Ideas to change the world: Hiut Denim

A Welsh factory is supporting the local community while making some of the world's best jeans 

David Hieatt’s brain moves so fast he has a habit of cutting his sentences short; skipping onto the next idea ahead of time and leaving your own brain to play catch-up. It’s this energy that has propelled him into the realm of building successful businesses with an eye on both profit and social purpose. 

Hieatt and his wife Clare set up Hiut Denim in 2012 with the aim ‘to get 400 people their jobs back’ while making some of the best jeans on the planet. Hiut Denim is based in the Welsh town of Cardigan, a town with a proud history of manufacturing. But it fell on hard times in 2002 when a jeans factory – the largest employer in the community – closed its doors. It was one of many UK clothing companies to be priced out of the market by fast-fashion imports. 

The pair set up Hiut Denim in this very factory and have created 30 jobs so far – 370 to go – and have celebrity fans that include Meghan Markle. ‘I believe in compound interest,’ says Hieatt, ‘and I tell our team constantly that all we have to do is get one per cent better every day. Growth feels attainable that way, and if we keep doing that we’ll be a totally different company before any of us realise it.’ 

Hieatt’s first steady job was at renowned advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi London, which he joined at 21, having previously run a market stall selling trainers. ‘If you want to know what I truly learned there, I learned the importance of storytelling. How to write like you talk. How to stand out. You don’t need the biggest budget. Hard work is rewarded.’ It was here that he cut his teeth as a creative, and a brand-builder. He left Saatchi after eight years to join another influential agency, Abbott Mead Vickers, where he stayed for seven years and was promoted to the board. 

Aged 36, Hieatt left the agency world behind and went on to found an ethical outdoor clothing brand, Howies, which uses organic, recycled or natural fabrics in all its collection, rather than the synthetic materials commonly used elsewhere. ‘We wanted to go back to Wales and to have outdoor clothes we could feel comfortable wearing,’ he says.  

Hieatt started the business with four T-shirts, but it grew quickly, winning awards and voted into the top 50 brands in the UK year after year. He sold it to Timberland in 2006, but regrets the decision. ‘We realised that a business needs its founders to complete the mission. Leaving Howies we felt like we’d only half completed what we set out to do.’ Hieatt tried to buy back the business three times. 

Then came Hiut Denim. ‘After we sold Howies, Clare and I understood that we could build brands that reflected our own values as individuals,’ he reflects. ‘But, when I sat down to write the business plan for Hiut, I sat on it for a year thinking, “I’m not sure I want to run around the same track twice.”’ 

It was a conversation with a friend that changed this perspective. ‘They said to me, “It’s not really about you, Dave. It’s about the town. If you don’t reopen the factory, all those skills will be lost.” So, I started thinking about running around that track not just for me, but for Cardigan, and that started to feel like something I could do.’ 

Another vital lesson that Hieatt learned during his time in advertising was that a business with a clear mission wins. ‘Companies with a soul are so much more interesting than companies motivated purely by profit,’ he says. ‘Patagonia has a mission to help inform you about the environment and the damage we’re doing to it. Yvon Chouinard didn’t start out thinking, “Let’s go and build the most profitable outdoor clothing brand”, he thought, “I’ll create a company that cares as much about the environment as I do.”’ 

Right now, of course, Hiut Denim has a more immediate challenge to overcome. Like the vast majority of British businesses, the factory is currently closed in response to Covid-19, the staff have been furloughed, and the production of jeans is on hold. A group of volunteer Grand Masters (the name for Hiut Denim’s machinists) is sewing scrubs for the NHS instead. Hieatt’s creative team is using this time to plan for the future; looking at ways to create more jeans in organic denim (Hiut’s first-ever range of organic jeans has just been released), and reduce the company’s carbon footprint. ‘I’m interested in the little victories, right now,’ Hieatt says. 

He might call these achievements little victories, but they testify to Hieatt’s will to build a company that serves communities in all their different forms. ‘We have the community of our customers, the community of our team, and the wider community of the town we’re supporting too,’ he says. 

But he’s not so optimistic about the business community. ‘Too many companies have forgotten that we need to be good citizens,’ he suggests. ‘If every brand in the world tried to behave just a little bit better every day, maybe we wouldn’t have so many problems in the world.’ 

Aleks Cvetkovic contributes to the Financial Times, Robb Report and The Telegraph. He also hosts men's style podcast, HandCut Radio