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Travel Blog #3 – Meet General Giles of Iron Heart. Portsmouth, UK.

I’ve met Giles and Paula once before at the grand opening of Tuckshop & Sundry Supplies in Singapore. Giles looked like a tall, scruffy no-nonsense respectable guy with a cheeky smile, whilst Paula was a very warm and lovely lady. They’re both such affable and personable individuals that despite it being our first time meeting, I had already agreed to fly up later in the year to visit their workshop and home. Fast track 5 months later, I was on a 13 hour flight up to England.

Portsmouth sits 120km south-west of London. To make the trip down, you could either drive or take the National Rail. I bought a National Rail ticket seeing how I always start my day with a pint and end it with two. So I took an early train out with nothing more than a sandwich, a bottle of Pepsi, and a notebook to scribble in some interview questions. The relatively uneventful train ride down lasted about 1 hour and 45 mins, I was treated to countryside views of old towns and farms.

Once I got to Portsmouth, my journey wasn’t over yet. To reach the Iron Heart barracks, I still had to take a ferry ride across the harbour to Gosport. It was a surprisingly short journey across that vast body of water, it only took 5 minutes!

I made good use of my 5 minutes by snapping photos of the Portsmouth Harbour and the Spinnaker Tower. The weather wasn’t particularly cheery that morning, I thought it akin to that scene in Lord of the Rings when the hobbit made his way into Mordor’s land.

Jokes aside, the weather did pick up in Gosport! General Giles was already waiting for me in the parking lot with his Jeep Defender, he was all smiles! It was very kind of him to drive out just to pick me up from the ferry terminal, and show me around the city, passing his home before heading to the workshop. It’s a quaint little town of a small population with several yachts in the harbour. A serene looking place that doesn’t see much excitement, but is a great place to seek out some quiet time away from the city. It started to make a lot of sense why Giles would move out here to live and work.

Into the workshop I went, meeting Giles and Paula’s son Alex, who was slowly crafting his skill on the Union Special. Unfortunately, I missed Paula, who was out of town enjoying some sun in Spain.

Here, you have the little studio they set up for product shoots. Looks pretty simple, yet you would have never known from the photos they’ve taken thus far.

Look at all these goodies waiting to be shipped out to their new owners! It was through sheer will power that I managed to steer my way out of this room to explore the rest of the workshop.

Recognize some of the names on the board?

Indonesian Iron Heart fans know what this is? Its the IH-555!

An Egyptian motif Singer that was given to Giles by his mother for his 21st. Quite an unusual gift, perhaps she knew all along what he’d be doing in the future.

All the love that you’ve been sending Giles and Paula goes on this board! The General really appreciates his troops!

Finally, Giles hard at work, responding to emails, forum threads, twitter shout outs, product designing. We got down to talking about the brand, the business behind it and the current market outlook. The following is the transcript from our very casual chat.

Saintkeat = SK

General Giles = GG

SK: First off, what does denim mean to  you?

GG. I guess it defines the way I am, you know, I’ve always worn it, I love it, it’s got loads of character, I don’t think there’s any other fabrics that express a person’s personality and individuality as much as denim.

SK: When you say it defines you, in what way do you mean that?

GG: I used to do a lot of work with Flat Head, and I used to post pictures anonymously of my faded Flat Heads on various blogs and forums. And people got in touch with me and said “that’s you wearing those jeans isn’t it? Cause we recognize the way they’re faded”. You know you can tell that I spend more time on my right knee than my left knee, it’s just little things like that.

GG takes out a pair of brand new 25oz to compare against the ones he’s got on. Then we proceed to talk about how the 25oz isn’t as loose a weave as the 21oz, but is still comfortable enough to wear in the summer.

SK: So you were working with Flat Head before?

GG: I still do.

SK: It’s like an unofficial thing right?

GG: No, its official. I look after some of their interests outside of Japan but I don’t sell direct. I supply a number of retailers whom I also supply Iron Heart. Haraki-san from Iron Heart and Kobayashi-san from Flat Head, they know that I do both things. I think they both prefer that I didn’t but I did stop doing the direct business because that really was a conflict of interest. Cause I’m known as Mr. Iron Heart, so it became really a bit awkward. So I supply Flat Head to a number of retailers around the world that I’ve always supplied, but any new retailers or direct  customers I pass on to the new European distributor.

SK: When did you start wearing Raw? Were you a kid when you started?

GG: Probably about 41 years ago. I bought my first pair of 501s shrink-to-fit when I was 14.

SK: You must have moved into Japanese denim after that, and that’s how you started working with Iron Heart?

GG: I didn’t move into Japanese denim until about 7 years ago. I had about 20 pairs of 501s in the attic, since my mid-20s I’d never thrown a pair away. My son (Alex) was going to inherit them! I was looking at these about 7 years ago, and I wondered how much they were worth. So I started doing some research on eBay and found out they weren’t worth a lot of money because they weren’t Big E. But whilst I was doing that research, I came across this whole Japanese denim sub-culture that I knew nothing about. Absolutely nothing. So I did a load of research, identified about 6 companies that at that time weren’t represented outside of Japan and wrote to them all. And Haraki said “yes”. I didn’t get a response from Flat Head, but met them 6 months later in Los Angeles and they said “yes”. So that’s how it started.

SK: What were you working as then?

GG: I sold mobile computing solutions, hehe.

SK: OK that’s quite a bit of a jump!

GG: Yeah, but I think part of the reason why I’ve been quite successful doing what I do, is because all of my working life I’ve had responsibility for international business. I’m not saying I understand different cultures, but what I do understand is that there’s a difference between them, and a lot of people fail to understand that. So I’m very comfortable dealing with people of all different creeds, races, colours, because it’s what I’ve always done. And I think that really helps me with the Japanese, because the Japanese they can be pretty difficult to work with. The way they do business is completely different from the way we do business in the west. And you can’t force one on the other, you just have to learn to live with it and work out the best middle ground. Which is something I’m reasonably good at, because I’ve spent so long in international business. I’ve had responsibility for the former communist block for 10 years, so I’ve spent a lot of time in Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Poland, I’ve lived in the Czech Republic for a year. I’ve spent a lot of time out there, so I think I’ve got a reasonable understanding that people are different. I’m not saying I understand everybody but I do understand that people come from different positions.

SK: What about the history of Iron Heart? How did it start?

GG: Haraki was a designer and pattern maker for Edwin, and learned his trade there. He was very, very good at what he does and is highly respected in the industry. He started consulting on how to set up workshops and factories. And about 8 or 9 years ago, he decided to start making jeans. He wanted to make heavy weight jeans cause he was a Harley rider and he wanted to make jeans that were good for Harley riders. So the first pair of jeans he made were the 634S, which is like the signature Iron Heart cut. And that’s how it started. I got in touch with him about a year after he started, and when he started he made 4 types of jeans, 3 jackets and a belt. That was all there was in the range then. And if you have a look at what we’ve got now and what we’ve done, we’re up to IHSH-70 or something in the shirts. We’ve grown from very, very small beginnings to a reasonable size. I mean we’re tiny in the denim world but Haraki and I enjoy ourselves and we have a good life, and that’s at the end of the day what it’s all about. We’re never going to be super rich but so what?

SK: Has the journey been tough so far?

GG: No, it hasn’t been tough actually. But for the first few years, I was also doing consultancy in the IT business and I wasn’t focusing as much on Iron Heart as I should have been. When I started doing it, I told myself if I can make enough money to pay for Alex’s education out of this, that’s good. Then I lost my biggest IT contract, and suddenly my major source of income disappeared. And that was a Holy F**K moment. So we sat on the porch at home smoking and drinking, and working out what the hell we were going to do with our lives, and I said “I’m going to concentrate on Iron Heart, I think we can make it work”. And the way the business changed when I focused on it a 100 percent was incredible. Our sales grew 17 fold in one  year. And that was difficult, coping with that growth was really tough. Haraki wasn’t ready for it, I wasn’t ready for it. The next year we grew a lot as well, I think we grew about 2 or 3 times. Haraki was here visiting us towards the end of that year, and I said “I don’t think I can sustain this growth Haraki”, and he said “GOOD, because I can’t either!”. So we agreed in a way to slow things down a bit, because it’s absolutely crucial that our quality doesn’t drop.

SK: How do you cool the market?

GG: We don’t release as much product, we never allow back ordering, we don’t allow people to pre-order. Well my retailers have to pre-order, because I only make what they order.  For instance later today I will pull together the Fall/Winter collection order. I tell “them this is what’s coming, this is when it’s coming, this is how much it is, tell me what you want”.  If they don’t reply to that, they don’t get anything. That’s their one and only chance, cause we won’t make stuff in bulk. I don’t do any advertising, well I do in a couple of magazines, basically its Harley Davidson type magazines. I might start advertising in Men’s File. I haven’t really done any heavy weight advertising, I don’t promote the brand heavily, I allow it to be by word of mouth, and the forum’s been great for that. If I did a lot more advertising, I think I could accelerate the growth. But I refuse to accelerate the growth until I know we can cope with it. The easy part is getting more space, it’s more on Haraki’s ability to produce a much larger volume of products in a short time to the same quality. Haraki likes things to grow steadily, he doesn’t want his quality to be at risk if we grow too fast. We’ve grown enormously in the last 7 years, so it’s not slow but it’s not stratospheric. We’re not big, but the business supports me and my wife (Paula), and we really enjoy what we’re doing.

SK: Do you feel a large part of the brand’s success is owed to the close relationship you maintain with your fans and customers on social media platforms?

GG: Yes without a doubt. Absolutely without a doubt. I like pre-announcing product, because I like to get my customers’ feedback to see if we’ve got it right or slightly wrong. Haraki and  I are passionate about involving our customers from the whole design through the production process. So they can understand how we get from A to B, how we come up with the concept and how we actually make it into a finished article, and how we tweak stuff and how we F**K things up and have to start again. I like them to understand that, it gets them involved in the business. It’s not just “I know, I’m going to do a 5 pocket jean in red and I’m going to do 500 of them and they’ll be ready in a month”, it doesn’t happen like that. I normally have to sample stuff at least twice. Some items have actually taken 18 months from initial concept to the actual finished article. We won’t compromise, I have a mantra “If I have to ask myself, is this good enough? It’s not”. And it’s the same with Haraki. So our stuff is expensive, it takes a long time, we don’t make enough of it, we sell out of some items too quickly (once in 4 hours!) We don’t make enough of some models, but we make too many of others. I’d be a much better businessman if I knew exactly what my customers wanted. It’s very easy on the forums to say “Yeah Giles, if you make it I’ll buy it”, if there’s no fiscal commitment involved. And I learned that very early on. But I don’t blame them, I’d probably do the same in their position. Getting the correct size/colour mix in a production run is the hardest thing. I’ve got a shirt out there that I probably ordered  60 of, and I would have done something like 5 small, 8 medium, 10 large, 10 extra large, 10 double extra, etc, and I’ve got 9 larges left! It’s almost impossible to imagine selling 51 shirts and have 9 of the same size left! You can never get it right, its how less wrong you can achieve. They’re on discount at the moment, but I never discount much. Our brand is what it is, if you can’t afford it, go and buy something else.

SK: When you guys came into the market, were the prices what they are now?

GG: It was effectively what it is now, I’ve only raised prices by maybe 5% in the last 7 years, some items maybe 10%. I’ve got some pricing wrong, some stuff was super expensive and some stuff too low, I’ve tried to sort it out. For instance, the type 3 jackets, they’ve been $450 for 7 years, never brought them up and I hope I never have to, but I know I probably will have to at some point. We probably got all the pricing wrong at the start, but because our production numbers have increased so much, we’ve been able to shave costs off, so although the price hasn’t gone up, we’re probably still making the same margin we did. I mean I’m not, because the Yen hasn’t been favorable, so my real costs have doubled and I’ve only increased my stuff 5-10%. But I’m making a reasonable margin, I’d like to make more but the stuff’s already expensive and I don’t want to price it completely out of the market. And there’s another dynamic which I don’t really like. You can buy this stuff cheaper in Japan than you can in the west. It’s the way the Japanese do business, they don’t discount much to their retailers. By the time I’ve paid shipping and import duty, if I want to sell it to retailers, I have to mark it up by whatever.  So there is a big delta on some items on what we sell it for in the west, and what you can buy it for in Japan.  I don’t like that gap to be too much, because it looks like I’m making a lot of money, and I’m not. But many people don’t understand the dynamics of the business, and I don’t often get the chance to explain these to them.  So I try to keep that delta as low as possible, otherwise I think I’ll look bad. I could save some money by asking Haraki to ship stuff direct to customers in Asia, but it gives Haraki extra work and Haraki’s job is to come up with wonderful ideas. It’s not to be shipping shit for me. I try to protect Haraki from “noise” that diverts him from his core business, which is coming up with this great stuff. I get a lot of questions on forums about when is this going to happen etc etc?, and I say I don’t know, Haraki will tell me when it’s ready. But I’m simply not going to waste Haraki’s time asking him a question that takes him away from what he is good at and what he should be doing, especially if the answer isn’t going to change the world.

SK: How did you decide to come up with an Iron Heart forum?

GG: One of my customers suggested it to me. It was a brilliant idea, and I didn’t even know what a forum was! Well I did cause I was on Sufu, but I didn’t know whether it would go down very well. So I asked a few of my trusted customers at that time, what they thought of setting up a forum, whether it was a good idea or what, and all of my customers said “No, a complete waste of time, don’t bother”. So I thought oh alright. Then one of my customers, Doug Ng, said “Actually Giles, it might work, let’s give it a go, and I’ll be a mod cause I’ve done it before”. So I got my tech guy who did the website to set one up, and that’s how it started. The forum was hard work, especially in the early days. A forum is only as good as the information on it. I would sit at home and think I’ve got to come up with a new topic! Now it’s got a life on its own and I could go away for a week! Having said that, when I’m not on the forums or not replying to emails, my sales drop. Because I’m so close to my customers they know when I’m away. Alex says “If I want to know where you are Dad, I just have to go onto the forum”. Now I spend about 4-5 hours a day on the forum one way or the other, but in the early days whether it was going to succeed or fail was entirely up to me. We’ve got about 2,200 members now. We’re just trying to sort out Facebook and Twitter at the moment, we’re learning how to do that.

SK: What are your thoughts on the denim market here in the UK? As I haven’t seen anyone on the tube and streets wearing Raw.

GG: The market for me in the UK is growing really fast at the moment. But that’s like from zero. I probably do 20 orders a week now, a couple years ago I was doing 3 or 4. Its not stratospheric but it’s growing, and I have no idea why the UK is growing as fast as it is. It’s growing faster than almost any other country. Germany is my biggest European country by a long way. There aren’t many places you can buy decent denim from in the UK. You’ve got Superdenim, American Classics, Son of a Stag, and Rivet & Hide has just opened an online store and will go bricks and mortar soon.

SK: Iron Heart has become a very popular indie brand, have you thought about going mainstream and have department stores like Harrods, Selfridges, etc, carry your product?

GG: I’m spoken to Liberty, and Selfridges wanted to speak to me. But it won’t happen, the margins are just not good enough. Honestly, the margins are really really tight. And the mainstream shops like Harrods or Selfridges or Liberty expect a massive mark up between wholesale and retail. It could happen, but it would mean that they’d be selling a pair of jeans for 2 or 3 times as much as I’m selling them for, so it’s never going to work. So it’ll never go mainstream and only retailers who really understand this stuff will take it:  people who understand that having Iron Heart is a good thing, and people who understand that you very rarely have to discount this stuff because it doesn’t go out of fashion. OK we release some stuff in the Spring and in the Autumn but it’s not fashion. Haraki and I have a saying, which we stole from one of my retailers actually, which is “In 25 years, you’ll look as good in our clothes as the day you walked out of the shop in it”. We don’t follow fashion, so you don’t have to put the stuff on sale. But the mainstream retailers don’t understand that, their paradigm is completely different, “We buy it in, we mark it up 5 times, we start selling it, then we start reducing the prices”. By the end of the season it may be 85% off the original list. It just isn’t going to work. We have stuff on special discount though, only because we have to make room for all the new stuff that’s coming in.

SK: Is Iron Heart a brand that’s big on innovation or does it lean towards heritage?

GG: It’s a bit of both. We look to the past to get our inspiration, but we try to tweak it for today’s market. Take a M65 field jacket, I don’t know whether they had storm cuffs originally, but if we think it needs storm cuffs because it would make it more practical, we’ll put them in. We’re not a repro brand. We look to the past but try and stay in the present. We get a lot of criticism like “An N1 Deck Jacket didn’t have that feature!”, well it’s not a repro, its our take on one. We’re doing a pea coat this year and we will get some criticism for it.

SK: With regards to denim, is there anything we could look forward to in terms of innovation?

GG: I’m thinking of doing a run of this, which is a 14.5oz left hand twill for Iron Heart. We’ve never done a left hand twill before. We got enough for about a 100 pairs of Devil’s Fit. We’re coming up with a left hand twill and a right hand twill for Triple Works which will be released later this year.

This interview has been slightly shortened, and some of my replies throughout the interview have not been included to maintain the flow of this article. The integrity has not been compromised. After the last question, we got distracted looking at various pairs and left for lunch! Hence the rather abrupt ending.

I’d like to give a warm thank you to General Giles for the time and the hospitality.

– Saintkeat

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