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Puddle Jumper: Hunter Tries To Sell More Than Wellies

London – Inside a $148 rubber rain boot is the design DNA of a global lifestyle brand—or so Hunter Boot Ltd. hopes.

Hunter, founded in 1856 and best known for the Wellington boot it introduced a century later, is in the midst of an ambitious expansion.

Under creative director Alasdhair Willis, the British label is infusing more fashion into its footwear and adding outerwear, knitwear and accessories including handbags. Elaborate runway shows, a new flagship store on London’s Regent Street and splashy digital marketing campaigns are helping spread the word.

On Monday evening, as part of London Fashion Week, Hunter showed its fall 2015 collection in a warehouse with a large pool and towering waterfalls. The runway encircling the pool was raised, providing a better view of the new shoe styles, including a galosh wedge and a high-heeled wader.

The original boot style has been a design inspiration for all the brand’s new clothing and accessories. The bracket-shaped squiggle on the boot toe—known internally at Hunter as “the mustache”—appears in subtle stitching across the front of a poncho and as the edge shape for a jacket pocket flap for fall 2015. The interlinking design at the top of the boot opening, known as the “top bind,” is echoed in the quilting pattern on jackets and bags.

“It’s small details like those that, when you start to layer them into a collection and you start to really force a design language, you build coherency,” says the 44-year-old Mr. Willis.

The challenge is to further engage the very broad customer base that is attracted to its boots. “This Wellington rubber boot appeals to children, to young moms, to teenage girls going to festivals and to elderly couples in their gardens,” Mr. Willis says.

Countless clothing brands have successfully expanded into handbags and other accessories, but far fewer accessories labels have gone the opposite way and done well with apparel.

Coach Inc., which is making a similar push, reported North American same-store sales fell 22% for the most-recent quarter, including the holiday period. Kate Spade Co. last month predicted a 24% rise in sales at existing stores in 2014 but said it would shutter its Kate Spade Saturday division.

“It’s a big undertaking,” says Suzanne Timmins, senior vice president and fashion director for Hudson’s Bay and Lord & Taylor stores, of what Hunter is doing. “Certainly the desire for the brand is there.”

New apparel has to tempt shoppers who love the boots, Ms. Timmins says, cautioning against looks that are too daring.

Merchandising also poses challenges. In a few stores, Hudson’s Bay Co. has placed a rack of Hunter coats near its boot display. “It gives the clothing around it that cred,” Ms. Timmins says, “for shoppers to be able to find it, to be able to see it, to be able to even know it exists.”

Danielle Arsenault, a 30-year-old project manager living outside Boston, posts pictures of herself in classic red Hunter boots on her blog and on Instagram.

“I wear them pretty much rain or shine,” she says. “They are super-functional but I also think they look really cute, so if I can work them into my wardrobe, I do.”

High-heel and wedge boots don’t tempt her, though, she says, out of concern for comfort. She would consider buying a Hunter raincoat but not a handbag. “I don’t really associate Hunter with purses,” Ms. Arsenault says.

Many customers came to the brand about a decade ago, when supermodel Kate Moss was photographed wearing Hunter rain boots, Mr. Willis says.

The boots weren’t considered a fashion purchase back then, but they quickly became one and attracted young buyers. Hunter began offering the style in a host of bold colors.

In doing so, it began to alienate some of its existing shoppers, who saw the boots as a functional purchase to wear in the rain or snow. Mr. Willis says, “Guys my age and older would see their daughters wearing bright-pink Hunters and didn’t see their brand anymore.”

Mr. Willis came to Hunter in 2013 with an eclectic resume in branding and design, including co-founding a creative agency and launching a brand consultancy. He is married to fashion designer Stella McCartney, who attends his runway shows. His father-in-law, Paul McCartney, attended the spring 2015 show in September.

After assessing the customer base and goals of investors, Mr. Willis says he devised a plan to segment the brand into three subgroups, with apparel and footwear styles for each. There are younger, trend-conscious shoppers who have been fueling the brand’s rapid growth; older consumers who want the merchandise purely for function; and luxury shoppers willing to pay more for fashion.

Hunter Original, which made its debut with a runway show at London Fashion Week last year, offers trendy boots, jackets and handbags that younger shoppers might wear to a music festival or while tromping around the city. Its prices are lowest of the three new divisions and will contribute the most volume, Mr. Willis says.

Hunter Field, with product hitting stores later this year, will emphasize performance. The company has been marketing the line’s technical features, such as lightweight rubber and a tread that pushes away mud more effectively.

The third division, with a yet-to-be-announced name, is expected to have the highest prices and most fashion-forward styles.

At Nordstrom, one of Hunter’s biggest U.S. wholesale accounts, the new items have spurred repeat purchases, says Scott Meden, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of the shoe division. “They’ve added more colors, materials and novel silhouettes, giving the Nordstrom customer a reason to come back again and again,” he wrote in an email.

Hunter declined to disclose sales. It said it is doing well in North America, its largest market. U.S. sales in 2014 rose 65% over 2013, said Wendy Svarre, president and chief of Hunter’s Americas division.

Standing in the new London store on a recent morning, Mr. Willis picked up an Original High Heel style, a rubber boot that rises to just above the ankle with a chunky, 3.5-inch heel. “It’s obviously a fashion purchase,” Mr. Willis said. “But still a lot of people, in their heads, think, ‘Well, it’s Hunter. I can wear this in a muddy field.’ ”

For this year’s spring season, Mr. Willis introduced slip-on sandals for men and women that recall the Adidas slides athletes and college students wear everywhere.

In outerwear, which is still in limited distribution, Mr. Willis has gravitated to materials that will remind a shopper of Hunter’s origins. “The fabric has to give a sense of protection or have a tactility to it that is somehow reminiscent of the rubber boot,” he says.

As seen in the Wall Street Journal.


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