Steve Dunstan celebrates twenty years of Huffer

Steve Dunstan, founder of Huffer. Image supplied.

You would be hard pressed to find a young Kiwi who hasn’t heard of Huffer. The clothing brand has been making its mark on streetwear since 1997 and this year founder Steve Dunstan is elated to be celebrating a remarkable twenty years of Huffer. The world has changed a heck of a lot in that time with the brand coming to fruition before online clothing stores, social media or much of the technology that fashion labels now rely on even existed. Back when Dunstan co-founded Huffer with his friend Dan Buckley (who amicably left the brand in late 2010) the initial collection of outerwear reflected their shared love of snowboarding and skateboarding with waterproof, breathable pieces that worked with their active lifestyles. It was at a time when there were few New Zealand streetwear labels and Huffer’s brand of casual cool that is as practical as it is great to look at quickly starting gaining traction.

Today, Huffer’s core business is still about functional streetwear with fashionable cred and with the brand’s recent retail expansion into Australia, Steve Dunstan has relocated to Oz to oversee operations on the ground. It’s a sunny Sydney day when I catch up with Dunstan over the phone and he’s a man on the move, now based out near Huffer’s new Bondi Beach store. He’s quick to enthuse about his brand’s twenty years in business although in that laidback kiwi way where we know we’ve pulled off something pretty epic but are humble and somewhat understated about it.

“I’m grateful we made it, it’s pretty overwhelming actually after you stop to breathe,” says Dunstan. “It’s good to actually celebrate it and we’ve got a pretty exciting plan ahead from now through to New Zealand Fashion Week.” In true Huffer style the brand are celebrating their big birthday with twenty weeks of celebrations which will hit its peak at NZFW in late August with a show that incorporates twenty years of Huffer. In the meantime Dunstan and his team are releasing limited edition products including a very limited edition down jacket called the D97 (of which there are only 97 made). “We’ve put twenty references to twenty years of Huffer throughout the jacket. It’s a black on black jacket but there’s lots of hidden features and it’s 100% waterproof,” he adds. The brand are also collaborating with Audi on a car and doing a callback on some old garments for an archive project.

There’s a lot to reflect on with twenty years of Huffer now under his belt but for Dunstan it’s how he and his team got through the challenges that stands out to him. Making mistakes and figuring out how to overcome them has been rewarding. “I mean it’s not very glamorous but it’s pretty cool,” he says. “Because over twenty years you’re so vulnerable in the fashion industry. The other highlight is the development of the products especially recently. We’ve managed to invest in some opportunities and capabilities and really improve the proposition of what Huffer is through increased quality, fits and consistency.”

Campaign image for Huffer’s Winter 2017 collection. Image supplied.

It’s those great products that have kept Huffer’s many fans coming back for more with down jackets and vests in particular consistent sellers for the brand and some of Dunstan’s favourite pieces as well. He likes products that have a purpose and functionality that enhance your lifestyle. “So our down jacket doesn’t look like you’re conquering Mount Everest but we apply the same functionality with a lower key aesthetic,” enthuses Dunstan. “It’s more of the fashion or streetwear side of things rather than mountaineering. It’s a hybrid of lifestyle, functionality and fashion which is where we sit and where we do well. I think Huffer is in its own category and me being me, it’s driven by my lifestyle and is inspired by New Zealand and the diversity of it.”

From the beginning Dunstan has wanted Huffer to be an inclusive brand and embrace the diversity of their customer base while building their community. He cites the often exclusive nature of the fashion business as one of the reasons why he and his team have placed importance on making their customers feel welcome and like they’re part of the brand’s community. Inclusivity is one of the core values of Huffer and was clear in their recent “Local” campaign which featured friends and fans of the brand and celebrates its community.

That strong sense of community was first created at the Huffer basement on Queen Street where regular events like their Free Coffee Fridays helped the brand get to know their neighbours and customers better. They’ve embraced those events at their other retail stores as well. The brand occupied their Queen Street home for the best part of 19 years before moving to their new Britomart HQ in late August 2016. “It was quite sad but it was good as it felt like time,” says Dunstan. “Since day one we’ve been around there, we started in a small studio upstairs for the first couple of years and then moved down to the basement. It was a bit emotional as so many experiences happened in that space and subconsciously when I thought of Huffer I always thought of that space. It’s what Huffer was to me because it harboured the people, the creativity and all the creations came out of there. It was a space and a house, and a house means family I suppose. That’s why it was quite big to move out as it was a big learning curve the first few years growing up. We turned 19 so it was like the teenager moving out of home.”

A few short weeks after Huffer moved out of their basement, the brand was ready for a move of a different kind with the first of their new Australian retail stores opening in Newtown in Sydney’s inner-west on October 4th. It was followed a few weeks later by the brand’s Bondi Beach store which are both under the watchful eye of Dunstan. It reminds him of how far the brand has come since his first sales trip to Australia by himself when he packed a suitcase and went to a small handful of stores in Sydney and Melbourne returning home with some orders but no logistical plan for how to ship them. More of a wholesaling strategy followed but it wasn’t until 12 – 18 months ago that Huffer identified Australia as an opportunity to further the retail side of their brand which would allow them to create brand experiences and increase Huffer’s community reach.

Interior of Huffer’s Bondi Beach store. Image supplied.

“Part of the reason I’m here is to develop relationships with the community and ensure that our store behaves in a local and community orientated way,” adds Dunstan. “We want to be good citizens of the community and friends of our neighbours. It just so happens some of the most influential people in Australia are our neighbours and there’s a lot of good things happening at Bondi Beach. Everyone’s been to Bondi too, I think if we were in some mall we would get a bit lost. There’s definitely more sales opportunity and foot traffic in the city but with Newtown as well, it’s a great opportunity to develop a localised community based retail experience.” Huffer have coffee machines in their stores and also use their retail stores as showrooms to bring through people potentially interested in their brand and do product seedings etc. Having their Australian retail stores also shows their wholesale customers that the brand are committed to the market as Huffer’s retail stores have to perform otherwise they’re not going to last.

Next up is refining the back end systems of their Sydney stores before the brand eyes up entering Melbourne as well. Having a run on down jackets on a warm Sydney day took the brand by surprise and made them realise that the time taken to replenish stock from NZ wasn’t ideal. But it’s all a learning process and the Huffer of today is quick to adapt and make things work logistically. Dunstan is relishing his role in Australia and enjoying the excitement of building the brand’s following. “I still totally get blown away when I see our product on the streets of New Zealand but seeing it over here again and it getting traction and exposure is so frigging exciting,” he enthuses. “It’s like it was back in the 90s, it’s in that discover mode. Sure, there are still some people that discover it in NZ but its more about sustainability of the brand and further development. It’s quite a different proposition over here which is cool.”

Speaking of the 90s, when Huffer first started building their customer base there was no such thing as social media for them to share news or interact with their community. Whereas these days social media is an important part of doing business especially with the increase of online stores and the immediacy with which a brand can respond to customer enquiries. But it always comes back to building a community and Dunstan believes that social media should be a conversation and a part of the brand experience that connects to real life experiences. “We have quite an engaged community on our social media but I think it’s quite important to match it with real brand experiences like our Free Coffee Fridays which are open invite inclusive events. I know not everyone in the world can get to our retail stores but if you did you’re welcome to have a free coffee and a conversation with us. Digital is a huge part of our lives now but it’s not the only thing. It’s all about touchpoints I suppose and the more of them that are real and tactile, not digital, the better in my book.”

Creating those real life brand experiences brings Huffer back to New Zealand Fashion Week where they have shown consistently on the runway for well over a decade. Even though you don’t necessarily think streetwear when you think of a runway show the brand have found clever ways to make the fashion week format work for them. “We’ve always had a friendly, productive working relationship with NZ Fashion Week but we haven’t stuck to the rules,” adds Dunstan. “We’ve made it work for us so we can tell our brand story and as much as we’re excited about the catwalk it’s not the be all and end all for us. Putting streetwear on the catwalk can be cool but it’s not really our focus whereas some brands and labels make themselves on the catwalk.”

Finale at Huffer’s New Zealand Fashion Week 2016 show. Image by James Yang.

Huffer have certainly created some memorable moments on the NZFW runway with their 15th birthday celebration involving Aja Rock in a bikini jumping out of a birthday cake before the models got the crowd in a party mood by dancing on the runway. The following year they turned their Takapuna store opening into a fashion week installation and it turned into the party of the week. The only time they’ve skipped NZFW was 2015 when they didn’t have anything on that aligned with the event’s timing.

“We’ve tried quite a few different things with fashion week; small on-site shows, being part of Fashion Weekend, we’ve done installations and we’ve done huge off-site shows,” he adds. “Last year we launched our Huffer Local campaign. We had a pre-hosting part in the store, then we showed our collection and then we had a massive after party which celebrated our time in the Huffer basement. So the whole fashion week experience was drawn out from 6pm to 3am making it much longer than the 12 minute catwalk show at a typical fashion week and a great evening for our audience.” With this year’s NZFW closing in quickly, Huffer have epic plans for the event that are currently being finalised. While Dunstan is keeping quiet about the details it’s fair to say that their show will definitely be one to look forward to.

Planning now takes up a decent amount of Dunstan’s time with his team constantly growing as the business grows and he enjoys giving people a chance to part of a team that share the same values. When pressed on where he thinks the brand will be in another twenty year’s time he is positive about its future. “I believe Huffer will still exist, that’s the vision for the brand, it’s not a fly by night hype brand,” he says. “It has longevity and a strong future ahead. We’ve built a platform for it to live a long time, we’ve got long-term goals and we take the sustainability and health of our business quite seriously. Fashion is fickle and we’re quite different with how we control our business.” He sees Australia as its own challenge for the next two to three years. Once Huffer is an Australasian brand he wants to explore opportunities in the Northern Hemisphere. “We obviously went into the Northern Hemisphere a bit gung ho and early without too much of a plan but we’ll get the momentum through Australasia to be able to take on that challenge. The Northern Hemisphere is quite a different marketplace but I think we can conquer it in that time, that’s the plan and we’re committed to doing it.”

It’s clear that Dunstan gets his motivation through challenging himself and his brand and now that he’s based in Bondi the keen surfer is able to make the most of his down time out on the water at the legendary beach. It’s the perfect spot for developing something iconic and Huffer are on the way to achieving that global brand recognition which is something that Dunstan finds compelling and exciting. ”The challenge is huge and it’s motivation to keep working really hard and further ourselves, ensuring that we innovate and develop amazing and exciting products,” he enthuses. “Then there’s community and people, people are so important and as we enter new markets and develop our brand it means we’re going to meet lots more people and make bigger communities. I’m personally a social person so it excites me that even with what I’m doing now I’m building an amazing new network of people and that’s really inspiring.”

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