howies (always with a small h) was founded by Clare and David Hieatt in 1995. The name “howies” deriving from Clare’s maiden name of “Howells”. The company has a following amongst the mountain biking and surf/skate communities, and also amongst the growing eco-conscious consumers. Their range of t-shirts, jeans and knitwear aims to be as ethical as possible and use natural alternatives to chemically derived fabrics.
In 2001, the company relocated to Wales, using its base in Cardigan Bay as a branding/selling point. The company’s first proper mail order catalogue was produced the same year. Their catalogues have gone on to become collectable items themselves, mixing information, items for sale and sound bites to entertain and educate their readers. This is also evident in their site.
In 2003, Levis threatened to sue howies over the placement of a logo bearing tab on the rear right pocket of their jeans – launching a campaign to fight for the right to be creative and against the Goliath’s of industry. howies won this battle, with common sense prevailing.
In December 2006, the Hieatts sold the company to Timberland, feeling it would be a good fit under their umbrella and give it a chance to grow and flourish into a larger label in its own right, whilst still retaining the founders’ knowledge and guidance. To the outsider, nothing seemed to have changed. howies continued to produce well made, ethical items, with no perceptible interference from the larger of the two companies.
In January 2012, howies management team announced that they had purchased the company back and that howies would continue to operate from Cardigan as an independent company. In a blog post, the new company cited that being part of a $2 billion company wasn’t easy but with Timberland being bought by VF and finding themselves a tiny company as part of a $10 billion company, the time had come to go small again and once again become independent.
I interviewed the team recently.
How important are recycled fibres as part and parcel of the design piece?
We try to make all our stuff in a low impact way. That just seems like common sense to us. And recycled fabrics are a big part of that. They’ve been used in howies clothes for years and they still find a place in the ranges we’re working on now.
We’ve had great success with recycled and recyclable fabrics; from boardshorts to t-shirts, hoodies and jackets. So they will continue to be part of our design programme for the forseeable future.
We always try to pinpoint the best possible fabric for the piece we are designing. If we need a breathable fabric for a windproof running jacket, for example, recycled polyester can be a good choice. Or if it’s a crew or sweater, we have used cotton blended from recycled scraps to create a washed and worn look and feel without the need to use any chemical finishes.
Whenever we can, we use natural materials. Our waterproof coats are made using a densely woven cotton called Ventile. No chemicals are needed to make it waterproof.
From feedback, is this an important area for your customer base, or a “nice to have” where design is foremost?
It’s a key aspect for the majority of our customers – not necessarily the recycled issue alone, but a more considered approach to product is important to them and definitely has a hand in their buying decisions.
For us it’s about being smart with our fabric choices and pairing them to a specific end use. For instance, Merino wool has always been a really popular part of our range. It’s natural breathability and heat control means it’s the ideal fabric for base layers for sport. In fact it actually performs better than the industry standard manmade fabrics.
Printed t-shirts are also a big part of our business – they are the first thing howies ever made – ours are all made from organic cotton. As is our denim too.
Ultimately, that mix of ideas and sport-led design, teamed with environmental consideration is the reason people come to howies.
What was howies experience working under Timberland’s wing and what’s it like being independent again? Any differences/similarities?
Under Timberland we were a small part of a $2bn company. And when Timberland was bought by VF, we became a minuscule part of a $10bn company and relatively low on their list of priorities. So when we bought howies back last January, it made the most sense for everyone involved.
Now we can make all the important decisions in-house, more quickly (and not by commitee). We can have an idea at breakfast and execute it by lunchtime. It’s kind of like the difference between driving a speedboat or a giant tanker.
And now that we’re independent again, all of the staff here have the opportunity to earn shares in the business. That feels like a great thing to be able to do for everyone who puts in the time and effort here. It’s something we could only have ever done by becoming independent.
It feels good to be small again.
How about the importance of sustainable fashion to men? Is it a different approach to women?
Sustainability should be a part of any design process – clothing included. But the one thing men and women do share is the appreciation of quality. And we think good quality and sustainability go hand in hand – often the best thing you can do for the environment is to make things last. Badly made products lead by fashion need continual replacement. Whereas products made from higher quality materials have durability and will inevitably last a lot longer. We think our male and female customers both understand that when they’re shopping.
What is howies’ customer base? I have to admit I’m well past 40 and still wear howies but wondered what your demographic is?
We are lucky in that howies has quite a wide reach. We get orders from customers of all ages and from all over the world, with new people discovering us daily. The majority of our customers would probably be around 25-50. It’s primarily mountainbikers, road cyclists, runners, snowboarders, skateboarders and surfers (not team sports) – people who share a love of the outdoors and respect for nature.
What drives howies design process?
I suppose it’s led by quality, honesty and a love of our sports. We live in an amazing part of the UK and everyone that works here makes the most of it. They cycle, run, surf or skate and, as a group, have an authentic understanding of the way sports clothing needs to function.
The ranges we are are tightly focused. And every item has it’s place and a reason for being – determined by the function it’s sport requires from it.
The process is also led by simplicity, not trend or fashion. The idea that good product design is often as little design as possible – if it doesn’t need to be there, take it off. We have been inspired by The Shakers, who believe ‘beauty comes from utility’. We also know that less complicated things have less things to go wrong
How does howies see itself in 10 years time? Larger? Still independent? Still green?
We don’t want to be too big. There’s a lot of merit in howies staying small; we can stay in Cardigan, keep true to making clothes the howies way and manage our business without too much business getting in the way.
In 10 years we hope keep still be making great clothes for the sports we love in the way we believe in. But the thing that keeps us sane is that we are in control.