judge an acorn in the first week and yet we look at these businesses going, ah,, you know, the next quarter our sales have done this and I’m going, wow, this, that’s a really odd way to go and grow something. In terms of raising money, I mean, I was fortunate because I had it at that time. I had a track record and so I could go and say to my future shareholders, going, look, I can promise you absolutely nothing for 10 years.

Wailin: [00:08:04] s that really what you told them?

David: [00:08:06] Yeah. And I’ve kept that promise. I’ve been really dutiful. And also I split the shares in terms of voting and non-voting and yeah, we sold a small chunk of non-voting but we kept all the voting to us. I mean that’s what you can achieve when you have a track record and a lot of people saw our terms and walked away and you go that’s absolutely brilliant because the people we wanted on board, you know, we wanted them to help us advise us, know, like push us when we needed pushing. But we also told them they will take time to build something of importance. And it is true. I mean, you know, if you look at Patagonia, all these companies, they all take a decade before they really get into their stride.

Wailin: [00:08:50] Yeah. And you and Patagonia have another thing in common, which is that you offer free repairs for life, right?

David: [00:08:55] Yeah. I mean, it’s good to have your role models. My only problem with Patagonia is that there’s just not enough Patagonias in the world. If we really want change, if we really want things to be different, we have to do business differently.

Wailin: [00:09:10] In terms of raising money for Hiut, did you need to raise the money because setting up a denim factory, especially kind of from scratch the way you were doing? Well, not exactly from scratch because it had been in the town before, but you were certainly, kind of starting over in terms of building it from the ground up again. Is it just extremely capital intensive?

David: [00:09:30] Oh yeah. I mean like every time you buy a machine it’s £5-10,000 and you’re gonna and you suddenly go, God that’s a lot of machines. And also, I mean, I think if you just want shareholders to raise money, that’s definitely one metric. But the other one is you want somebody to give you advice and the people who will have your back, are the people who have gone, yeah, I’m into this and I’m into this for 10 years.

Wailin: [00:09:55] So how many people do you have employed right now?

David: [00:09:59] Definitely 25-plus, but we’ve hired three people in the last month. So I don’t know if that 25 is plus three or 25’s including the three but like when people say, God, he’s taken seven years and you’ve got to 25 it’s going to take you wow a long time to get a 400 and I’m going, well ultimately, I believe in compound interest. For a bunch of time, it doesn’t look like you doing much, you’re doing much, you’re doing much. And then all of a sudden when the growth comes, you know, suddenly you’re not hiring three people, maybe you’re hiring 10 or 20 at a time. You have to be both patient in terms of building something and also be urgent. And those good tensions to have. Growth is good. It’s great. It can also be not so good. If you think about growth, like chocolate, people want more and more and more and then all the sudden you go, Oh my God, I’ve had too much chocolate.

[00:10:48] And what can happen, when you grow, and suddenly you grow too fast. And suddenly you got costs in the business that the business can’t afford and then your backs are to the wall. So it’s almost better to undercook growth. Don’t rush it and grow with cautious optimism because ultimately the aim is for you to keep control of the thing because you’re the one who is the guide. You’re the one who’s the guardian, you’re the one who has the beliefs of a certain way of doing business. And it is your duty to keep control of it. So you keep having destiny in your hands. You keep making the decisions that really matter. And you know, they’re small decisions and they’re fine. But like those small decisions, when you add them up, add them up, add them up, they’re the big decisions. And those come every day. Every decision you make. You know, 50 decisions a day, compounded, bam. At the end of the year, you can be a very different company to where you started at the beginning of the year. And unless you have a compass, which is your purpose and the reason you need to exist. If you’re just working to go and hit a number, you can compromise really quick and that’s why I look at those founders and going, you are no longer the company that you dreamt about and that’s your pain. I can see it and that’s because they got fast money and fast money does that. It can—fast money can be great, but you need an awful lot of luck for it to keep the company that you started in your head and your heart.

[00:12:17] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:12:20] After the break we’ll find out what happens when a mega celebrity wears your product. But first we’re going to tell you a little bit more about Basecamp.

Shaun: [00:12:29] Basecamp is a tool for managing projects the right way. With Basecamp, everything’s organized in one place. You’re on top of things. Progress is clear and a sense of calm sets in. Justin, a programmer on the Security Infrastructure and Performance team uses Basecamp to plan an annual backpacking trip.

Justin: [00:12:45] Yes. So, every year I go to Yosemite, backpacking with my friends and I use Basecamp to help facilitate the planning. We have a template that has all of the trailhead information, park maps, logistic information with flights. Every year a new group of people comes and I spin up a new Basecamp project using the template and it automatically creates like a welcome message with all the details on what I need from everyone. Creates a to-do list with all of our rations, all of our logistics steps from booking flights to renting cars to hotels. I kind of have it just like automated now where I can just like invite someone to this Basecamp and it like spells out everything they need to do. Do you want to come next summer and I’ll invite you and we’ll spin up the template and yeah, you’ll have all your information right there.

Shaun: [00:13:35] Get it together and manage projects the right way with Basecamp. Give it a try for free Basecamp.com

Wailin: [00:13:43] I find your story really interesting because you’ve been so deliberate about growing slow and in a controlled way and in a way that’s really thoughtful. And then something happens like Meghan Markle wears your jeans. And that’s just kind of like a runaway train that you are pulled on to. So can you talk about that experience and how it’s like that tension you talked about like sometimes you have urgency and sometimes you have slowness and sometimes you don’t really get to choose, I guess, what your week and your month look like. So how did you manage the intense amount of attention and sales and everything that came with that development?

David: [00:14:24] I mean, we all need some luck, but actually what’s not luck is how good the grand masters are at making jeans and what’s not lucky as us choosing the best material. So you know, that’s just to put the luck into context and so, yes, that wasn’t planned. The interesting thing is if you’re building an app then like suddenly if you have a million customers go and buy your app it scales really well? What it doesn’t really scale so well is a factory. They don’t really like spikes. What factories really love is consistency of you know, we know what we ordered in today and I mean, by and large, factories don’t scale particularly well or particularly quickly. That’s definitely something we’ve learned. And you go, okay, wow, uh, yeah we need to move, factory. Like, imagine moving house, but like times 10. You know, I’ll be honest, it was like a brilliant time but also like a stressful time because you knew how many orders you could get versus how many you could make and you’re suddenly going and also we couldn’t launch any of our new products for an entire year.

[00:15:33] We do a limited edition pair of jeans each month. Last year we did zero. We just couldn’t do it. And so to be on the back foot is an interesting one. We suddenly go, God, we had a communications team and I mostly, you know, we had to spend most of our time saying, hey, we’re sorry for the wait. That’s hard because you don’t want your customers to wait six months for a pair of jeans. As good as our jeans are, you know, we’d like to get them pretty straight away. And so that was, it was like the tension of, God. We, you know, for the next year you just gotta get your head down and do the work.

Wailin: [00:16:07] Yeah. I mean, is it scary to think about scaling up an entire factory, moving facilities, you know, based on this one very specific bump. Because other, I’m sure, as you know, other companies, other apparel companies have gotten similar bumps and have not, you know, been able to sustain past kind of the initial interest.

David: [00:16:31] If you’re waiting for luck to come, then maybe we used it all up doing so maybe that’s not, that kind of thing won’t happen again. And so you go, let’s remove luck from the business equation and let’s get down to some innovation. Our quest is to try and do the lowest impact jean that we possibly can. You know, there’s, you know, micro plastic fibers in most jeans because of the dye. How do we get those out? How can we reduce water usage by 50%? How can we reduce energy by 60%. For me when we innovate, this is not really down to luck anymore. And I mean I’ve always said to the team, enjoy this luck. This is a beautiful, beautiful moment. It may never come again. But what can come is innovation and that’s in our hands and also innovation about the thing that we do care about. Jeans must be the most popular trouser in the world and by default it has the biggest impact on the environment. But we would try and find our way, you know, if we could be the lowest impact jeans maker in the world, then good job. Well done.

Wailin: [00:17:40] And I did want to spend some time talking about the impact of jeans and what you’ve done to look at the environmental costs of the thing you produce. Because I wanted to ask you about the Denim Breakers Club. Can you just describe what that was about and then we can get into kind of the thesis of it and kind of what you discovered?

David: [00:18:00] Yeah, we sell raw denim mostly that’s our thing. And yet, 99% of jeans are bought, are washed denim and there are factories out there making jeans, beautiful jeans, and then they have to then make them look old. That takes a lot of water. It takes a lot of energy. But that is 99% of the entire jean sales in the world. And the 1% is raw denim. And we were kinda curious going, well actually if we gave 50 people pair of jeans and they broke them in and then we washed them and then we sold them, would people pay the extra to have jeans broken in for them?

Wailin: [00:18:40] For listeners who might not have experience with raw denim, can you describe what it feels like to wear raw denim versus the mass produced jeans that we’re all used to?

David: [00:18:50] Well, I wouldn’t want to sugar coat it. It’s kind of a bit miserable about first three months. It’s like wearing a cardboard box. I mean, it’s like taming a horse. You have to go and put up with the pain for a couple of weeks of, you know this stuff is pretty unforgiving. It doesn’t bend very much and all of a sudden it becomes softer and then yeah, eventually they get shaped to you because you know they start to mold to your body and it’s difficult to do raw denim. I mean, it’s not easy. I mean the other stuff you put on it, it’s super easy, super comfortable, straight away. This thing’s not going to get comfortable for a couple of weeks.

[00:19:28] They usually go, oh my God. Like why do people do that? Except, at the end of that you have the most beautiful pair of jeans you’ve ever had and they are your jeans. That crease is because you sit in a particular way, you put your phone in your pocket in a particular way. We make the jeans and then you go and make them.

Wailin: [00:19:46] To recap, this is how the Denim Breakers Club worked. People signed up to take a pair of Hiut jeans and wear them for six months without washing them, then send them back to the company where they’d be sold to customers. The Denim Breakers got 20% off the sale. So Hiut was essentially paying them to break in the jeans.

David: [00:20:04] When you kind of describe it, you think, well, that’s a bit mad. I mean, yeah, we need to have more experiments like that. It was kind of, I mean by the way, it didn’t work.

Wailin: [00:20:11] Oh, what didn’t work about it?

David: [00:20:13] Basically, some people liked the jeans so much, they didn’t really want to give them back. Then we got them back and we washed them, you know, we don’t have any shops so people couldn’t really see how beautiful they were. And so we tried it on Ebay and that was, yeah, that wasn’t a fantastic result. But I’m still curious by the experiment cause I think actually if we do it and did it right and we had a shop and people could see actually, um, how beautiful they were, they would perhaps pay a premium for something that was, you know, not beaten up and manufactured to look old in a factory, but went out there in real life and did a hard day’s work and looked old because it’d done some work. So that was the experiment. And so it was incomplete. But I’m kind of going, that’s fine.

Wailin: [00:20:59] One of the central questions that you posed when you announced the Denim Breaker Club was you wanted to see whether you could reduce the carbon footprint of a jean. And were you able to get a sense of that?

David: [00:21:10] It’s an interesting one. So although we can’t really truly scientifically measure it, you know, it only had one wash in a washing machine. I’m pretty sure that that would have been used less, like, energy, to do that one wash than all the other intensive stuff done in factories. But the harsh truth, and perhaps the truth that you will have to face up to is 80% of the impact of a pair of jeans are by you and I washing it. 20% of it is by us making it.

[00:21:40] But the other experiment we’ve done, which actually is probably more beneficial, we created, like a no wash club. Don’t wash your jeans for three months or six months. And actually that became really quite a big thing. And we gave people badges for not washing their jeans for six months, but suddenly when you look at the data on like how much water that saved and how much energy that saved, that becomes more meaningful.

[00:22:09] Not only do you have a more beautiful pair of jeans at the end of your, you know, abstaining, it’s a much greener jean because after you, the impact of it by no washing it is actually far greater than anything.

[00:22:21] We’ve had people who come up to us and say, we, you know, I haven’t washed the Jeans in three years.

Wailin: [00:22:25] Oh.

David: [00:22:25] Which is insane. I mean like I don’t know if they still married. Now that’s interesting. And so, you know, there are so many things that we have to do in order to try and lessen our impact and that’s part of the quest. Look, I mean Levi Strauss, Mr. Davis created like one of the most iconic inventions of the century. But you were gonna find ways to rethink how we make this thing because it is so popular

Wailin: [00:22:53] In building Hiut, David and Clare rethought a lot of conventional wisdom about running a business. They focused on doing just one thing. They looked for slow money, they planned for longterm sustainability rather than short term gains. It’s a different kind of relationship with time and it also extends to the environment they create for their employees.

David: [00:23:11] Well I try and do, in order for the team, I’m trying to protect them from all the dumb stuff and just go like, I want you to spend your time on the thing that actually you’re really good at and you make impact on rather than going to another dumb meeting. The great thing for us. We’re in west Wales, we’re four hours from anywhere and people go, oh, let’s have a meeting and they look at the map and then they go, oh, we’ll have a Zoom call and nobody really overruns on Zoom. And the ambition for me each day is if I can do three hours of concentrated on the thing that I think particularly matters, then for me, that’s a good day. There’s an awful lot of people out there going and try to live other people’s dreams and you just go, go and build a really great company. Look after your people, have a nice life. There’s nothing wrong with that, and you know like you look after your people, look after the planet, and go home on time. That’s a good life. Chase that dream.

[00:24:11] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:24:17] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner, and me, Wailin Wong. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art. Thanks to Allen Prothero for making the trip out to Cardigan to record David.

Shaun: [00:24:27] You can find show notes for this episode on our website at Rework.fm. We’ll link to David Hiut’s book, which is called Do Purpose: Why brands with a purpose do better and matter more. David and Clare are also the founders of an annual conference called the DO Lectures that features talks on topics like creativity and wellness. We’ll link to that as well.

Wailin: [00:24:47] You can find us on Twitter @ReworkPodcast and on the old fashioned telephone at (708) 628-7850. Thanks for listening and see you next week.

[00:24:58] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:25:10] Have you ever heard the term hige? H-I-G-E? Hige is a Japanese word, meaning like beard or whiskers and it also describes the fade pattern on a pair of raw jeans or any washed jeans that sort of come out like cat whiskers come out from your crotch.

Wailin: [00:25:29] Yeah.

Shaun: [00:25:29] And it creates that like little whisker pattern and it’s called hige.

Wailin: [00:25:32] I love that.

Shaun: [00:25:33] Yeah, me too.

Wailin: [00:25:33] Okay, I have a question about raw denim in case I decided to make the leap and buy the Meghan Markle jeans.

Shaun: [00:25:40] Which you definitely should.

Wailin: [00:25:40] Which I definitely should. So I have like a cream couch and like cream chair covers in my house. Can I wear the jeans and then like sit on my couch?

Shaun: [00:25:52] I wouldn’t right away. Especially because I believe Meghan’s were black dyed denim.

Wailin: [00:25:57] Yeah.

Shaun: [00:25:57] Which is definitely going to show up. Sometimes I will accidentally rub up against one of my white walls and just leave an indigo streak across that.

Wailin: [00:26:08] Is this why you painted accent walls dark blue in your apartment so—

Shaun: [00:26:11] I painted them actually indigo, yeah.

Wailin: [00:26:12] —just in case you bump up against them in your jeans.

Shaun: [00:26:15] Exactly.One thing I do do with a new pair of jeans sometimes is to put them on with nothing else and jump in a warm bath. And then I’ll pop out of the bath after half an hour or so, maybe 15 minutes and do lunges around the house to sort of get the water out. But it does take some of that, especially the dye that’s like right on top, some of that excess dye. It takes a little bit of that out without giving you like a really horrible fit.

Wailin: [00:26:45] And then how—are they impossible to get off?

Shaun: [00:26:48] Yes. I don’t own that many pairs of skinny jeans because I wear cowboy boots. But yeah, some of the thinner jeans I have, um, are very difficult to get off until they dry.