By DANICA KIRKA • Associated Press
Claudio Belotti knows that he cut the denim that became the jeans Meghan Markle wore on one of her first outings as the fiancée of Britain’s Prince Harry.
That’s because he cuts all of the fabric for Hiut Denim Co., a seven-year-old company that makes jeans in Cardigan, Wales. Belotti is a craftsman with 50 years of experience, which gives his work a personal touch — something that’s not quite couture but not exactly mass-produced, either.
Customer demand for something unique is helping small companies such as Hiut buck the globalization trend and set up shop in countries that had long seen such work disappear. While international brands including H&M and Zara still dominate the clothing market, small manufacturers are finding a niche by targeting well-heeled customers who are willing to pay a little more for clothes that aren’t churned out by the thousands half a world away.
Profits at smaller national clothing firms grew 2 percent over the past 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 of enterprise at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School.
“It’s a different kind of manufacturing,” he said.
“They are not the satanic mills. These are very cool little boutiques.”
Hiut, which makes nothing but jeans, employs 16 people in Cardigan and makes 160 pairs a week. Women’s styles range from 145 pounds ($192) to 185 pounds ($244), while men’s go for 150 pounds to 235 pounds. Each is signed by the person who sewed it, known in the company as a “Grand Master.”
Many of these small manufacturers also try to stand out by embracing social issues.
Hiut, for example, highlights its efforts to put people back to work in a small town that was devastated when a factory 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, said Anusha Couttigane of Kantar Consulting.
Customers notice. Laura Lewis-Davies, a museum worker from Wales, said 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.