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Hand-Me-Down - howies' heirlooms
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Hand-Me-Down


  Hand-Me-Down
howies' heirlooms
by Mya Frazier
April 27, 2009

Is it a convention-busting concept or a long overdue shift in consumption habits?

Hawking a new line of jackets and bags under the moniker Hand-Me-Down, the innovative and design-savvy Welsh clothing company Howies (purchased by Timberland in 2006) is embracing austerity at a rather apropos time. As we wallow in our collective guilt, paying dearly for our spendthrift ways and love of easy credit with a worldwide financial crisis, the sentiment feels like a long overdue attitude correction.

 
 

“We live in times of limited resources but unlimited desire to consume them. The answer though is real simple: to consume less as a consumer; to make a better designed product as a manufacturer…These products have been made to last. So that one day you can hand them down to someone else,” explains the Hand-Me-Down site.

Does this nod to desire and limited resources in the same breath augur a new dichotomy brands must now embrace? Is it possible for both profligacy and frugality to coexist within the same brand?

Arguably, Hand-Me-Down is trying to have it both ways. Its products remain pricey for the times—400 British pounds (US$ 586) for a jacket (made with ventile, a super-tightly-woven cotton), 185 pounds (US$ 271) for a heavy canvas backpack with leather straps, 185 pounds for a messenger bag and 125 pounds (US$ 183) for a satchel. Yes, the philosophy is alluring and a possible antidote to our profligate ways, but might the austere aesthetic itself be a fashion craze—one that too will fade with time, long before the guaranteed decade of wear the brand promises passes? Will the garments end up tossed anyway, despite the noble intentions of the designers and manufacturer?

The bags and jackets started hitting the market three months ago with limited distribution, but sales have been brisk. The initial production was small, just 1,400 bags and only a few hundred jackets, according to David Hieatt, Howies co-founder. “We’ve had to reorder jackets and make some more bags. It’s been a really nice surprise from a commercial point of view. But seeing there’s a place for a more considered consumption, not just conspicuous consumption, I think that’s kind of interesting,” he says.

Even so, there are no plans as of yet to add more products to the line. Hieatt explains, “There’s no rush to do another thing. If we could do another thing, it has to earn its right to be in the Hand-Me-Down range. We are not going to just add to it. And if it takes us another two years to add to that range, then fine.”

Threadbare clothing rarely drives consumption among the fashionable, urban elite—the niche demo among which the Hand-Me-Down brand presumably will find avid followers. Certainly sweater balls and frayed collars drive consumption with the Walmart set, but among the demographic that would even consider spending US$ 400 on a jacket, necessity is rarely consumption’s impetus.

Yet that’s the brand’s story, one woven with a decidedly nostalgic look to the past. Hieatt says, “This jacket has come from another time. A time where you made things to last, you made things once, where things got handed down to the next generation. Some will look at the price and say it is expensive but over time it will prove itself to be one of your best things you ever buy."

It’s certainly not a new type of appeal, reminiscent and derivative as it is of high-end luxury brand campaigns.

The Hand-Me-Down brand hits the market as an interesting conversation within design circles has started to gain momentum, a conversation about the merits of the idea of the “unproduct,” a term coined by designer Matt Jones but extended by Russell Davies, a UK-based strategist.

This thinking feels radically different than the widely heralded “masstige” positioning utilized so effectively by discount retailer Target (one perhaps regretted now, as Walmart’s low-price positioning keeps it racking up comp-store sales gains).

The odd timing and success of the brand isn’t lost on Hieatt.

“You wouldn’t pick this moment in the economy to launch your most expensive item,” he says. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised. Customers are buying less, but they are buying better, and that’s an interesting notion.”

Does the success of Hand-Me-Down presage the end of fast fashion?

The fast-fashion mentality, or, as Hieatt puts it, the “consume it, devour it and throw it out” habit, wasn’t where he wanted to take his company.

“I’m not really into that stuff,” he said. “Can we make something and make it last. It’s about seeing the opposite of cheap. I wanted to do something that would last and would be timeless in a way.”

That attitude is also reflected in the slow growth of the Howies brand, which is on a journey from “tiny to small,” as Hieatt puts it. The brand operates two shops in the UK and restricts distribution to catalog and Internet sales. Sales total only about US$ 10 million companywide.

“It’s our aim to get better, and if we get better, we’ll get bigger,” Hieatt says. “We say no a lot. We’ve been asked to go into every country you could think of. We’re kind of going at this like ‘let’s get this right, get our systems right and know our basics,’ and we’re still in that process. We have to get strong at home first. You can always be in a rush to go somewhere else—let’s get really good at this thing, then we can drive the business rather than the business drive us. At the moment, we say no to things. The growth can come later.”

 
     
  

Mya Frazier is freelance business journalist. She can be reached at www.myafrazier.com.

  
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