Struggle street: Steve Dunstan reflects on 21 years of Huffer, growing New Zealand confidence and the importance of the store
Huffer launched on April 1, 1997, as a brand selling not streetwear, but technical outerwear targeted at snowboarders. In stark contrast to the printed t-shirts that made it an icon, its first product was a 90-piece panelled waterproof jacket with seam-sealing.
The brand is celebrating its 21st year in business by closing New Zealand Fashion Week with an off-site show intended to build on the success of 2017’s spectacular show at Spark Arena. The 2018 version will be held at the Powerstation, featuring a collaborative video piece curated by Australian musician, producer and photographer Ta-Ku, who will also score the show.
Huffer co-founder Steve Dunstan (the other co-founder Dan Buckley is now running a different label called HIH), says New Zealand’s apparel climate during the time of the brand’s creation was “totally different” to now, defined by a lack of available opportunities and import duties that affected what clothing could be brought in. The snowboarding culture Dunstan and his friends loved was then an emerging but fast-growing niche that “held hands with skate culture” and wasn’t well-served by existing snow sports gear.
“We didn’t want to wear ski overalls because you want to look like a skateboarder on the snow,” he says.
They had what Dunstan describes as a tribal perspective, and considered themselves snowboarders first and foremost.
“I suppose it was a bit narcissistic at the time, we were just making stuff for ourselves.”
By 1997, Huffer had survived the journey to market and successfully supplied product to a few retail stockists before transitioning into also producing clothing targeted at skateboarders for the summer months. The team sought out independent skate stores as stockists, making sure they only sold into shops which also stocked actual skateboard components.
“We had pretty good growth off not much,” Dunstan says. “It was at least doubling every year.”
A big milestone was the very recognisable ‘Kiwiana’ t-shirts, launched in 1998. Dunstan says at that point, Kiwi cultural cringe was strong and openly representing New Zealand on a shirt felt truly fresh and unique.
“People didn’t really back our country, at least in our circles,” he says. “I reckon it was a time when New Zealand was pretty shy… celebrating New Zealand was a bit of an odd thing to do.”
The first Kiwiana print went largely unnoticed, but by 2001, the t-shirts had brought Huffer a lot of attention and widened its appeal, tapping into an audience outside skaters and snowboarders to usher in the next stage of the brand’s growth.
“I think it came across as confident,” Dunstan says.
In 2000, Wellington retailer Area 51 started stocking Huffer. The store was focused on “contemporary streetwear” which was premium and higher-end, outside Huffer’s traditional skateboarding market.
“At that time, it was a big milestone to work with them and stock that store.”
Dunstan says Huffer was supported and backed by its community, but that community was also “very closed-minded, insular.” Widening its market with higher price points and different fabrications was a big decision that risked upsetting this community, but it was one Dunstan chose to make with open eyes and integrity.
“It was not to sell out, but to develop,” he says. “We’ve grown into what we are.”
For brands looking to follow Huffer’s longevity, Dunstan says it’s crucial to have a clear vision of “what you are”. This will guide your decisions as a company and let you lead change effectively: “When you start following is when you get stuck in trends.”
“It’s understanding your values and sticking to them and being confident. In general, people are attracted to confidence.”
“You need to constantly work on the heart and soul of a brand.”
As more people have become involved with Huffer, there’s been a need to make sure the expanding team is aligned with Huffer’s values. Huffer now has 25 people at head office and 100 staff in total. Dunstan says the company’s values are about being “aspirational but inclusive,” and recognising the value of community.
“Community is so important to us. We’re lucky we started in the pre-digital era so we’re experienced in building real communities.”
However, reflecting back, Dunstan says it’s clear that sticking with the tribal culture of skate and snowboarders held Huffer back from growth for a time by limiting its diversity of thought.
“You can’t just hire skate-heads,” he says.
Getty Images: 2018 Huffer show.
He explains that the brand “started as a bunch of dirty-ass skateboarders living the dream” who shared a particular mentality. This mentality allowed it to scale to a certain level before its growth flattened out through 2005-2010.
The introduction of own-brand retail stores in September 2011 was the tipping point at which new ideas entered the mix, Dunstan says: “From that point to now, the growth has been phenomenal.” Huffer is now four times the size it was in 2010.
In addition to its 11 retail stores, Huffer wholesales into more than 150 outlets across New Zealand and Australia. The relationship between retail and wholesale is mutually reinforcing in a satisfying way, Dunstan says, but a network that emphasises retail over wholesale is not what the brand wants to achieve.
“Retail works off the wholesale plan, not the other way around,” Dunstan says. “Wholesale has scaleability.”
Internationally, Huffer is focused on continuing its expansions in the Australian market, and also has its sights on wholesaling into Japan, China – where most of Huffer’s product is made – and Korea. A planned entry into the US market has been shelved, Dunstan says, as the brand wasn’t ready and the timing was wrong.
Huffer has eight retail stores in New Zealand and three in Australia. Any retail expansion into new territories overseas would require more working capital than Dunstan is willing to commit, but he agrees the local stores have been essential to building a sense of a Huffer community.
“It’s almost a responsibility. We develop real, tactile experiences and outside of product, we can have real conversations.”
Dunstan encourages Huffer’s retail staff to approach customers in a relaxed way, prioritising friendly interaction over sales: “If they just want to come in and have a talk, you can have a talk.”
He’s deliberately not invested in a coffee machine at home because he values the social interaction of visiting cafes, and he feels in-store shopping has the same kind of appeal as being in a hospitality space. There’s also the experiential factor: “You can come and see the brand, touch it and feel it and talk to it.”
Huffer is using New Zealand Fashion Week this year to launch a new charity partnership with the Mental Health Foundation. It’s created a limited-edition beanie and tote bags which will be sold in-store, with all proceeds going to the Foundation, and its monthly Free Coffee Fridays initiative at the Britomart store will move to a donation basis with all money raised being donated.
“The Huffer brand celebrates inclusiveness and bringing people together from all walks of life, and as a result we have a very strong, loyal and socially-aware community,” says Dunstan. “As a brand, Huffer identify with the Mental Health Foundation’s key objectives and to summarise them, we came up with the phrase ‘People presence’, which is the idea of being present to support one another and ourselves throughout life; something our Huffer community is in the perfect position to do. By partnering with the Foundation, we hope to help improve the wellbeing of the many who are suffering silently.”