In the initial years, the fate of the company didn't always seem rosy seen through the lens of the Hieatts' re-mortgages and overdraft guarantees, but financing the business is the least of the founders' concerns now. In February Howies was bought by Timberland after courtship with several other companies and flirtations with venture capitalists. The founders continue to retain creative control and still maintain their office in Cardigan, Wales, where the Hieatts and their 30 employees focus on being "better at being Howies," as David puts it.
So what does that entail? For one, continuing its pre-trendy green tradition and putting even more thought and energy into earth-friendly designs and a gentle, 21st century manufacturing process. "If we're going to design stuff now, how are we going to design stuff for its second or third life?" Hieatt asks. "How can we design things so that when we're finished with them they're not just going to the landfill? I think most companies try and have an enemy. I think for us we should try and make our enemy to be bad design or the landfill." To start, the company has moved from printing thousands of T-shirts before orders come in to maintaining an on-site print shop to fill orders as needed.
Another area Hieatt is eager to explore is transparency. "Want to know how much energy this product consumed? How far it traveled? Where it got made? Who made it? How much they got paid?" he asks. Howies is now in a place to provide answers through the collaboration with Timberland. "[It's] never been the problem with having the ideas, it's the money or the time with making them happen," Hieatt says.
The company is as much about its message as it is about its products—Howies makes jeans, sure, but they're jeans to save the world. Send for a catalog (or, better yet, download the PDF) and beyond product there's great photography (including work by former Wieden + Kennedy, Amsterdam creative director Jon Matthews), illustration, interesting essays on the environment and inspirational bits of sloganeering. This year, the Howies skateboarding team embarked on a U.K. tour in a van covered in blackboard paint (a £70 expenditure, Hieatt notes) to gather chalked-on reactions to the suggestion in the media that nuclear power was the solution to climate change.
In April, Howies led a brand camp of sorts in the Welsh hinterlands and taught 40 eager applicants lodged in yurts how to apply the same ideologies to their own interests. The inaugural Little Big Voice lectures focused on "practical tools to get media attention for your causes" and featured founders Hieatt and Wieden/Amsterdam's Matthews, Wieden/London executive creative director Tony Davidson (a onetime Howies investor), Dan Germain from Innocent Drinks and marketing thinker Russell Davies—familiar faces from the advertising world that Hieatt credits for helping Howies find its voice.
Hieatt says its trademark product-community-information mix will be in effect at the company's recently opened shop on London's Carnaby Street—despite the high rents the two-story space will feature "30-40% other stuff," including a lending library, art, a water fountain to refill bottles and a switch to light the front window at night when someone wants to see inside as opposed to leaving the electricity on. Hieatt alludes to a second shop should this one succeed, potentially in San Francisco. "The good and bad thing is if we get it right we go to number two, if we get it wrong we don't get to go past number one," he says.
Check out an extended Q&A with Howies' David Hieatt or read about the next Creative Marketer, Girl Skateboards.
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