Huffer at 25: The struggles and triumphs of the small New Zealand brand that could

It was a snowboard and skate brand that became one of New Zealand’s best-known fashion houses. As Huffer celebrates 25 years in the business, Fiona Connor finds out how co-founder Steve Dunstan survived the label’s ups and downs while learning on the fly.

Ask Steve Dunstan to identify when his interest in fashion began and he’ll talk about being at school in the 90s and noticing how his peers expressed their identity through what they wore.

Later, when Dunstan left school and took up professional snowboarding, he saw how limited the clothing options were for this sport which, like skateboarding, was still considered a relatively niche and counter-cultural activity.

Dunstan wanted to change that.

His skate buddy Dan Buckley was already toying with the idea of ​​making outerwear, and the duo decided to collaborate.

“I think the key was not to think and to be guided by your mind. I was caught in a moment of movement, more than a trading opportunity,” Dunstan recalled.

An early publicity image (Photo: Supplied)

They saw the potential in the samples they had put together and in April 1997 Dunstan and Buckley incorporated Huffer somewhat blindly, taking on the responsibility of a company with advice from friends in the skating community.

Their first collection was waterproof and breathable snowboarding gear, but the brand quickly added summer wear for skaters with printed t-shirts, hoodies, pants and tracksuits.

“Quickly we realized this was going on, you have bills coming in and you have to pay for things, and summer was approaching so we thought, ‘what do we do? Do a summer range,” says Dunstan. “We fed the beast because there was a demand. We lived there, we were the market. That was enough of a rider to motivate all the hard work and blood, sweat and tears.

They worked around the clock to get the brand off the ground, traveling the country to get the line into Cheapskates and other independent skate/snow stores – and it sold.

When Dunstan moved to Queenstown for another snowboarding season, he found part-time work at a store that sold Huffer. He remembers the thrill he felt watching people connect with the clothes he helped design.

Steve Dunstan
Huffer co-founder Steve Dunstan (Picture: Supplied)

As Huffer began to emerge as a true competitor to the mostly American streetwear sold in New Zealand, what had started as humble aspirations turned into serious ambition. Dunstan and Buckley worked with larger sums of money and hired more staff, and the weight on their shoulders grew heavier and heavier.

During the first years, the two co-founders did not pay each other and worked their weekends elsewhere to earn a living. They lived cheaply and reinvested everything they earned back into the business.

But Dunstan realized that if he was going to get serious, he would have to give up the ‘snow bum’ life he loved and give up his usual 200 days of snowboarding a year. “I had to stop,” he says. “I could have snowboarded for the rest of my life, but it just felt right to move on and translate that kind of energy for progression through sports like skateboarding and snowboarding into what we were doing.

“It was a serious responsibility, but compensated by the fact that we were creating.”

In 2000, Huffer was everywhere. For the first time, t-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies from a local brand were just as sought after as clothing from major international brands, if not more so. “Maybe New Zealand got a little scrapped or something, but the time came to strike a moment and it was really celebrated,” Dunstan says.

He still remembers running to Whitcoulls in downtown Auckland to get more paper for the fax machine as orders came in. Even now, he finds the level of demand mind-boggling. “It was just ridiculous. We just had to say no, we just can’t give you those volumes, we were very careful about saturation.

And then the Orlando Bloom moment happened. The Lord of the Rings star wore Huffer’s “I 🖤 NZ” t-shirt (known to Dunstan as the “luv t-shirt”) at the New Zealand premiere of Return of the King in 2003. “I didn’t know who was in Orlando the time,” Dunstan laughs.

Liv Tyler and Orlando Bloom wave to fans on the parade to the Embassy Theater for the world premiere of the Rings’ third and final film ‘Return of The King’, December 1, 2003. (Photo: ANDE MERTL/AFP via Getty Images)

The story goes that when production wrapped on Lord of the Rings, Bloom’s on-set costume designer gave him the t-shirt – said to have been purchased at Area 51 in Wellington.

“They managed to get him one, as they were quite hard to get, and he decided to wear it. I’m not sure, but someone told me – it’s a cool story. We didn’t give it to him. He wore it with a suit blazer, at the time we were like ‘what are you doing?’ »

Demand for Huffer was already high, but the A-lister’s innocent nod of support sent it skyrocketing even further. With the shirt immortalized on the front page of the NZ Herald, everyone got a glimpse – and at the time it felt like the whole world had seen it.

“Everyone wanted this t-shirt, which is a big deal to have. But you have to be careful how you work your way up, because you don’t want to lose the respect of the people who have supported you over the course. of the first year or two and sell you, especially back then.

Pressure quickly mounted for the brand to exploit the sudden spike in interest, but Dunstan remained cautious.

“I didn’t even have to think, we’re not remaking that t-shirt. I was just like ‘no, that looks like trouble’. It wasn’t even a hard decision, but the fact that we doesn’t do it, made the front page of the Herald the next day.

By 2005, Huffer was a household name, prompting the founders to ask the big question: what next?

They walked the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2006, seeing it as both a creative challenge and a celebration of how far they’ve come. “Starting from a skateboard brand that was now doing fashion week was just the weirdest thing ever.”

The Huffer retail store in Britomart, Auckland (Picture: Supplied)

Huffer was still in good position, Dunstan recalled, but lacked direction. With their heads turned by loud-talking strangers, the co-founders began hatching plans to expand into the huge US market. “We were investing in things that we probably shouldn’t have done at the time and financially it was getting really tough.”

As they attempted to break into new territories around the world, Dunstan learned a hard lesson: the way Kiwis show up with a suitcase ready to sink wasn’t enough to break through. “If you haven’t sorted out the fundamentals, you can’t create scale because your brand won’t shine,” he says.

The global financial crisis hit as they tried to break up the United States and they were forced to admit defeat. “We came back with our tails between our legs. There were three or four years at the foot of the wall. It was really tough.

In 2010, co-founder Buckley, then the brand’s creative director, resigned from the company. Dunstan embarked on a rescue mission for the business, scrapping US plans and opening the brand’s first standalone retail store in Newmarket, and converting part of their basement office space into an Auckland CBD storefront.

Dunstan is still moved to think how valuable that space turned out to be. It was the place where a teenager Lorde presented her album Pure Heroine, and which hosted many other creative and community events in the heart of the thriving Britomart district.

Retail stores, now located across the country, have enhanced Huffer’s business model, Dunstan said, allowing the company to engage with customers face-to-face and understand what they wanted from the brand. “Your key principles need to be defined. When you’re hot in New Zealand and you haven’t done that job, it’s just hot air evaporating.

In 2019, Dunstan sat down to come up with a three-year transformation plan, culminating in 2022, the brand’s 25th anniversary year. With day-to-day operations now the purview of Chief Executive Kate Berry, Dunstan’s focus these days is on big-picture thinking, constantly coming back to the big question: what is Huffer?

As Huffer celebrates this month, Dunstan says he’s taking a moment to look back on a quarter century of work and reflect on how far he’s come. “We feel so humbled that people have supported us to get to 25. It’s great.

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