Small companies thrive as customers seek unique clothing


Associated Press

LONDON

Claudio Belotti knows he cut the denim that became the jeans Meghan Markle wore on one of her first outings as the fiancee of Britain’s Prince Harry.

That’s because he cuts all of the fabric for Hiut Denim Co., a 7-year-old company that makes jeans in Cardigan, Wales. Belotti is a craftsman with 50 years of experience that gives his work a personal touch – something that’s not quite couture but not exactly mass-produced, either.

“There’s a story behind each one,” Belotti said. “You’re paying for the skill.”

Customer demand for something unique is helping small companies like Hiut buck the globalization trend and set up shop in developed countries that had long seen such work disappear. While international brands such as H&M and Zara still dominate the clothing market, small manufacturers are finding a niche by using technology and skill to bring down costs and targeting well-heeled customers who are willing to pay a little more for clothes that aren’t churned out by the thousands.

Profits at smaller national clothing firms grew 2 percent over the last five years, compared with a 25 percent decline at the top 700 traditional multinationals, according to research by Kantar Consulting.

Their success comes from promoting their small size and individuality, said Jaideep Prabhu, a professor at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School.

“It’s a different kind of manufacturing,” he said. “These are very cool little boutiques.”

Hiut, which makes nothing but jeans, employs 16 people and makes 160 pairs a week. Women’s styles range from $192 to $244, men’s cost more. Each is signed by the person who sewed it. By contrast, Primark says it sources products from 1,071 factories in 31 countries and keeps costs down by “buying in vast quantities.” The most expensive pair of jeans on the company’s website sells for 20 pounds.

Many of these small manufacturers also try to stand out by embracing social issues, from reducing waste to paying a living wage.

Hiut, for example, highlights its efforts to put people back to work in a small town that was devastated when a factory that employed 400 people and made 35,000 pairs of jeans a week shut down. Underscoring the years of craftsmanship that go into each pair of jeans, the company offers “free repairs for life.”

This kind of customer service helps form a “personal relationship” between a brand and the shopper that is valuable, says Anusha Couttigane of Kantar Consulting.

Customers notice. Laura Lewis-Davies, a museum worker who from Wales, says she wants to support independent businesses when she can and bought a pair of Hiut jeans after seeing a story about Markle wearing the brand.

“Well-crafted things bring more joy,” she said. “I’d rather buy fewer things but know they’re good quality [and] made by people who are working in good conditions for a fair salary.”

The rise of small-clothing makers reflects a broader shift in consumer preferences away from big brands – as evident, say, in the boom in craft beers. In fashion, technology is fueling the trend.

The internet provides a cheap way to reach customers, while off-the-shelf artificial intelligence programs allow companies to accurately forecast demand and order materials so they can make small batches and avoid unwanted stock. That makes it possible to produce clothes that are more customized.

A survey of 500 companies by McKinsey and The Business of Fashion, an influential industry news website, identified personalization as this year’s No. 1 trend. Established brands have recognized the trend and offering to customize products, too. Adidas, for example, offers the chance to mix and match colors and materials on things like the sole and laces on some of its shoes.

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