Giles Padmore of Iron Heart talks Covid, slub, recalls, and overdyeing (whilst making jam)

In the minds of most, Iron Heart is known for their beautiful heavyweight denim and over-engineered construction, so when I recently stumbled upon a picture of their gorgeous new slubby fabric I almost dropped my phone then and there. Haraki-san has traditionally stuck fairly close to his biker roots, focusing on items that he himself would want to use and wear, items built to withstand the demands of the road and inclement weather. Iron Heart’s use of polycore thread for their stitching as opposed to the more traditional (but weaker) cotton threads used by most brands, both in the vintage era and now, also speaks to their ongoing commitment to making garments in the most robust way possible. So how did they end up making a slubby denim? Such a marked departure from their biker roots?

It was with this in mind that I went straight to the source to find out: Giles Padmore, boss of all things Iron Heart outside of Japan. As soon as I saw the slubby goodness, I could smell the UK influence, so it was to him I went with my little satchel of questions. Giles was candid, accommodating, hilarious, and straightforward as usual, qualities that make for a great interview, made even greater by the fact that he was (literally) making jam in his kitchen as we talked. He even came up with the working title for this interview: Giles Spills the Beans Whilst Making Jam. Love it!

Enough preamble – here it is:

Giles, firstly thanks for making time to chat. So, how did all this slub madness start? Obviously, it’s been out on the Iron Heart forum for a while, but I somehow missed it. I never thought I’d see the day: slub plus Iron Heart.

Well no, nor did I. So, we’ve been talking to Haraki-san about spreading his wings a little bit for a number of years now, and he’s always kind of said, “I’ll do what I like, I’ll do what I like, I’m not just going to make what other people want.” But last time I was in Bangkok with him, which would have been about 2 years ago now, we sat down for some chats. And I said that we should probably think about doing something special for Pronto, and he said, “Ahhh. I have made a slubby denim.” And I said, “You’ve fucking what?!”

Haha…I can see it.

The hairy selvedge of Iron Heart’s new slubby denim.

“I’ve made a slubby denim”, he repeated, and I said, “Why?” And he said, “I’ve been thinking that maybe I should start making stuff that people want to buy, and not just what I want to make.” (laughs) I put my hand on his forehead to check his temperature and asked him if he was going to sell it in Japan, and he said, “No, I’m not interested. It’s just not my gig, so you can have it.” So…that’s kind of how it came about.

Wow, so it was that long ago.

Yes. He didn’t actually have a sample with him that day, but he sent me a sample afterwards, and it was great.

And was that the final fabric that you ended up using, or did it then go through a few different iterations first?

He probably went through a load of iterations that I don’t know about. He’s actually working on a new raw denim at the moment that he’s been…iterating for about two years and I’ve still never seen it. Well, I’ve seen a photo of it, but I guess he still hasn’t fallen in love with it enough to put it into production.

And this is another slubby denim?

No, it’ll be a loomstate, but a new type of loomstate which he’s really proud of. So yeah, I’ve seen a photo of a sample about a year ago, but he’s obviously still tweaking because I haven’t seen an actual physical sample of it yet. I thought it would be sometime nearing the end of this year, but still haven’t seen it. So he could have gone through loads of iterations on the slubby as well, but I don’t know. Didn’t ask him.

Okay, right. Well it sure looks good. I never would have guessed it was Iron Heart, that’s for sure.

Yeah, I saw a picture of some other brand’s super slub the other day, and it doesn’t look much slubbier than this. I’m wearing them at the moment, and the verticals are just amazing. And what’s really interesting is that (looks at his leg) you get these areas where the vertical slub is smooth as anything, maybe half a centimeter, and then suddenly there’s one big slub, then a tiny smooth spot, and then a couple of slubs in a row…it’s really just all over the place.

Giles’ own sample pair after a few months of wear (and a few washes).

It looks great. So, he basically came to you with with no sort of push from you guys? Just sort of hit you with it in Bangkok?

Basically, yes. I think he kind of knew what we were wanting, so he just went ahead and made something he knew we’d like. I mean, basically, I’d given up asking for shit like this. (laughs)

Do you think he’s not selling it in Japan because he doesn’t think it would sell, or because he wants to kind of distance himself from it? Kind of protect the image he has going in Japan…the smooth, heavy denim, the biker angle?

Possibly. It could be either of those I suppose, but I think there’s also a third possibility. He’s really honourable and fair when he comes up with something for us, or we come up with something like the 666 or the 555. He refuses to take it, even if I say he can…often for years, because it was our idea.

By “take it”, you mean sell it in Japan?

Yes. So the 666 and the 555, which he now sells in Japan, were initiated by me. And I said, “You can sell them if you want” and he said, “I’m not interested.” And then after a few years, he said, “Do you mind if I sell them actually?”

Well yeah, then that’s probably the most likely reason for him saying that about the slubbies.

So this may happen in Japan. Someday. It may go the same way as the 666 cut, the 555 cut…he’s taking some 777s and some 888s for the first time ever in the next couple of months. So, he’s trying some different shit that’s not in his…‘wheelhouse’ if you like.

That’s interesting. Yeah because he’s said to me as well that he just wants to make what he wants to make, like, “If I don’t like it or wouldn’t wear it, I’m not making it.” Which is cool, but I guess being open-minded about it also has advantages.

What Haraki-san likes and what he doesn’t like mutates with time. I asked for an indigo x indigo denim a few years ago which we made in 18oz, and again it was in Bangkok where we were sitting opposite each other at dinner and he just drops into conversation, “I’ve made that indigo denim you wanted Giles. I’ve got a sample of it upstairs.” “What’s it like?” I asked. He answered, kind of deadpan, “Well, you’ll like it…..” (laughs)

The ever-popular Haraki-san signing jeans in Thailand.

That’s hilarious. Again, I can totally picture it.

And, after about a year, he mails me and says, “Actually, I like it now, too. Can we sell it in Japan?”

Interesting.

I mean, in my case, I learned my lesson with the slim cut. I was at the Iron Heart offices in Shibuya with Kiya (from Self Edge), Haraki-san had made a slim cut sample and he asked me if I wanted them, I said, “I don’t want those fucking things.” Kiya said, “I’ll take them”. So, I gave Kiya exclusivity on them and they became one of his best-selling jeans, so…I think the big lesson that I learned then is that you shouldn’t allow your own personal tastes and prejudices necessarily define what other people will like.

Right, that makes sense. A lot of brands that aren’t branching out in some new or creative way aren’t doing so well lately.

Yes, Haraki-san has been pretty experimental of late. Some of the Spring/Summer stuff for next year is amazingly creative. I think one of the things that benefited Iron Heart through the whole Covid thing is that we were pretty bold (or stupid). Haraki-san, me and my team were having a discussion about two weeks after I saw you in Osaka (March 2020) and I was trying to impress upon him the gravity of the situation. “The world is going to go to shit, Haraki-san,” because I don’t think at that time people in Japan had any appreciation of what was already happening in the West at the time.

True. I think it took a while for the seriousness of what was happening elsewhere to seep into Japan because there were so few cases here for the longest time.

I said, “All of our retailers around the world are shut so they can’t sell stuff, unless they have a good online presence, we don’t even know if the delivery drivers are going to be working, so even if the retailers do have an online presence, are they going to even be able to take delivery from Japan? Or fulfill orders to their own end-user customers? So this is really serious.” A couple of weeks later we had another conversation and we agreed that we would come out the other side of the pandemic eventually, and that it could not last forever. The worst thing that could happen is that we take our foot off the pedal and come out the other side and we’ve got no product. Because then, what have we achieved? We just come to a screeching halt in 3 months or 4 months or 6 months…or whatever it is.

Close up of the new slubby fabric.

So just kind of ‘heads down’ and push through it?

Well, Haraki-san took out two large loans and we took out about $300,000. Haraki-san used his loans to support the factories as much as was possible, so that kept on giving them volume, which they weren’t getting from other places. Because the other thing we were scared shitless about was that the factories would shut down. Then we wouldn’t even have the ability to make product. So he used his loans to do that, and we (IHUK), used our loan to fund shortfalls in retailer payments, because they were having a hard time…so we had to give many of them extended credit because they weren’t selling anything. So the factories kept on producing and we never really had any delays at all. And now we’ve got shitloads of product.

Do you think it’s okay that I actually write all that stuff about the loans? That’s pretty detailed and personal, though I think it would be pretty cool for people to know the reality of it.

Yes, let me ask Haraki-san first actually, but I think it is important. (note: Haraki-san said, “Go for it.”) You know, I really do think that the decision we made on the Zoom call that day has made a massive difference to us. We have had great levels of product throughout the pandemic, nothing has been significantly late and, to my knowledge, none of the factories or workshops we use have had to close.

And has your online sales been okay throughout all of this?

50% growth, yeah, if that’s okay.

Wow, yeah, I mean comparatively speaking, taking into account the state of the world, I’d say that’s more than okay.

It has blown our fucking minds. Paula and I were walking down the beach here about two weeks after we saw you in Osaka when the whole Covid thing hit, and we were talking about options, and one of them was just shutting down. Selling all our stock, hold on (runs to stir jam cooking on the stove)…and fucking off into the sunset. That was a serious option we were considering. Then, after about two weeks, we just thought, “Well fuck it, we can’t just stop living.” You know because our sales absolutely panned for the two weeks when basically the worldwide lockdown started up, but after about two weeks of that it was like the world just went, “Ah well, let’s just carry on with life.”

And everyone was at home, spending money online…

Yes, they were stuck at home. They were not spending money on travel, not going to the cinema or theatre, or going out for meals, or to the pub or on holidays, so many people have had a lot of disposable income. Our acquisition of first-time customers was phenomenal last year as well.

From what I’ve been hearing from the brands it also seems that those with a strong online presence have actually done well through all of this, while some others have gone to shit.

What we did was brave…but it could have been stupidly brave.

For sure, that could have gone the wrong way.

I guess that if we were going to go down, we wanted to go down with a big bang, and not just wither on the vine. (laughs) And their legacy was, “They fucked up big time!” (laughs)

Yeah, dying a slow, painful death is no fun. Was the reaction on the forums to the new slubby denim sort of typical, as far as interest and excitement goes? It looked like people were pretty happy…there was a lot of discussion going on there.

Yeah, we knew that would happen. That’s why we gave it its own thread, whereas a new product typically would just get lost in the Iron Heart “New Products” thread which is in the same board. But this one we felt, given the interest from the retailers when we took orders, we knew it was going to be massive. I think Haraki-san made enough for about 600 pairs, and after a week of taking retail orders I told him, “That needs to be tripled at least.”

Wow, so this is going to all your retailers outside of Japan as well as being sold through your own site?

Yeah.

It’s sometimes the way with Iron Heart that some of the nicest patterns and such get shipped overseas (laughs). There’s been a couple of UHFs I’ve really wanted, but they don’t get sold in Japan.

Well, I actually have no problem with Haraki-san selling the slub in Japan…it’s not like he’s going to be stealing any business from me, and it IS his business!

So this is probably obvious by the way we’ve been talking (and you don’t need to answer this if you don’t want to), but would Iron Heart now sell more stuff outside of Japan than inside it?

Yes, it does now – but the rest of the world is a big place!

Can I ask about the staggered release dates for the different cuts in the slubby denim?

Yeah, so the reason is that we have to weave a load more fabric, so we’re releasing product as and when we get sensible amounts of denim off the loom.

Do you know if he’s using Shinya for this?

I would guess probably not. This isn’t meant to be derogatory, but he uses Shinya for the more ‘mainstream’ denim. For the more experimental stuff like UHR, he uses different mills. So yeah, I would imagine the slubby is made somewhere else, but I don’t know.

And this won’t be a limited thing? It’s not going to be a ‘here and gone’ kind of thing?

No. The first 5 cuts, which should all come this year, will be the core cuts, um, plus the Type II. Then early next year, Type III in indigo and overdyed. Then, I would imagine, by March, we’ll have to start rerunning stuff. Then we’ll start overdyeing, well we’ll do indigo reruns AND we’ll overdye some of the stuff we haven’t overdyed because it just looks amazing. I really wanted to overdye the Type II when I saw the Type III sample.

Overdyed slub.

Can you explain the overdye thing a bit?

So when we overdye, we dunk the finished indigo jeans into black dye. We take a batch of indigo jeans or jackets, sort of finished but without the patch on, and we chuck them into those fucking great big washing machines that could probably get a small house in. We stuff as many as is sensible in there and stick them in with a load of black dye. And the way we do that typically is with a sulfur fugitive dye so it leaches out over time, exposing the indigo behind it. But there’s a generic issue with sulfur dyeing which is it’s fucking shit for the environment and getting more and more expensive to do, so we will stop doing the fugitive sulfur dyeing at some point. We’ve actually started experimenting with enzyme overdyeing which is much better for environment and it doesn’t fade….

Very well?

Well, I’ll put a full stop there because enzyme dyeing should not fade. Haraki-san may work some way of making that work….basically enzyme dyeing creates a molecular link between the dye and the fabric so Haraki-san may be able to work out some way to make the molecular link weak.

Interesting stuff.

More overdyed detail.

And some of the stuff we are releasing in spring/summer is using that new enzyme technique. So basically, we’re trying to find other ways of overdyeing stuff that is better for the planet.

And that’s all done in Japan?

Yes. And one of the main problems is that it’s ferociously expensive to do because it takes so much effort and money to, basically, clean up after any sulfur dyeing process.

So that neatly explains why overdyed stuff is more expensive.

Oh yeah. A pair of jeans used to cost me about 20 bucks more the regular indigo, but now they can be as much as 50 bucks more per item to overdye.

Would there be options of dyeing in other countries if Japan did ban it?

You know Dave, it’s back to the environment, we can’t have a green statement and then be found, you know, “Hey we make the jeans in Japan and then send them to China to be dyed where nobody gives a shit!” (laughs) It’s not a very good message, is it!

Well Giles, I want to thank you for all of this. I think that people will be really interested to hear all of this, and how the whole IH slubby thing came to be. It’s funny this time, Instagram was a bit behind on this one…it seemed not many knew about it, even though it’s been on the Iron Heart forum for months.

To the best of my knowledge, we’re the only brand that has a forum like this. We expose EVERYTHING on our forum. If you want to see the upcoming collection, everything is there: pictures, descriptions, and we have a table of anticipated release dates with retail pricing. On every single product thread there’s a QR code that people can grab and that takes them straight through to a form to fill in, which will then notify them when that product goes live. There’s so much help for these people on the forum. And you know, it’s not all altruistic because at the end of the day we are here to make money. But certainly, we really try and make stuff easy for people to buy.

Well, I think the forum is one of the reasons you guys are doing so well despite what’s going on in the world.

Well, our order in to Haraki-san for S/S ’22 compared to S/S ’21 was…175% of what it was in ’21 so, almost double growth.

Do you ever order too much? Or order things that don’t sell well?

Well, if we fuck it up, then it’s on us. Unless it’s something that is selling well in Japan, then we can ask Haraki-san if he’d like some and he can take it off me, but otherwise it’s our issue.

And that happens?

The first thing I do if I have a problem product is see how Haraki-san is doing with it in Japan. If he’s doing really well, then I’ll ask him if he wants to take some of ours. But you know, no pressure, I don’t want to force him into taking anything, so sometimes he’s like, “Yeah” and sometimes he’s like, “Nah, don’t want it.”

Well, you know, I think Iron Heart is one of the few brands that I’ve never, ever had a quality issue with, not even a loose thread or button. The build quality really is amazing.

We do have problems. Everybody does. Our QC is pretty good because it gets QC’d in the factory and then again by our staff in Kojima before it’s packed. And because we don’t really expect the Japanese side to miss anything with two QCs, we don’t do a formal QC at this end, though we do give things a look over before we pack it. We get caught out by buttons occasionally, how they’re sewn on, because you can’t see the fault. Sometimes after a wear or two the thread just starts to unravel, but you can’t see that, so it’s just an impossible thing to QC. Basically that’s our fault because we’ve set the machine up wrong or the machine has moved out of gauge, but we can’t see the end result of that issue, so that’s a real pisser.

And how do you deal with those repairs? Do you do them there or send them back to Japan?

If it’s like a loose or lost button, we give the customer options. They can send the product back to us at our cost and we’ll sew them back on, or we’ll send them buttons and they can sew them back on. And we’ll give them a little bit of credit, which is our preferred option because otherwise we’re just adding to the carbon footprint of the product. And the majority of customers are pretty cool – they’ll just sew them back on themselves. We had a problem with our 12oz denim shirts where the button holes kept on failing, and it’s a function of the pitch of the button hole sewer being the exact same pitch as the weave itself. So sometimes the button hole stitching would go down perfectly through the gaps in the weave of the fabric itself and then just pull right out. Normally, when the pitch is different, maybe one button hole thread might go down between the weave, but the others would catch either a warp or a weft thread and hold. And we just could not fix that, and we couldn’t see it until it failed. So we’ve had to stop making 12oz denim work shirts. Well, we haven’t actually, we’re just now going to do them with snaps, not buttons.

Some of the Iron Heart crew having fun in Bangkok.

I see.

So that was a big fuck up for sure, the button holes. It went on for ages…we kept on thinking we’d fixed it and it kept on failing. But Haraki-san also created a really beautiful 10oz denim as well that has a different pitch, so we will use that for buttoned work shirts sometime soon.

Right. Sounds frustrating.

And you get other shit. A bust stitch around the fly, stuff like that. We actually thought we had that button hold problem solved, you know. We had a meeting in Kojima just before we met you in Osaka and we got “Mr. Heavy Nel”, who is the guy who does the shirts, to talk to “Mr. Heavy Ounce”, who is the guy who makes the jeans. We went out for dinner, and they are actually called, to me, “Mr. Heavy Nel” and “Mr. Heavy Ounce” (laughs). And Haraki-san says to them, “You two. Talk about this and fix it.” And once he got them talking, Haraki-san leans over to me and whispers, “They never talk, normally.” (we both crack up) And we really thought we’d solved it around the dinner table that night – and we had to a certain degree – we put an interlining down the placket – but then that started failing as well so we just had to give up.

The Boss’ point of view.

Very cool story. I’m having flashbacks of Reservoir Dogs with names like that. Hey, just to check, it’s cool for me to include all this product recall stuff in the interview, or is this just kind of afterward banter?

Well…(thinks for a minute)…you know, I think this is actually really important. As you said earlier, you learn from shit like this. A real pivot point for us as a business and in the public perception of us, is we really fucked up some UHFs once. (laughs) Thailand seems to be the common thread here, but…I was in Thailand with Haraki-san and Tom, and a large run of UHF’s was completed whilst we were all out of our respective countries.

Sorry, who is Tom?

She’s the girl who does all the patterning and interfacing with the factories in Japan. We were all there in Thailand together, so two of the key people were not in Japan when the shirts were completed, so they didn’t get QC’d properly. They got to us in the UK later than we would have liked because a number of people who should normally been in Japan were in Thailand. That was a Friday. On Saturday, I got an email from a customer saying, “I really want one of those work shirts, but not one that looks like this”, and he’d attached a picture of the back yoke and it was fucking awful. The back yoke matched the pattern of the shirt on the left, but then stretched in relation to the shirt itself so that on the righthand side the pattern was miles out. “I don’t want one that looks like this”, he says, and I’m like, “Well, where the fuck did you get that image from?” He says the photo was from our own website, and it was, but we hadn’t noticed because we were in such a panic to get them out.

Iron Heart’s UHF flannel are famous for their fabric and bulletproof construction.

Shit! Yikes…

So, I was here, at home, and I ran over to the office. Like, I literally dropped everything and RAN to the office, I started pulling the shirts out of boxes, and the majority were bad. I talked to Haraki-san and he was like, “Just ship them all back to us.” So we had to go to every one of our retailers and and sort out getting the shirts back to us, plus of course all the ones we had shipped to end-user, literally hundreds of shirts. We actually got so much love from the customer community for doing that. We just said, “We fucked up. Send them back at our expense, and we are really sorry. We’ll make them again.” Many retailers and customers did not want to send them back because they deemed the imperfection to be to so minor as not to be a serious issue. But to Haraki-san, it was completely unacceptable. This whole episode, though traumatic at the time, taught me something. I realized that people are not necessarily buying our stuff because it’s just heavy, it’s because it’s just really well-made. So, the next time I saw Haraki-san, explained what I had learned and asked if we could do 14oz denim (laughs).

For jeans?

Yes, for jeans. And he just said, “Yes.” So our 14oz denim was really a product of that fuck up. It was a realization that people…a vast amount, I won’t say the majority but a large number of people, were buying from us for our quality, not because we make heavy stuff, and I realized that we could move into the lightweight denim without disenfranchising the world.

Well, I’m excited.

And there ended a great chat with IHUK boss, Giles Padmore. Lots to think about, lots to like, and lots to look forward to. Now to see if Giles will send me some of that delicious jam he was making…

The literal fruit of Giles’ labours.

Iron Heart forum here.

Iron Heart UK’s site here.

Iron Heart Japan’s site here.

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