Lee Hicken, might not be a name that you’re familiar with yet but you’ll sure as hell know at least one of the projects he’s responsible for. As one of the founders of Hebe Works, Hicken is part of the crack team behind Made in Leeds and City Talking, providing a cultural service to the city that the tourist board could only ever dream of.
Started with his friend Simon Zimmerman whilst at school, Hebe (named after the Greek goddess of youth) was formed as a vehicle for the pair to do cool projects and events. Fast forward to present day and throw data guru, Mark Barrett into the mix and Hebe is perfectly placed to produce projects which are ahead of the curve, just with a more mature head on their shoulders.
“We felt that youth was the thing that separated us was all along. The name really fit us, especially when we were 18/19 so we’ve just kept it. Now at 33 it feels like we might need to change the name a little bit but there are people in here younger than I am so it’s keeping the average age down.”
Transitioning from a hobby into their main focus, Hebe became a business around 2009 when Lee finished his second degree studying fashion communication in Barcelona, a city he’s almost as passionate about as Leeds. With Simon working in the arts council at the time the pair decided they had the experience they needed to make a go of it.
And if you’re wondering, Lee’s first degree was in television and radio, something which he labels as “Completely fucking useless. Everything that took six months to do then can now be done on iMovie in minutes.”
With an understanding of social media up their sleeve at a time when for most a hashtag may have conjured images of jazz cigarette paraphernalia, Hebe originally had huge success within client marketing . However, like any entrepreneur the thought of working for others just didn’t appeal. Taking the plunge and shaking off their corporate beginnings, the pair set sail on a trade mission to Barcelona armed with handful of the best Leeds talent.
That’s when we started to kind of badge it up a little bit and started calling it Made in Leeds
“There was an organisation called ‘Marketing Leeds’ who were doing these trade missions effectively all over the world to promote Leeds. I kept looking at it and thinking, it’s all law and finance and the creative bit they were pushing was opera and ballet.
“Then I saw they were doing a trip to Barcelona. So I went to Marketing Leeds and pleaded with them. Just saying, ‘look is there any way that we can show different off some cool stuff on this trip?’”
Starting with an event for around 50 to 100 writers, designers and creative influencers being introduced to Leeds music and video, Hicken explains that it was clear that the Leeds vibe was going down ridiculously well. So with an excitement at the realisation that this was the beginning of something big; a plan for a larger scale follow up was quickly hatched.
“We did the second Leeds in Barcelona and we took Back to Basics, ICallShotGun and a group of Leeds fashion designers. We took the ground floor of the coolest hotel in Barcelona on formula one weekend and held a showcase event there.
“We teamed up with a company called LeLook who were a big fashion company over there and did a pop up catwalk where Back to Basics did the after party. We had 1,200 people there and a queue down the street to get in and experience Leeds creativity. It was just perfect. It felt like we were starting something. And that was the seed of Made in Leeds really, we were taking Leeds out as a brand and it’s cool and people dig it.”
We had to turn it round within a couple of weeks and none of us had ever run a store before
Although Leeds was a huge success across the water, there were reservations that Leeds itself wouldn’t respond as well to celebrating its own greatness. The question was would the people of Leeds really ever turn up on mass for a similar event?
“But we said well let’s try and see what we can do. That’s when we started to kind of badge it up a little bit and started calling it Made in Leeds. Then Trinity came to us and said look we know you have this cooking; do you want to do something with us? We had to turn it round within a couple of weeks and none of us had ever run a store before.”
With a flourishing indie scene at the time of the opening, the store seemed to help capture the emerging pride in all of Leeds’ cultural offerings helping to secure buy in to the brand.
You had all this vibe of ‘fuck it, this is cool, Leeds is cool, why don’t we shout about it a bit more’?
“You had people like Munroe house opening a gallery and you had White Cloth on its way. Leeds having independent art galleries, that just wasn’t a thing before. You had all this vibe of ‘fuck it, this is cool, Leeds is cool, why don’t we shout about it a bit more?’”
And even if you weren’t in store, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the Made in Leeds logo on a t-shirt or tote, a sign that Leeds was now a brand it’s people wanted to be associated with.
“If the council had done that project it wouldn’t have flown at all. I like to think people liked that Hebe and Rabbit Hole did it; because it was us and the brand looked good, the logo was cool and the people we were showcasing like James Steward, Antiform and Dots Printhaus were really cool.”
With the t-shirts flying off the shelves like hot cakes, the Hebe team realised that Made in Leeds was a “proper thing” and couldn’t, but more importantly, shouldn’t be ditched. However, with the shop being a project of love rather than making monetary sense, it was time to start looking for a new challenge.
“There was no money in it and so it was like how much time can we spend on this thing that doesn’t make us money? The clothes paid for the staff to work in the shop and that was it. There was no money for Hebe.
“Running a store is the hardest thing we have ever done. That was hard work and hard stress. Our rule was that it had to be made in Leeds. If we bought 500 t-shirts made China we would’ve made loads of money but no, it has to be made here and we split the profit equally with the designers.”
Unfortunately, Made in Leeds as a pop-up store came to an end, but what the indie retail scene lost was more than made up for in other ways as the Made in Leeds Festival format was born.
“We always had the idea of what do we do next? We’d had enough of shops, they were really hard work. We were approached by Leeds United to do collaboration with them and we did it. We had a store with them and they are the biggest brand in the city, so where could we go really after that store wise?
“I spoke to Shaun (Mission) and Kane (Sleepin’ is Cheatin’) and they wanted to do an event that was bigger than one individual brand and Made in Leeds was exactly that. It was about the city rather than any one individual brand. The time was right and we felt like we had the right brand that people would get behind.”
With nights and clubs like Back to Basics, Insomnia, Speed Queen and Fibre all getting involved the festival was always going to be classed a success. The debut line up has given the festival a loyal following of fans waiting to get their next Made in Leeds festival fix this June. Although nobody can deny last years achievements, as with any new festival inevitably there were issues which needed ironing out.
“There were a lot of unknown factors but what we needed to improve was the sound and production because when you are going to see a quality act you need it to sound right. Don’t get me wrong it was fine last year but it was fine, it wasn’t amazing. This year we have gone all out and production is going to be next level.”
And knowing that little things like facing the prospect of clenching in a long queue for the loo can make or break your day, the less glamorous issue of logistics have also been revised. “Last year the two complaints were not enough toilets, not enough bars, so we doubled both. It’s that sort of stuff that you wouldn’t put on a flyer but it will make the festival a lot better.”
With retail and music successfully under his belt, you might think that Lee and Hebe would stop there, but as if they didn’t have enough on their plate they also create one of the city’s most successful indie publications, City Talking. It’s through this medium that Hebe plans to spread its ethos to other cities, with the magazine rolling out to Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool and York. Not just happy to take on Northern England, City Talking also has Europe set in its sights with Barcelona, Stockholm and Copenhagen all on the hit list.
“Being an independent without any “sugar daddy” we’re doing things as fast as we can. We could do all this tomorrow if we had the money but we just have to do it as fast as we can. Things will inevitably go bump along the way. Barcelona and Stockholm are the two we could turn around pretty quickly because we already have people who are asking us to take it there.”
With so much going on that even thinking about his daily to do list seems exhausting, it isn’t surprising that most people want to know how he has the time. The simple answer…he surrounds himself with the very best people.
“I feel nervous for people joining the team because everyone who is in here is fucking top of their game. There’s no room for normal, come in at nine go home at five, who gives a shit kind of people. Just in City Talking alone I think we have the best editor around in Daniel. I have Shang Ting (pictured) the art director who hands down does the best visual stuff in the city at the moment. We have a team of photographers that we work with, people like Reece who does all the skate stuff. Then we’ve got developers who are geniuses. City Talking is a huge challenge because you can’t make good content quickly. You have to accept that quality content takes time to produce but these guys nail it every time. I barely see an issue until a week before it goes to print but even without my input it’s normally fucking awesome.”
Seeing the amount of passion dedicated to the various Hebe projects, you can see just how and why they have managed to achieve so much in a relatively short space of time. It will be interesting to see how they roll out this winning formula across other cities but, in the mean time we look forward to enjoying their hard work with the likes of Steve Lawler, Miguel Campbell, Laura Jones, Ralph Lawson and many many more at the Made in Leeds Festival at Tetleys next month!