Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

BusinessApril 11, 2022

Huffer at 25: The struggles and triumphs of the little NZ brand that could

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

It was a snow and skate brand that evolved into one of New Zealand’s most well-known fashion houses. As Huffer celebrates 25 years in business, Fiona Connor finds out how co-founder Steve Dunstan survived the label’s highs and lows 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 on, when Dunstan had left school and started snowboarding professionally, he saw how limited apparel options were for the sport, which – like skateboarding – was still seen as a relatively niche and counter-cultural endeavour.

Dunstan wanted to change that.

His skateboarding buddy Dan Buckley was already playing around with the idea of making outerwear, and the pair decided to collaborate.

“I think the key was to not think and be guided by your mind. I got caught up in a moment of a movement, more so than a business opportunity,” Dunstan remembers.

An early advertising image (Photo: Supplied)

They pair saw potential in the samples they’d put together and in April 1997 Dunstan and Buckley somewhat blindly incorporated Huffer, taking on the responsibility of a business with some guidance from friends in the skating community.

Their first collection was waterproof, breathable snowboard outerwear, but the brand soon added summer clothing for skateboarders with printed t-shirts, hoodies, pants and tracksuits.

“Quickly we realised it keeps going, you’ve got bills coming in, and you have to pay for things, and summer was coming up so we thought, ‘what do we do? Make a summer range’,” Dunstan says. “We fed the beast because there was demand. We were living right in it, we were the market. That was enough of a driver to motivate all the hard work and the blood, sweat and tears.”

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

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

Steve Dunstan
Huffer co-founder Steve Dunstan (Photo: supplied)

As Huffer began to emerge as a genuine competitor to the mostly American streetwear sold in New Zealand, what had started as humble aspirations grew into serious ambition. Dunstan and Buckley were working with bigger sums of money and hiring more staff, and the weight on their shoulders was getting heavier.

Over the first few years, the two co-founders didn’t pay themselves and worked their weekends elsewhere for income. They lived cheaply and reinvested everything they were making back into the business.

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

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

By 2000, Huffer was everywhere. For the first time, a local brand’s t-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies were just as sought-after as clothing from major international brands – perhaps more so. “Maybe New Zealand was a bit suppressed or something but the timing just struck a moment and it was really celebrated,” says Dunstan.

He still recalls running down to Whitcoulls in Auckland’s city centre to get more paper for the fax machine as orders rolled in. Even now, he finds the level of demand mindblowing. “It was just ridiculous. We just had to say no, we just can’t give you those volumes, we were very careful with saturating.”

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 tee”) to the New Zealand premiere of Return of the King in 2003. “I didn’t know who Orlando was at the time,” Dunstan laughs.

Liv Tyler and Orlando Bloom wave to fans during the parade to the Embassy theatre for the worldwide premiere of the third and final Rings movie ‘Return of The King’, 1 December 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 gifted him the t-shirt – believed to have been purchased from Area 51 in Wellington.

“They managed to somehow get him one, because they were quite hard to get, and he decided to wear it. I don’t know that for sure, but someone’s told me that – 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 sign of support skyrocketed that even further. With the shirt immortalised on the front page of the NZ Herald, everyone caught a glimpse – and at the time, it felt like the whole world saw it.

“Everyone wanted that t-shirt which is a great problem to have. But you have to be careful of how you navigate your way through because you don’t want to lose the respect of the people that supported you in the first year or two and sell out, 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 ‘nah, that sounds like trouble’. It wasn’t even a hard decision but the fact that we didn’t make 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 showed at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2006, seeing it as both a creative challenge and a celebration of how far they’d come. “To go from a skateboard brand that was now doing fashion week was just the weirdest thing ever.”

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

Huffer was still in a good position, Dunstan recalls, but it was lacking direction. Their heads turned by big-talking outsiders, the co-founders started drawing up plans for expansion into the huge US market. “We were investing in things that we probably shouldn’t have been doing at the time and financially it got really challenging.”

As they attempted to cut into new territories around the world, Dunstan learned a hard lesson: the Kiwi way of turning up with a suitcase ready to muck in wasn’t enough to break through. “If you don’t have the fundamentals sorted, you can’t create scale because your brand won’t shine,” he says.

The global financial crisis hit while they were trying to break the US and they were forced to admit defeat. “We came back with our tail between our legs. There were three or four years up against the wall. It was really hard.”

In 2010 co-founder Buckley, by then the brand’s creative director, resigned from the company. Dunstan launched a salvage mission for the business, abandoning the American 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 still gets emotional thinking about how precious that space turned out to be. It was the venue where a teenage Lorde showcased her Pure Heroine album, and which hosted scores of other creative and community events in the heart of the thriving Britomart precinct.

The retail stores, now located across the country, changed Huffer’s business model for the better, says Dunstan, 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 work, it’s just hot air that evaporates.”

In 2019, Dunstan sat down to come up with a three-year transformation plan, culminating in 2022, the brand’s 25th birthday year. With day-to-day operations now the remit of managing director Kate Berry, Dunstan these days focuses 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’s worth of work and reflect on how far they’ve come. “We feel so humbled that people supported us to get all this way to 25 years. It’s awesome.”

Keep going!