Only a handful of celebrities embody a certain sartorial appeal that makes regular people care about what they wear; even fewer can harness that power and translate it into sales. And on the very rare occasion, a star is able to alter a brand's entire trajectory completely by happenstance. Kate Moss did that for the UK-based rain boot label Hunter.
The year was 2005, on the first day of Glastonbury, aka the U.K.'s biggest (and dirtiest) music festival, and there she was: Moss outfitted in a black tuxedo vest, the tiniest pair of shorts, and a pair of mud-caked knee-high Hunter boots. The next day, she was snapped with Pete Doherty in tow (remember, it was 2005), once again wading through sludge in her Hunters, styling them with a belted metallic knit long barely long enough to cover another pair of teeny-tiny cut-offs. The photos went viral — or as viral as they can be in a pre-Instagram, pre-Twitter age — and just like that, the heritage brand that had simply been a practical solution to rainy weather since its inception in 1856 suddenly became not only a buzzy fashion commodity, but also a music festival must-have.
Those looks — which will henceforth be known as the Kate Moss Moment — served as my introduction to Hunters. But for those who grew up with the brand in the UK, the Kate Moss Moment pushed their old, muddy Wellingtons into a new fashion-forward light. That was the case for Tess Harold, a 27-year-old London-based writer who, prior to the Kate Moss Moment, almost exclusively associated the brand with her dad, a "traditional English gent," who wore them on dog walks. Sienna McNiven, a 24-year-old English accessories designer, too, recounts a similar experience.
"I grew up in the country, so it's a brand I had always seen as super functional and associated with the outdoors, and when Kate Moss wore them, she looked really cool and effortless — that was when everyone noticed," she says. "When I think of wellies, I think of Hunter."
Moss was, by no means, the first festival-goer to wear Hunter boots, but Alasdhair Willis, the creative director of Hunter (and, fun fact: husband to Stella McCartney), says the supermodel was instrumental in changing the brand perception. "She wore them in a cool, rock 'n' roll way, and after, everybody wanted to wear them," he continues, "and at that time, that's all we carried."
For a brand so entrenched in the U.K. way of life (because, rain), it's easy to forget it was founded by an American. Over 160 years ago, a New Jersey entrepreneur by the name of Henry Lee Norris landed in Scotland looking for a factory to manufacture rubber boots. After providing durable waterproof pairs to the military during both World War I and II, the brand, in 1956, introduced the style that we know so well today: the iconic Hunter Original boot. Made from 28 individual pieces and assembled by hand over the span of three days, the brand soon found itself as the unofficial Wellington boot supplier to the royals, with Princess Diana opting for a pair during a pre-wedding photocall with Prince Charles.
Despite the brand's intimate relationship with the royals, the wellies weren't exactly coveted "it" items. So when Willis took the helm in 2013, he tasked himself with three things: to turn Hunter into a lifestyle brand that offered more than just waterproof footwear, explore and nurture its connection with music festivals, and find creative ways to continually reinvent the brand without losing sight of its DNA.
"When I came into the business, Hunter had a relationship with music festivals, but the brand had done nothing with it," Willis says. "We saw it as an opportunity to build on that platform; I wanted to partner with as many festivals as possible."
In his first year, Willis oversaw a rather genius guerilla-style campaign successful in spreading brand awareness at Glastonbury, which involved giant trucks stationed outside the festival that offered to exchange festival-goers' old (read: non-Hunter) boots for neon orange Hunters (the discarded boots were disposed of in a sustainable way). "We called them 'Headliner Boots,' and at the festival, you saw just a massive sea of orange boots," he enthuses. "It was brilliant."
After that, Hunter has been actively involved every season at festivals all over the world, including a branded one-day music festival called Hunter Rock in Taiwan, Fuji Rock in Japan, Governors Ball in New York City, and even one that took place in its own backyard — the brand new three-day London-based music festival All Points East that occurred last month, which marked the brand's first-ever official partnership with a festival.
"We're historically known for being an outdoors brand — especially when it comes to festivals outside the city — so by doing a festival in the heart of London, it demonstrates that we're as much an urban brand as a rural one," Willis says, explaining that Hunter is working on at least one major festival-related project a month, from April to October. "Festivals now are more than just music — there's food, there's human interaction, it's an experience, and I think that's why festivals as an industry has become so enormous. And Hunter taps right into it, because it's a brand that's very much about emotion."
It's true: Hunter is steeped in nostalgia. Nearly everyone I spoke with about the brand can't help but reminisce about their first pair. For Willis, that was one of the main reasons he took the job. (If you're wondering, his first memory of the brand was sitting in the stables as a seven-year-old in North Yorkshire in red Hunter boots as he begrudgingly waited for his two older sisters to finish riding their horses.)
"No one says, 'Oh they're fantastic boots, they keep your feet dry,' which is what they ultimately do. Instead, people often refer to a memory, an emotional experience, or a chapter in their lives — precious moments and they place Hunter alongside those moments," he continues. "People really love the brand, and if you have something as iconic as the boot, then you've got a good chance of building off of that."
He's talking about branching out into other categories, like outerwear, accessories and ready-to-wear. Since the brand began rolling out new designs a couple of years ago, its inventory is now 50-percent non-footwear. On the wholesale front, boots still make up a large part of the business, though 22 percent is non-footwear. His favorite of the bunch is the Original Rubberized Leather Backpack because it feels so inherently Hunter, from the fabric to the design lines (the mustache detail on the boot's toe can be seen on the front pocket, for example). The brand has sold about 60,000 of the backpacks this year alone.
"It's about maintaining authenticity of design, so when you go to the store and you see everything together, it links as a brand," he says. "We're not trying to be someone we're not; we're not trying to be a fashion brand. When I came in, I wanted to move us into a multi-category lifestyle brand, and it's already happening."
The Target x Hunter collection that released earlier this year is a testament to the shift: All the bags — hundreds of thousands of units — sold out within two days. America is, after all, Hunter's biggest market. And Hunter, Target discovered, boasts a level of brand recognition that's higher than any other designer from previous collaborations. "We actually haven't been in the U.S. that long as a business — only since 2005 — so the consumer knows we're an old brand, but we also feel fresh and new," Willis says, naming Houston and Los Angeles as its two strongest cities. "And yes, it's also because America is a much bigger country."
Willis hopes to continue to tap into the U.S. market — it's one of his main goals for the future. Dominating music festival fashion through collections and festival-ready kits is one way for the brand to do just that (the fanny pack especially has been selling really well).
"The festival-goer's style is developing all the time — it used to be based around emulating the music, but now it's all about making a statement," he muses, calling out Coachella. "It's less about the music and more about their personal style. It feels like costumes sometimes, and that's probably the main difference between the U.S. and the U.K. as well. In the U.K., it's still about the music and the camping. It's a little dirtier — people love to go crazy and just let themselves go."
Once festival season draws to a close, there are ambitious plans in the pipeline, like upping the percentage of non-footwear categories across the whole business, increasing engagement, and figuring out a way to become completely sustainable by implementing a closed loop system.
"I ultimately want to get to a place where you effectively never own your boot, so at the end of your boot's life cycle, we'll take them and repurpose or recycle the rubber," Willis says. "I like the idea that we're responsible for every pair of boots we produce, and as this world gets crazier in terms of our high levels of consumption, we need to do something about it. That's what I'd love to leave behind."
Disclosure: Hunter paid for my travel and accommodations to attend All Points East.