Dan Hayes discovers the inspirational tale behind the duo returning trouser manufacturing to Hebden Bridge – a story of no-compromise, high quality Made in Britain.
Visit the West Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge today and you could be forgiven for never paying a thought to its manufacturing heritage.
Distracted by its picturesque riverside setting, artisan food shops and alluring pubs, the visitor might be surprised to learn that this was once a place where the textile trade was king; its mills producing more than 25,000 pairs of trousers a week, to be worn with pride across the British Empire.
In the years following the Second World War, that business gradually died and has lain almost dormant until now – when a small-start up has revived the idea of bringing back British-made trousers to this corner of northern England.
HebTroCo comes to Trousertown
Called HebTroCo – an abbreviation of Hebden Bridge Trouser Company – the company operates out of a business park just out of town that, prosaically enough, occupies the site of what were post-war chicken sheds.
The day I visited, HebTroCo’s founders, Brant Richards (47) and Ed Oxley (49), were the epitome of enthusiasm, having just taken delivery of the firm’s latest piece of technology: an electrically powered delivery bike they will use to transport internet-placed orders to the post office in the centre of town.
Given the excitement in the air, it’s no surprise to learn that it was an interest in bikes that first brought the pair together around 10 years ago, when they met while taking part in a challenging mountain bike trek outside the town. Richards is a former cycling journalist and bike designer, while Oxley was working as a mountain bike guide and skills instructor.
While they were both well aware of the biking attractions of Hebden Bridge, they knew a lot less about its trouser-producing heritage.
“A friend of ours runs a brewery and he was producing a beer called Trousertown,” recalls Richards of the duo’s Eureka moment. “I asked him why it was called that and he told us it was because Hebden Bridge used to produce a million pairs of trousers every year.”
“This area used to be buzzing with manufacturing activity,” adds Oxley, “And it wasn’t just trousers, either. Royal Navy duffel coats for World War II were made here, as well as land-girl breeches and tons of other things. There were many more people living in the area in those days. Up until the 1950s people would come in on buses to work in the mills of Hebden Bridge, but that all got annihilated as manufacturing was off-shored.”
It was the faded glories of British trouser production, though, that set Richards and Oxley thinking seriously about a possible gap in the market. Might it still be possible to produce fashionably cut garments that were built to last and locally made?
As befitted a former journalist, Richards did a bit of research. “I went around a few places in the valley and eventually I found a factory in Hebden Bridge that was still in operation. It was like something out of a Dickens novel. Its machines were older than we are and it employed just five machinists and one cutter, but I thought it looked amazing.”
Kickstarter funded in five hours
That factory – Richards and Oxley are cagey about sharing specific names of their partners – was already producing trousers for brands such as classic London outfitters Cordings but, at first, its owner was reluctant to see the duo as serious potential customers. They were persistent, however – and persuasive.
Richards explains: “We found out the factory could make 176 pairs of trousers a week – and they were [working] about two days a week there. We thought if we could sell a week’s worth of garments for them, that would make a difference.”
With the means of production secured, in January 2016 the pair turned to funding platform Kickstarter to generate interest and initial funding, with a goal of £17,600 and a slickly produced video featuring Richards and Oxley extolling the benefits of the British-made trouser.
Adds Richards: “We pitched it at £100 per pair. We didn’t know if we could raise the money or not, nor how quickly, but we absolutely smashed the target.”
And how – the money was pledged in just over five hours. At the time, this came as a surprise but, looking back, Oxley believes HebTroCo was also in the right place at the right time.
“We launched just at a moment when there is a real desire for British-made products with a genuine heritage. People love to see that things can still be manufactured here and that can be produced well.”
That initial round of fundraising allowed HebTroCo to set up a website and start functioning as an online clothing retailer. The initial run of garments was duly made and dispatched.
The next step was to focus on a simple range of fashionably cut moleskin and corduroy trousers, made in Britain from cloth produced in Germany – largely because the firm couldn’t find a surviving British producer.
The business evolved rapidly and its owners were soon out of their comfort zone. “We came in with a lot of enthusiasm and we were quite successful quite quickly in terms of turning a profit. But we were also quite naïve and we had to learn lessons,” Oxley recalls.
By autumn 2016, the Hebden Bridge factory they were using couldn’t keep up with the number of orders being generated and customers found themselves having to wait weeks to receive their items.
By the beginning of December the company was forced to rein in sales – not an ideal scenario in the run-up to Christmas – because they didn’t want customers to order and then have to wait weeks for their purchases to arrive.
Oxley explains: “We got into the new year  and began looking around for additional producers. Eventually we found a factory over the border in Lancashire that could help clear the backlog of orders and also allow us to build up supplies of finished garments.”
Increased production and the ability to hold stock has turned out to be a game-changer, he adds: “From March this year, we’ve really started to sell. And now we’re looking for more suppliers, because the factories we work with are relatively small scale and they’re working with lots of other companies, many of whom are start-ups. The danger is you can end up waiting in a queue and that can have quite drastic consequences – you might even end up missing seasons.
“We’d like to expand, but it’s a question of finding factories that can not only produce good quality, but that can also be consistent. We’ve got customers who’ve bought [an example of ] everything we’ve ever made. We don’t want them to find the sizing or cut is suddenly inconsistent – then they’re not going to be happy.”
Such issues of supply are indicative of a nation whose textile industry is a shadow of its former self, and finding the right partners is a constant challenge for HebTroCo.
“It’s not as easy as you’d think,” confirms Oxley, “While I wouldn’t say it’s a case of, ‘If it can go wrong, it will go wrong’, that’s certainly something I’ve found myself thinking on several occasions. Of course it would be very easy to give in, but we’re totally committed to this. And it’s very easy to have an idea. Lots of people have ideas in the pub, but to actually have followed it through and keep it going… that’s the thing I’m very proud of.”
Locally made, not outsourced
While there have been challenges in staying loyal to the concept of producing locally, HebTroCo has also reaped the benefits from this approach.
Oxley explains: “We like our northern identity. We also like to be able to go and see people, watch our products being made and do some quality checking on the line. I think the machinists like the fact that we take an interest in what they’d doing and I think it’s good for us as well because it encourages them to do a good job.”
There are other benefits to a locally focused business model, adds Richards: “If you produce in the Far East then, yes, your cost price might initially seem low. But it doesn’t include the three trips out there you have to make every year, or the weeks you lose afterwards to jet lag. If you truly put in all those costs, then manufacturing in the UK can make sense. We can focus on much smaller batch sizes, we can be leaner and more adaptable to changes in the market.”
Selling online also dovetails with this ethos, he continues. “As a manufacturer working directly with our customers it means we’re in control of all the communications about our brand. We’re completely focused on guaranteeing people have a good experience and making sure they’re one of those people that comes back for their ninth pair of trousers. Social media is also incredibly important. We’ve got so many customers who tell us that they didn’t even know what moleskin trousers were until they saw one of our [marketing] videos online.”
This year, HebTroCo aims to build on that online presence to sell around 5,000 pairs of trousers and the business is evolving all the time, with additional lines and products in the pipeline. “We’re thinking maybe three months ahead. We don’t have a five-year plan or a 10-year plan,” Oxley admits.
“We’re on the verge of launching a cotton-made range – produced with British cloth that’s made in Yorkshire and Lancashire. That’s the beauty of manufacturing in the UK. You just take your cloth in on the Friday and you get 100 pairs of shorts the next Friday.”
Other recent additions include belts and boots, both handmade in northern England and the Midlands.
“We’re keeping it all below the waist, for now,” adds Richards. “We’re still finding our identity and we don’t want to dilute what we do. Overwhelmingly, though, I think we’ve shown that, if pitched properly, people will spend a bit more on something high quality and British.”
Made in Britain
There is also a tangible joy to be had from manufacturing something so universal, he adds. “Just think of a football crowd coming out of a stadium – all those people need trousers. And I like the idea that what we produce crosses age barriers. My son wears them; he’s 18. I wear them; I’m not 18. My dad wears them; he’s 75.
“People also buy them as a kind of talisman of belief in British manufacturing that they can wear and tell their mates about. Everybody likes the story of how we’re bringing back trouser production to Trousertown.”