When it appeared on the red carpet in 2003, the star’s ‘I 🖤 NZ’ t-shirt brought worldwide attention – and no small amount of stress – to the cult streetwear brand.
We’re talking about elves, dwarves, cave trolls and sneaky little hobbitses for an entire week. Read the rest of our dedicated Lord of the Rings 20th anniversary coverage here.
Huffer co-founder Steven Dunstan wasn’t really paying much attention on December 1, 2003. The final instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, premiered at a blockbuster red-carpet event in Pōneke on that day but he admits he didn’t even know the event was on.
“I had a Nokia 5120, at the time we might have had one dial-up [internet connection] on our computer in our office, and someone sent me a text [saying], ‘Wow, man, you should see what’s happening’,” he says.
At that event, Liv Tyler took off her high heels to sign autographs barefoot and director Peter Jackson thanked the crowd for the “incredible” reception. But the moment Dunstan is talking about is actor Orlando Bloom, the man who melted hearts and defied gravity as swashbuckling elven warrior Legolas, thrilling New Zealanders by wearing Huffer’s “I 🖤 NZ” T-shirt underneath a black blazer.
It’s not quite how Huffer would have styled it, Dunstan says, but no matter: with Bloom repeatedly pointing at his chest and signalling to the manically enthusiastic 100,000-strong crowd, Huffer’s three-dot logo in the shape of a heart was on full display.
Overnight, the t-shirt gained cult status; demand was soon “absolutely going crazy”, Dunstan says. None of it was planned, nor was it product placement. “It was just a beautiful, organic moment that happened.” The t-shirt had been released about three years earlier and was no longer in stores; the story goes that Bloom’s garment was a gift from someone in the Lord of the Rings’ wardrobe department.
Dunstan still vividly remembers seeing Bloom in the shirt on the front page of the NZ Herald. Back then, marketing and communication channels were confined to radio, newspapers and television, so to make the front page was big news, he says. Reporters got in touch to ask how Huffer would take advantage of the attention. “I didn’t even think but I made the comment of, ‘We probably won’t make the t-shirt [again]’.”
Even before Bloom’s free advertising, Dunstan was wary of mainstream interest overwhelming Huffer’s original customer base. Founded by Dunstan and business partner Dan Buckley in 1997 as a streetwear brand for skateboarders and snowboarders, Huffer spent the first five or so years gaining traction. Having hit its stride, and keen to put its mark on a local culture heavily influenced by the US, Huffer put New Zealand on a t-shirt.
Dunstan acknowledges the “I heart NZ” concept might sound silly now but it was quite radical back then. The patriotism of the t-shirt, part of a Kiwiana-inspired collection, felt exciting in the early noughties, when New Zealanders were still getting over their cultural cringe. The message of the t-shirt was different and new, he says. “I’d go to parties or be in social environments [wearing it] and feel like I was empowered. It was quite a movement.”
Increasing numbers of customers outside of Huffer’s core fanbase started showing interest in its products, but stocks of the t-shirt remained limited. Those quick enough to have snapped one up could feel chuffed they had a piece of clothing that everyone was clamouring to buy. “It’s just basic brand 101 stuff,” says Dunstan.
Then Bloom wore it on the red carpet and ignited a firestorm. “I was like, ‘This smells like trouble, people just want the t-shirt because of Orlando’,” Dunstan says. “My quote that, ‘We’ll never make the t-shirt’ made the front page of the Herald the following day. It was something like ‘New Zealand designer turns down opportunity to blah, blah, blah, blah’.”
People either understood the decision or rubbished it. Dunstan recalls late broadcaster Paul Holmes criticising Huffer for rejecting their big chance while former bFM host Mikey Havoc heaped praise on the brand for not selling out. Clothing stores that stocked Huffer argued that sales of the t-shirt would go gangbusters, but Dunstan asked them to trust his decision to hold back. “It really communicated our values without even us trying,” he says. “Just from answering a question to the media without thinking about it – because we didn’t need to think about it.”
While interest in Huffer surged and fuelled its next growth spurt, demand for the t-shirt itself faded. Only a few thousand were ever made. The design was brought back briefly in 2018, but “as it goes, we’re still not making it,” says Dunstan. “Just out of respect to staying true to your word.”
He says while it’s unlikely he’d have given Bloom the t-shirt himself, he admits the actor’s red carpet moment helped draw the nation’s attention to Huffer, “to really communicate how we run our shit”. He might not have known who Bloom was back in 2003 – “I was watching skate videos” – nor has he watched any of the Lord of the Rings films – “maybe my attention span is not long enough” – but there’s no rush.
“I’ve got the rest of my life to try and watch it. And maybe I should read the book first?”