Last year my family rented a house for a week near the small Welsh town of Cardigan. It’s a small town of 4,000 people, on the coast and kind of in the middle of nowhere. In the past it was a significant port, but that was a long time ago. More recently, it had a textiles factory, Dewhirst Ladieswear, making jeans for Marks and Spencer. It was a significant employer, with 400 staff and a production rate of 35,000 pairs a week.
In 2002, the company decided to move its production overseas. It was profitable – making £23 million that year – but wages are cheaper in Morocco. “We were called to meet the managers this afternoon,” an employee said at the time, “and when we saw their faces we realised that something was wrong.” The staff were given 90 days notice and the last jeans factory in Britain duly shut its doors.
The jobs may have gone, but of course the skills remained. And with no other textile factories anywhere nearby, they went to waste. Until now.
Cardigan also happens to be home to David Hieatt and his partner Clare, founders of the outdoor clothing brand Howies. In 2009 David left the company, and after running The Do Lectures for a couple of years, was looking for a new challenge. Here was someone with experience in crafting a global clothing brand, in a small town where one in ten people knows how to make jeans. “In Hollywood, it’s hard to find a waiter who is not going to be an actor,” he says. “In Cardigan, it’s equally as hard to find someone who hasn’t made jeans.”
The result is Hiut, a new denim brand that will ‘do one thing well’: jeans. They will be durable, desirable, and aimed at the high end market in London and Japan. Hieatt believes they can make it work in Britain. The financial crisis has exposed the weakness of an economy based on banking instead of real things, and there is a new longing for quality rather than quantity. And they will be made in Cardigan. As the brand’s website says, in words that I find oddly moving for what is basically a marketing slogan, ‘our town wants to make jeans again.’
This resonates with me because I have lived in places that have seen their skills sidelined in similar ways to Cardigan. I lived for four years in a town that had been famous for pottery – Stoke on Trent. Few potteries now survive, and a tradition that was centuries old and world renowned was slipping away, one job at a time. There’ s the unemployment and the social problems that result, but there are unseen sides to it too. The effect on the psyche of the town was and is profound, a decades-long mourning process as your identity dissolves.
I’m in Luton now, once famous for hats, then famous for Vauxhall cars. The hats survive in a tiny handful of specialist workshops. The car factory is gone, reduced to one last production line doing vans. Its future is in the balance. The town is full of unemployed people with a lifetime of skills that are no longer in demand.
I believe there are innovative businesses that can re-activate Luton’s skills base too. I’m not a businessman and I don’t know what they are, but time is short. As Hieatt points out, there were ten years between the end of Dewhirst and his own business. If he had left in ten years longer, those skills would have been lost.
Hiut jeans aren’t available yet. The factory is up and running, and the first product is due to go on sale this month. Let’s wish them the best of luck.
Thanks to Jayne for the tip!