Ever wonder why there are so many satisfied Iron Heart customers walking around with perfectly-fitted jeans, even though they may never have been to Japan, or even to a store where Iron Hearts are stocked? There’s a reason for this. I had a chance to sit down with Giles Padmore, the man in charge of Iron Heart outside of Japan. Based in the U.K., Giles has worked with Iron Heart boss Shinichi Haraki for over 15 years now bringing Iron Heart to the rest of the world, and he is also the man behind the very large and very successful Iron Heart Forum, a treasure trove of denim information. Sit back, crack a beer, and check out our little chat.
Firstly Giles, thanks for taking the time to chat today. I imagine you’re a busy guy so I appreciate it.
I have to ask if the story is true that you originally contacted several Japanese denim companies and ended up with Iron Heart because Haraki-san was the only one who replied to you?
That’s actually correct.
Did you have a clear idea at that time about what exactly it was you wanted to do in regards to Japanese denim?
Well, I was working in the IT industry and, in retrospect, wrongly thought there was a sort of finite life for people in the IT world, kind of like we used to think there was a finite life for rock musicians. I was a bit concerned because everyone in the industry was young, because it was a young industry of course, but I didn’t realize that till later. So I guess I was just concerned that there might not be a place for me there as I grew older so I wanted to try something different to ensure an income so I did try a few different things: one was exporting beer, one was importing Japanese fishing reels, another was making titanium fishing reels…
Ah wow…that’s cool.
So I was trying all sorts of things and kind of working on the basis that if I baited enough hooks, a fish would grab one of them…and I’d always been interested in jeans, bought my first pair of 501s when I was 14, hadn’t thrown any of them away and then one day realized I’d gotten far too many of them so…started researching what they worth. They were worth absolutely nothing in point of fact, they were rubbish. But in the course of my research I came across this Japanese subculture of brands, you know, the Osaka 5 and a few of the others I knew nothing about, but they intrigued me. So I did more and more research and got more and more interested, and realized that there were some brands that were not being represented so, like you said, I wrote to a few of them.
And it went from there…
Well, Haraki (Haraki Shinichi, founder of Iron Heart) had a Japanese friend over with him who lived in LA when the letter arrived, and that friend spoke English so…Haraki basically says, “What the fuck does this say?” so…really it was pure chance that I got a reply. I had no clear plan, I just wanted to sell jeans.
Interesting. And did you have a kind of wider interest in Japan itself or was it more just that the denim happened to come from Japan?
I’d been to Japan once or twice on business and enjoyed it but…no stronger affiliation than that. I enjoy traveling and really all of my business career has been based outside of the UK, so I enjoy different cultures and I enjoy traveling.
Well you sort of just hinted at my next question actually, do you and Haraki-san communicate in English or…is it kind of a mix? How does all that work?
As long as I speak in words and phrases that are used in 1970s and 1980s rock songs we can communicate.
(laughs) And you’d probably know a few of those I’d imagine.
It’s funny, his English has actually gotten a lot better in the 15 or so years since we’ve been working together. I can hold pretty good conversations with him in English, but if I use a phrase or word that he doesn’t know, we kind of have to do a hard reset. We can’t really claw our way back from that, we need to use a translator. By email we have an interpreter who gets CC’d everything. Haraki-san will answer directly if he understands what I’ve said, and I use Google Translate with his written stuff but…if it looks like it’s a difficult topic or something complicated than I just wait for the interpreter because Google Translate just can’t be trusted.
No, you’re right, it can’t. It’s getting better, but still.
Yeah…the nuances of the Japanese. But we muddle along.
Yeah, perfect. Perfect. I’d like to ask you what a typical work week, if there is such a thing, would look like for you.
Well we don’t have an actual brick-and-mortar store. We have a physical presence but it’s…the office is divided into goods-out, goods-in, packing, storage, and an office where the creative guys do their stuff, a sewing area where we do the hemming and repairs, and then a photo studio. We welcome people to come, but it’s not a shop. We had a guy from Birmingham turn up yesterday, just found himself in Gosport and he ended up buying some jeans and shirt. We love having people. And they love coming because it really is fascinating for anyone who is into denim, or Iron Heart. We’re taking on a new unit soon that will abut our current units and that will become the office and showroom, and then we’ll advertise that people can come and visit us more readily.
But that didn’t answer your question, so…can you repeat the question? (laughs)
Haha, yeah no, I was just asking about a typical work week. Are you always there or often on the road or kind of sitting at home? I guess it varies?
I wake up when I wake up. This morning it was 6. I log on, see what’s happened overnight, look at the orders, then at some point I’ll wander into the office and that could be before the others, could be after the others. The office is only 200 yards from where I live so I can wander there and back at will. I spend a lot of time on the forum, I spend a little time thinking about new products, I get heavily involved with the website products before we launch, I work on orders to Haraki, I create most of the inbound shipping documents, so I do all of that from here on this end. That takes a bit of work.
Sounds alright…I mean busy but…
Yeah, it’s not like real work. (laughs).
The website must be huge for you guys though, I mean I don’t know of another Japanese brand that has an English presence like that, that helps people so much. That’s got to put peoples’ minds at ease, I mean it’s not easy dropping 300 bucks on jeans you’ve never tried on, you know?
Which is exactly why I started the forum…well, I started it by accident actually! A customer of mine asked me if I’d thought about doing a forum, and I didn’t even know what a forum was. So he told me what it was and I went and asked about half a dozen of my trusted customers and my IT guy – “You know, should we do a forum?” They all said no. Couldn’t see any merit in that. And then one of my oldest customers and good friend based in New York, about two weeks after my initial question, contacted me and said, “You know what? I think it could work. I’m into guns and knives and there are massive communities online for that so…I think if you do it right, it could work.” So, we did it. And…I’d like to think I was bright enough to realize it would make a big impact…I think I probably claim I knew what it was going to be like but I didn’t. It was a complete and utter surprise and revelation. I think my target was maybe 100 or 200 members, but we’re up to about 6,500 now. They’re not all active, but that never happens on forums.
Awesome, that’s huge. That has to make a massive difference for you guys.
I maintain that the forum has transformed our business. As you said, dropping 300 bucks on a jeans from a town that nobody’s heard of, often from the other side of the Atlantic, it’s a big ask. So the forum really allowed people to talk about their experiences without me telling them what their experience was going to be like. It rings a lot more true when a customer says, “You should do this, you shouldn’t do this” you know…if I say it, you know, I could be viewed as having a vested interest. Of course I do have a vested interest, but I try to be impartial with my position. The forum has been incredible.
Yeah, I can see that. I learned a ton from it as well, and not only about Iron Heart but it’s cool that you guys talk about all different kinds of makers.
It’s funny about the law of unintended consequences…one of the reasons forums are so good is that they’re very dynamic and the bots love dynamic content. So if you Google something like, say, “Samurai” it, well it did once upon a time, the IH forum would come up before Samurai itself. And we’ve certainly seen…we can track how people come to the website…and it’s not because we’re Machiavellian, everybody does it, you can see how people get to the website and we’ve even had an instance where somebody Googled Samurai, bumped into the forum, and ending up buying Iron Heart.
Well yeah, that does say a lot. Amazing. One thing I also wanted to say is that the photos, the quality of the product photos on the site and on the Instagram are just phenomenal. Is that something you do yourself or do you have pros who do that?
If you go back to the earlier versions of the website…somewhere on the forums there’s kind of like an archive, I forget what I called it, something like “an embarrassing pictorial history of the IH website”. The first one I built using Dreamweaver, and I took the photos and I was the model…and the photos were really shit. I can’t believe how we sold anything…but we did.
That’s kind of hilarious (laughs).
Yeah…and then an Austrian guy who was I think in between school and university, he was very young anyway when he contacted me, and he just said, “Are you for real?” That’s all he said. I was like, “Well what do you mean?” and he said, “Well…you’re based in Gosport, you’re representing a Japanese brand, and your website is shit, you know…are you for real?” So I said, “Well yeah, I’m for real, and by the way if you think the website is shit, can you do any better?” And he said, “Yes.” So he brought the next generation of our website, and part of my brief to him was that I wanted the pictures on the site to be so good that people will visit the site just to look at cool pictures, whether they have an intention to purchase or not.
Well, they are incredible…
So that’s always been our goal and about 3 years ago we hired a full-time photographer and he does most of the photos. We’ve recently hired a marketing guy who worked at the brand Fat Face, very well-known in Europe, not sure about over there, and he’s come in and put a completely different spin on our Instagram presence. He also works with our photographer so I think our photos…I mean they were already technically good but they’ve really taken a leap in the past few months. I think they maybe lacked a bit of soul so we’re trying to inject a bit more personality into Instagram and the website.
I assume Haraki-san isn’t involved in any of that? Is he at least, like, interested or…does he say, “Hey that’s cool” or…is he even in that whole realm of what you’re doing?
Well I know he thinks we’ve done a good job when he steals our photos and uses them on his website (laughs). That might be as close as I get. But about the genesis of their Japanese website…they’ve borrowed a lot from us. Haraki really…much like a lot of the Japanese brands…I think that this is part of the Japanese thing, a pride thing, is that they often think, and often they’re right, that their brand is so good that it can only be sold in a brick-and-mortar store where somebody can explain the cut, and the fabric, and the build, and everything else…
Yes, the face-to-face thing is still pretty important here.
So I think Haraki has a kind of antipathy to selling online. But what he says about the way we do it is that basically we really are a brick-and-mortar store, you know, the experience people have when they buy from us IS as good as you can get from an online experience because we really try to replicate a brick-and-mortar store experience. When we get an order, especially if it’s a first-time customer, we go back and interrogate them, in a really nice way, about have they checked the sizes, do they know the cut, everything, before we ship because whether we’ve made a mistake or the customer has made a mistake, it’s a real disappointment when you get something and it doesn’t work.
Of course, of course…
And it costs us money to ship stuff back too. The average return rate for online stores is about 30 or 40%. The average return rate for a brick-and-mortar is 11%. We’re hovering about about 7%. So we, you know, that’s a metric that really shows we’re doing a good job. I’m not blowing my own trumpet because this (communicating with customers) is not difficult shit…everybody should be doing that. The other things is, when I decided to start selling online, part of my ethos at the time was, well there’s only two ways to differentiate yourself on the web: one is price and one is service. Well we can’t do price, so all we can do is service. That’s what drives us.
Makes sense. I also wanted to ask you about the ‘Devil’s Cut’ or the 666 model – I heard that this was something that you came up with, or at least suggested. Now I tried these on about two months ago and I honestly bought them within about 10 seconds, I’d never had jeans fit that perfectly right way. Did you see a gap in the Iron Heart lineup back then or did you…
You must be same shape as me then. I designed it really to be a slim cut for grown ups.
I think it is just that.
We only did two cuts at the time, the 634 and 461 really…and the 634 is a fantastic cut but it just doesn’t fit every body type. Actually, sorry, we also did the 301 which is a slim cut which is exclusive to Self Edge. Haraki developed that cut and said, “I’ve developed this cut but I don’t want to sell it” and I was with Kiya from Self Edge in Japan at the time and he said, “Can I have exclusivity on that cut?” and I had a healthy dislike of slim cuts so I said, “Sure you can have exclusivity on that” and then, almost immediately regretted it because it became his bestselling cut! So although I had no contract with Kiya, I couldn’t really take it, I couldn’t really stop him selling the 301 so I thought I need a slim cut. I didn’t want it to be too close to the 301 so I did something between the 301 and the 634 and I gave Haraki the spec…I told him I wanted a new denim, which was the original 18oz denim that was unsanforized and…he went away and did his magic.
Excellent. There’s something else I wanted to ask you about – is it true that on some of the IH fabric there’s like an anti-fading….‘agent’ or something like that? Or is that just one of those net rumours?
No, it’s true. On the 21oz non-selvedge denim we treat it to retard fading. We may do it on the 21oz selvedge as well but…Haraki has never been very forthcoming about that.
Ok, interesting. We’ll just call it a secret recipe then.
It’s definitely a secret recipe. And it does slow down the fading quite a lot.
As you’ll know, having been to Japan many times, and of course to the Iron Heart shops here, it’s still a very biker-oriented brand. Or at least it’s perceived that way. Anytime I’m in either the Osaka or Kojima shops, there really are mostly bikers there. I’m assuming this is definitely not the case outside of Japan…
Yeah, you’re right. No, it’s not like that. I think that’s both a strength and a weakness of the Japanese side of the business because Haraki really only understands the biker market, so he’s very specifically focused on it so it’s like a…what’s the word… It’s a bit of a worry because it’s quite a narrow demographic. I’m not a biker and I don’t really understand the biker market so I couldn’t focus on the biker market, so when we started working together I focused on dudes who like good shit. And they come from all sorts of different backgrounds so we have very diverse demographic in terms of age, profession, lifestyle, which I think gives us a bit of protection.
I get it for sure. I saw clips online of you in the Iron Heart production areas, the weaving mills…can you talk a bit about that?
I’ve been to 3 or 4 mills, maybe more, but calling some of them “mills” is overstating it. I mean one of the weavers we use has 2 looms, a husband and wife team. But the biggest one we use might have 150 or 200 looms Toyoda looms, the place is enormous. So I’ve been to the sewing factories for our shirts, jackets, I’ve been to everything. I really like taking new retailers who have never seen this stuff when we go, and I like taking key members of our staff to Japan because I want them to understand…this magic.
I ask because the whole denim weaving industry in Okayama, it’s often portrayed in two different ways at the same time. In one way you’ve got this kind of denim revival going on, there’s a huge demand, but then there’s the whole ‘it’s dying, there’s nobody left to work the machines’ kind of narrative as well…what was your feeling when you were there? Was it like ‘this isn’t going to last’ or was it more optimistic than that?
If you listen to the Japanese, then it’s not going to last. But you’ve got the, well this is very black-and-white and this is just Giles’ opinion, but I think they love a bit of doom-and-gloom.
Well there is that love of overcoming a challenge as a group for sure.
Painting a bleak picture and then coming out as heroes on the other side so…I take a lot of that with large doses of salt. I’ve heard hundreds of times that things are bad, our business is going to die, but guess what, here we are 15 years on and still going. But that’s being slightly flippant; the working age is definitely getting older so a lot people are falling out of one end of the funnel and we’re not pushing enough people back in the other end. It is…it is a serious concern and the market for what we do is shrinking in Japan, people moving to fast fashion, Haraki’s demographic is getting older, the younger people coming in don’t want the same stuff the older people want so he’s got some serious structural challenges in Japan. Alex, my son who works with me now here, we see our job as doing the best we can to grow this part of the business as quickly as possible without breaking another part of the business, to help Haraki fuel the mills and the workshops.
Now about that, are you guys always going to be limited by supply, or is the sky the limit as far as what you can produce and sell?
We’re limited in the amount of 21oz selvedge denim we can make because that is made on one loom. You can’t really multiply by 1…well you could, I mean you could get another loom, but then the denim that comes off it would be different. Even if it’s the same model loom, it will be slightly different so we have a natural restriction on our 21oz denim. And where we make the jeans and jean jackets, you can’t just turn up the volume, you can’t just press the accelerator and make more, you’d need to invest in a new production line. You need 12 or 13 individual machines on a jeans production line, and most of the machines we have to use are old Union Specials from the 40s, 50s, and 60s and you don’t just go down to the corner store and buy one of these. So you’d have to find 13 or 14 of these machines from somewhere, that actually work, just to set up a new production line so…it’s a big deal if you wanted to double production.
Do you think that most people in the Western mindset understand all of this? Some people must look at the price tag and think it’s just ridiculous. But others, maybe through things like your website, actually come to appreciate and understand, okay, this isn’t an unreasonable amount of money when you consider everything that goes into this…
I think perception is changing. 15 years ago until about 8 years ago people really didn’t understand it, and there were great sections of the denim community who thought I was the devil incarnate because they thought I was charging too much for the stuff, more than the price in Japan, and on and on. But now, we very rarely get criticized…we get the odd troll on Instagram saying, “$275 for a fucking shirt? What?”, but that’s always going to happen. But we don’t see so much resistance to these price points now as people start to understand. There’s another brand, I can’t remember who, could be Hiut Denim, one of the brands says something like: ‘Buy better, buy less’. I don’t remember exactly, but the implication is buy quality and buy less of it. And I think there is a general trend in our market that…that’s happening.
You may have already hinted at this earlier, but say I’m a customer in North America and I want to buy some Iron Heart jeans, what are my options? I mean do you ship everywhere? But you also mentioned that there are other retailers so, how does that all work?
Yes, we’ve probably got about 40 retailers around the world, some more viable than others. It’s a difficult dynamic because we make a lot more selling direct than selling wholesale, but we also wouldn’t have the business as it is now if we didn’t have a retailer network, doing the PR and the publicity, allowing people to try stuff on, to touch and feel…so they’re an absolutely vital part of our ecosystem. But we have a very wide range of products. In the last 5 weeks we’ve sold 200 individual skus (products) so we have a lot of stuff. Even our biggest retailers take only maybe 10% of what we offer. So customers will go into a retailer and, fingers crossed, like our stuff, and then they might Google the brand and think, “Holy shit, look at all this stuff they make!” And then they will often come to us and buy stuff that they can’t buy in the store. When we opened up in Chicago at Mildblend, the weekend that they opened, I think we sold online 10 items to people from Chicago. That would not have happened if we hadn’t opened up Mildblend.
You mentioned you were just in Germany for work; was that doing trade shows or is that visiting the retailers we’re talking about here?
We go to trade shows primarily to show our seasonal collections to retailers. If we get a new retailer, that’s a bonus, but that’s not why we go to shows. We try to show our collections earlier than anyone else because, without beating around the bush, if they see our stuff first, they buy more of it.
Human nature I suppose.
It’s very, very frustrating. This happened 3 or 4 years ago, I showed a retailer the collection and we went out for a drink afterwards, we were in Japan, and he said “I fucking love those jackets Giles. And I would have bought them if I hadn’t already committed to…Brand X. I can’t stock two of the same type of thing.” So it was actually Haraki’s idea that we…making the seasonal collections is very, very complicated. It takes a long time. Haraki made the decision I think maybe 2 years ago to pull our collections forward by 3 months so we show maybe 3 months before anyone else and he and Tom, the girl who does the patterns and liaises with the factories, they really worked their asses off to bring that first collection in 3 months early, and that’s had an amazing impact. I think the first time we showed our fall/winter collection 3 months early, orders from retailers were double what they had been the previous year. And I wouldn’t have dared ask Haraki to do that because it was such a big ask, but luckily he thought of it himself.
Do you have any personal favorite IH items? You’re on a desert island (with a moderate climate of course)…any essential items you’d bring?
I love our T-shirts. You know, in isolation they’re ferociously expensive for a plain T-shirt, but I’ve have some for 12 years that are exactly the same shape as they were from day one. And I wear them a lot. I don’t have any favourites really, I love and respect all of our stuff. I won’t wear all of it, some of it doesn’t suit me, some of it the climate is too cold or too warm here. I’m in a really, really fortunate position you know, I don’t have to decide. If I like something, as long as we’ve got some on the shelves I can wear whatever I want. I guess I don’t have to have favourites, I can just pick and choose.
Nice. Now I’m not sure if you’d even have time for this these days, but are there any other Japanese denim brands that you like or respect? I know Haraki-san says he doesn’t really pay attention at all to what the other brands are up to but…are you, are there others you gravitate towards?
I don’t consider us to be in a competitive market because no other brand does what we do. But then, no other brand does what Full Count does, no other brand does what Samurai does, no other brand did what Flat Head did. We all have our own niches…so I’ve probably just named the brands I really respect in our space. I really love Full Count and Miki-san, I highly respect Samurai, I loved, and in fact for a while I was the international dealer for, Flat Head…
Ah wow, I didn’t know that.
Until I realized that I couldn’t do a good job for both them and Iron Heart, and Haraki was easier to deal with than Kobayashi-san so I told them I couldn’t do it any longer. Stevenson Overalls I think are phenomenal. In fact, I’m wearing some Stevenson Overall shorts at the moment. Atsu-san, he’s a lovely guy, love him, love the brand.
Well you’ve named quite a few there, more than I was expecting.
Well I never wear any of that shit in public, you know…business. (laughs)
(laughs) For sure, I get it. Bit of a subject change here, but what else makes you happy? What do you do on the weekends? You mentioned fishing earlier, was that a business thing or a hobby?
My wife would say it’s an all-consuming passion. That would be a little rude, but not far off the truth. I fish a lot when I can, my wife and I scuba dive, so that’s what we do. We used to snow ski a lot but we just don’t have enough time to do everything we want. Business makes me travel an awful lot. Alex coming into the business has helped a lot with giving me and Paula more time to do what we want. I’ve just built stuff on the side of the house and that’s kept me busy for the last 15 months. Gardening, cooking, just general stuff.
Well that’s great. You look happy actually, if I can say that. You look content.
I’m a very happy guy, but I’m never content. There’s always something we can do better. And I think that’s one thing that drives myself, Paula, and Alex: we’ve got a good website, we’re pretty good at customer service, we’re pretty good at shipping, but there’s always a better way to do something. And I’m…very unafraid of making stupid decisions because if you don’t try something you’ll never know if it’ll work or not so we do a lot of shit that we have to do u-turns on, but at least we have data from those u-turns. I make a lot mistakes but I don’t mind that.
Working with your family must be cool too. I can’t imagine doing that.
It’s a real privilege. Haraki treats Alex like his own son too, so that’s a beautiful relationship. Haraki never had a boy so he’s ‘adopted’ Alex.
Awesome. Does Alex ever make it over to Japan?
Yes, he’s been over a few times on his own when I’ve been busy doing something like…fishing (laughs). We try to go together, but if we can’t, I’m happy for him to go on his own. He’s been maybe half a dozen times. The last time we were there together was when the big typhoon took out Osaka airport.
That’s right. Our school was shut down, it was a wild time.
We were in the airport when Alex said, “Dad, I think we should get off this” and we did.(Kansai airport is on a manmade floating island) We were the last tube train off the island.
No way! Yeah, that storm was bad.
It was. We managed to get a hotel and we saw two cars get overturned by the wind outside the hotel. It maybe only lasted an hour but when we went out of the hotel after the eye had passed we could not believe the destruction. It was absolutely extraordinary. Took us about 2 days to work out how to get out of Japan because obviously Osaka airport was sunk and the bullet trains weren’t running because of trees on the line. Eventually we worked out how to get up to Tokyo and we got out, but it was…I’ve really got better things to do than be holed up for 3 days in a shitty hotel.
Any thing final to say to the Iron Heart fans out there?
Thanks for continuing to like us and buy from us.
Well, I’d really like to thank you for your time today Giles and for being so open and friendly. I’ve learned a lot more than I had expected.
Well, that’s how we try to deal with our customers. There’s another thing that I don’t know where I read, but there’s an unwritten contract between a customer and a supplier which is, you know, I expect you to treat me well, and for treating me well I give you some money. You have to be aware of that in everything you do. You know there is an unwritten contact that they expect to get good shit and be treated nicely and seriously. You know I could go on-and-on about this stuff because I love it, but one of things I drum into our staff is that every touchpoint a customer has with Iron Heart, whether it’s via email, whether it’s CRM, phonecall, personal, I want that customer to put the phone down and think, “Fuck, that was so much better than I could have expected.” That is what I want our customers or prospective customers to feel every time they touch us, in whatever way they touch us. Actually a funny story is that I’m no longer allowed to answer CRM messages because I’m too blunt. So now Alex won’t let me interface directly with customers because I…I just say it like it is sometimes. I know sometimes I shouldn’t so, I leave it to the others who are more…politically correct than I am.
(laughs) I think the world needs more people who just say it how it is. Thanks again Giles, it’s been fun.
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