Spotlight: Steve Dunstan, Huffer founder

Now in their 22nd year of business, streetwear brand Huffer is one of New Zealand’s apparel success stories. We spoke with Huffer founder Steve Dunstan about bricks & mortar, working through business plateaux and creating content.

AF - Huffer's infancy in 1997 must seem a lifetime ago, now in its 22nd year, it has become one of NZ's best known clothing brands and retail destinations. Given the chance to go back to '97, what advice would you give yourself to make the ride a little smoother?

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SD - Tricky question because the bumps along the way have helped shape who we are. It's good to look back and think of the skills or techniques that might have made life easier but getting through some of the challenges we faced along the way has helped shape the brand and myself 22 years later. My advice would be to not overthink things, be conscious and aware of your business but turn your passion into motivation or drive, that passion will get you through the challenges thrown your way.


You established a young customer base early on, centred around skating and snowboarding culture, but some of your most loyal fans have long since grown up and continue to keenly follow the brand. How do you balance appealing to both the young, new customer base and the loyal young-at-heart?

Communication is really important... you can’t be too controlling. You just have to find good people who know their market and let them get on with it.
— Steve Dunstan on working with wholesale customers.

I’m blown away with the span of customers we have. 22 years later we’ve got plenty of customer that have been with us the whole way. At one point in our first retail store in Newmarket, I was standing in the store and there were these 16 year old kids that really wanted the brand but couldn’t yet fit it, that was the moment I realised we’d spanned a generation and a new group of customers were coming through. The challenge for Huffer is that we can’t go into Australia or new markets the same way we operate in NZ.  We’ll continue to engage with our community here in NZ but we really have to be pinpoint focused in new markets. We aim for leadership and to go in strong into new markets.

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Are you planning on focusing on retail or growing your wholesale presence?

Our focus is still wholesale but for us, bricks & mortar is about brand activation and an innovative, different, tactile experience. Hopefully with some byproduct of healthy revenue but it’s a brand experience for us. We’re actually investigating pop-up opportunities in New York towards the end of the year.

You can’t go into a new market just with tee shirts with your logo on them because that doesn’t stand for anything. They should be a byproduct of innovation and development in other areas.
— Steve Dunstan on standing out in new markets.

Wholesale is still the best way for us to enter new markets. We have a retail arm also but it’s an entirely different timeline to work to. Retail is important but for us, but building strong relationships with wholesale customers and distributors is essential. Communication is really important with making wholesale a success. We’re on the phones sometimes 5 times a day with our key distributors or stockists, we’re practically holding hands. Trust and transparency are essential, you can’t be too controlling. You just have to find good people who know their market and let them get on with it.


Your NZ Fashion Week 2018 show went down as one of the parties of the year, what are the ingredients to a successful fashion show and after party?

Fashion week for us is really a time to celebrate. We’ve always done it but for Huffer, its questionable whether we even need the 12 minute runway show because it’s more about bringing people tougher and having a mega party that showcases our culture. One of Huffer’s core values is of inclusivity so we tried to get as many people together as we could. We even live-streamed the show and party for anyone who couldn’t make it or fit at the venue. The fashion game can be incredibly exclusive and elitist so we really want to be as inclusive as possible. A good party is about the entire experience from when you receive your invite to when you walk in the door. All the senses have to be sated throughout the process. We had Desiigner come down from the USA, he’s a pretty crazy character and a real showman. It was just great to put on a show and celebrate with as many people as we could.

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It seems like Huffer has had found an extra gear in recent years, new product lines, a retail arm, greater international presence - what do you attribute this to?

With the bumps and rhythms of business, I fell like over the years you can get to plateaux. How do you elevate beyond those plateaux? Well, people are a big part of it combined with passion, determination, timing & luck. The next stage of growth came from making mistakes. Through the experience and those plateaux or bumps, you learn and make fewer of the same mistakes. To build and grow you need to ask yourself why you’re doing it. We challenge ourselves about what we do. We’ve placed a lot of emphasis on people and on community development. The more people we can reach out to and connect with, the better. One of the main ways we do that is through products so the insights from the people around us usually lead to product development and further growth.

Sometimes less is more, investing in making powerful quality content can be a better tactic. Compelling storytelling is the goal. 
— Steve Dunstan on content strategy

It’s not a winter’s day without seeing puffer jackets in NZ but Huffer’s down jackets remain a stand out.  Tell us about the insights, process and development of Huffer’s Down Jackets and why your designs have struck a chord with your customers.

Throughout Huffer’s history, we’ve gone through waves or bursts of innovation and development but we’re coming full circle with outerwear. We were born in skateboarding and snowboarding culture so it’s how we started the business so it’s a real homecoming to come back to it. The decision to reinvest in outerwear and down is part of a global strategy to enter new markets and furthering ourselves. You can’t go into a new market with tee shirts with your logo on them because that doesn’t stand for anything. They should be a byproduct of the innovation and development in other areas. We’re putting in a lot of work into developing new construction techniques and fabric development. We’re working on product 18 months ahead of time so it’s a really exciting and inspiring time for Huffer. It’s exciting bringing the snowboarding & outdoors back to the streets and urban culture. That rebellious street-urban culture is so important part of Huffer’s DNA, my upbringing is skateboarding and that involved kicking about in the streets. 

I grew up all around the country. I was in Christchurch until I was 8, moved around with Dad’s career and went to Hawkes Bay, Manawatu and then on to Auckland as a teenager. Auckland is really where I first set up a real network of friends. I lived in the Auckland Grammar zone but that style just did not gel with me. I went to Selwyn College which was a slightly alternative school back in the day.  You could express yourself and wear whatever you want, it actually has male and female students. There were about 45 different subjects to take in sixth form, at the time Grammar had about 10-12. I studied media and photography and more creative classes. What that did for me was create a more diverse pool of people and culture which exposed me to people with lots of different opinions, backgrounds and from all walks of life. I met the people who have influenced me the most through Selwyn college. It was an amazing school.


We’re seeing a little less of the 3 dot logo and a little more HUFFER these days. Talk to us about Huffer's visual identity

The 3 dot logo is very special to me and the brand, we’re careful with how and where we use it and fight very hard to protect it everywhere we can with trademarking. When it comes to introducing Huffer to new markets, the brand name is right there and more direct. It communicates who we are immediately whereas the 3 dot logo is a little more subtle. The brand name and three dot logo need to be developed together. Huffer’s visual identity is constantly evolving and growing, it’s reflective of the changing world around us.

How often are you producing content and are you doing video?

We’re creating a lot of content, we don’t have enough channels to publish it all on. Websites, social media, in-store printing posters. We’re looking at eco-friendly ways of pricing catalogues and posters. Sometimes less it more, investing in making powerful quality content can be a better tactic. Compelling storytelling is the goal.  As for creating visual imagery, we aim to be flexible and fast with what we produce. We see it a self-expression and we’re an expressive brand, we’re creative and love the process of creating art. We have just done the Decade project with photographer Tom Gould. We’re definitely investing in campaign video. We emphasis compelling storytelling for the season and consistency season to season.  We’re looking to invest in video on the online store more. First and foremost for ecommerce, the video needs to be super functional and if you can put a creative spin on it then you’re winning. These days, if you discover a brand, you head to the brand’s instagram and if you want to know a little more, you go to their website. Getting great content on instagram is important to attract people before.

How do you decide on which areas of the business to focus on?

There’s so many areas in business to invest your resources in from product development and suppliers to new market development to websites. To me, I liken deciding on areas to invest in to setting up a hi-fi sound system; you can go out and get a great amplifier and expensive speaker cable but plug it in to shitty speakers and everything falls flat. The whole system needs to be consistent to be effective. Balancing this equation and getting a consistent approach is key and that involves planning, planning and more planning to get right. 


You’re now stocking the Supreme brand, what lead to this decision?

New York is the natural home of streetwear and with Supreme as one of the pioneers in streetwear, we get to inject a bit of New York into New Zealand and eventually put a bit of New Zealand in New York. It’s great to be able to supply one of the leaders in the game to our customers. 


Tell us about your experience working with Asset Factory and our machines

The great thing with working with Asset Factory is that you’re forever innovating. You bring market-leading technology that help with multiple areas of our business. The ability to create content and turn it around quickly lets us to immediately respond to exciting opportunities in the Northern Hemisphere.

huffer.co.nz

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The great thing with working with Asset Factory is that you’re forever innovating. You bring market-leading technology that help with multiple areas of our business. The ability to create content and turn it around quickly lets us to immediately respond to exciting opportunities in the Northern Hemisphere.
— Steve Dunstan on Working with Asset Factory
Sam Clode