How Hunter creative director Alasdhair Willis is transforming a 160-year-old business

We take a look at the making of Hunter’s festival-themed London Fashion Week show – and speak to creative director Alasdhair Willis how the brand has transformed its image through innovative store design, digital content and events…

Hunter’s SS16 LFW show took place in Euston Station’s Parcel Deck, a vast venue which was dressed with a blue ripstop roof, fluorescent orange guy ropes stretching from floor to ceiling and a muddy runway reminiscent of festival fields. Models entered via a giant tent flap, wearing waterproof rubber jackets, nylon parkas and trainers and new versions of the brand’s famous wellies. The event was broadcast live on Periscope on Saturday and footage is also available on Hunter’s website.

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Alasdhair Willis at Hunter’s LFW show. Image courtesy of @London Instagram
Hunter Original SS16 show. Image: Dan Medhurst
Hunter Original SS16 show. Image: Chris Moore
Hunter Original SS16 show. Image: Chris Moore
Hunter Original SS16 show. Image: Chris Moore

“The concept [for the show] is reflective of the new collection, which is based on the festival,” creative director Alasdhair Willis told CR ahead of the event. “Glastonbury is a major part of our brand now and festivals have become much more significant to the business over recent years, so we wanted to do a collection that reflected that,” he adds.

The muddy runway was created using a process Willis describes as inverse turfing – rolls of turf were laid mud-side up, then compacted and roughed up to create the desired effect. “It’s an extensive dressing process, to make sure we get the right style. It has to be muddy and a bit messed up but it still has to look aesthetically pleasing,” he says.

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Building Hunter’s SS16 Fashion Week show set. Image: Jamie Stoker
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Image: Felix Turnbull Walter

The show is the brand’s fourth at London Fashion Week and each has been inspired by rain, water or the great outdoors. The Hunter AW14 show featured birch trees, a pitch black backdrop and a water-covered catwalk plus an appearance from magician Dynamo, while its AW15 event, held at London’s Albert Enbankment, featured waterfalls cascading into a series of troughs alongside a brightly coloured runway.

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Preparing the festival inspired mud runway at Euston Station’s Parcel Deck. Image: Felix Turnbull Walter
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Image: Felix Turnbull Walter

Hunter worked with production company Gainsbury & Whiting to create the show (founders Sam Gainsbury & Anna Whiting worked with Alexander McQueen on several of his fashion shows and recently collaborated with the V&A on its McQueen retrospective, Savage Beauty) – but the concept and design for each LFW event is devised in-house by Willis and his creative team.

“Sam has an excellent eye and works closely with me on making sure we can execute that idea,” explains Willis. “The execution is everything, so you’ve got to work with the right people who really get it and understand [what you’re trying to do]. You can tell a contractor you want a muddy field and they’ll say, ‘sure’, but whether they’ll understand what we’re looking for, in terms of creative, is another matter,” he adds.

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Hunter Original AW15 show at London Fashion Week. Image: Dan Medhurst

While its shows are now a major event at LFW (they have been featured in Vogue, GQ and Grazia and this year’s was attended by US Vogue editor Anna Wintour), the brand had never staged one prior to Willis joining as creative director in 2013. This is unsurprising, given that the brand’s wellies were worn mostly by farmers, horse riders or people living in the country before Kate Moss was spotted wearing a pair at Glastonbury in 2005. In the ten years since, however, its growing popularity has attracted a more fashion-conscious following, and Willis has set about reinventing the brand to reflect this.

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Image: Dan Medhurst

“Before I came into the business, the brand had never shown its products in this kind of context, and nor would you have expected it to. At that stage, it was a very different type of business. But with the new positioning and new plans for Hunter, I felt the platform of a fashion show was a great opportunity to not only showcase the new categories and products we were developing, but give a sense of brand experience which Hunter has always been about – because really the brand had never taken control of that experience,” he says.

Over the past two years, Willis has also been focusing on separating Hunter’s products into key lines: Hunter Original (now the biggest part of the business, according to Willis) is aimed at a younger, fashionable, festival-going audience and now includes outerwear, trainers and heeled footwear alongside wellies in bold colours and patterns. Hunter Field, meanwhile, includes more technical, performance-based products which cater to its traditional customer base.

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Hunters Original AW14 show. Image: Dan Medhurst

“We have a huge and very broad customer base, so the basic idea was to clean up the structure, so we make sure we don’t alienate groups of customers, and give them clear access to the right part of the brand for them,” explains Willis.

“If you look on our website, and look at the Hunter Field products, you’ll see it is much more technical – [Field product pages list features such as sturdy soles and orthopaedic fits, while Original focus more on shape and aesthetics]  and we have to make sure that is done at every touch point. A 55-year-old man in Wiltshire who spends a lot of time in the country will probably have no interest in bright pink boots that his daughter might wear, so we have to make sure that everything, from music in stores … to content online and on social channels speaks to those audiences in the right way. The Field section of our store might have sounds inspired by the country, like the sound of birds in the changing room, while the Originals section will have more of a festival feel,” he adds.

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Hunter’s SS15 show at London Fashion Week. Image: Dan Medhurst

This desire to appeal equally to both groups of customers has led to an interesting mix of town and country in the brand’s creative output, from products to its store design. Its latest campaign film, directed by Thomas Traum, combines sweeping shots of the Scottish Highlands with graphics and a soundtrack inspired by retro video games to create a slightly surreal rural aesthetic.

Hunter’s first flagship store, which opened on London’s Regent Street in 2014, designed with Checkland Kindleysides,  is spread out across three floors, with a barn structure, a drystone wall displaying wellington boots and digital topiary hedges, in a contemporary take on an English country garden.

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Hunter’s first flagship store on London’s Regent Street
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Interior of Hunter’s Regent Street store, created with design agency Checkland Kindleysides

“I think that is a really interesting creative position: how do you migrate and meld the rural and the urban in a way that works and makes for an interesting, fresh retail environment,” says Willis. “With Regent Street, we took the architectural vernacular of a barn structure, and tried to bring that into the city, but we’ve also reappropriated it to ensure the environment is pretty fresh, and has a contemporary looking aesthetic. It was pretty challenging, but I think it works well,” he says.

The brand now plans to open a store in Ginza, Tokyo in February next year and another in New York by the end of 2016. Much of its business is still wholesale, but having a physical presence in major cities gives Hunter more control over its image, particularly in key markets.

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The brand’s London store features a drywall, digital topiary hedges and a barn structure in a modern take on the countryside

“We’ve never owned our own retail space…but the only place you can have control over people’s experience of the brand is in your own shops and digital channels, so for Hunter that’s really important,” says Willis. “We’ve also started a lot of work with retail partners to make sure the experience in their stores is being lifted to a level that I feel is closer to what I would expect. We want to make sure we have a clear, coherent, defined brand message.”

Ensuring the brand has a consistent aesthetic has been key to the success of Hunter’s new products: Willis has expanded the product range from boots to trainers, backpacks, sandals and clothing since joining Hunter, but all are geared towards the outdoors and feature the same minimal approach to design.

“Growing that from nothing takes a while, but it’s been doing really well – the Originals brand is now availabe in Selfridges, Harrods and key stores for us, and 20 percent of the Regent Street store’s sales are outerwear…so I think there’s a strong appetite for Hunter to be a lifestyle brand,” he adds.

“I did a lot of work initially on really buttoning down and in some places creating the brand’s DNA, what it stands for because when I started, no-one could give me a clear answer. I looked at the characters of the individuals who launched the business and they were true innovators in what they were doing – they took a vulcanised ruber proces that was used in the automotive industry and saw the opportunity to create footwear – and I’ve tried to take that spirit into today’s brand, so everything we do has to come from that understanding. … The feedback we’ve got from customers and press seems to be that it feels right for the brand and we’re not pushing that beyond the realms of belief,” he adds.

With Willis keen for Hunter to be seen as an innovative, pioneering brand, he has also been making digital communications a key priority. The brand has live streamed Fashion Week shows on digital billboards in Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester. It also teamed up with Twitter and Grabyo (a platform which grabs clips from live TV to be instantly broadcast on social media) last year to broadcast footage and key looks from a show in real time.

Ocean Outdoor advert at St. Enoch's Square, Glasgow...Lenny Warren / Warren Media.07860 830050 01355 229700.lenny@warrenmedia.co.uk.www.warrenmedia.co.uk..All images © Warren Media 2013. Free first use only for editorial in connection with the commissioning client's press-released story. All other rights are reserved. Use in any other context is expressly prohibited without prior permission.
Hunter’s FW show being broadcast in Glasgow’s St Enoch Square in 2013. Image by Lenny Warren © Warren Media

“Everyone streams their show now, it’s been going on for years, so just doing that wouldn’t offer anything new,” says Willis. “And even though a fashion show is just eight or ten minutes long, people tend not to watch it – the just want to see the highlights or key looks, or they’ll wait to see it reviewed, so we wanted to look at the next iteration of streaming – how can you do something that’s of interest and value [to customers] and from a business point of view, that will drive them to the brand,” he explains.

“Grabyo has had huge success with sports because they can take broadcastable grabs of events and throw them out online within just a few seconds, so we went to them and asked if they would work with us on a fashion show, which was the first time they had partnered with a brand. They pulled 24 key looks in real time which were broadcast to different markets and it allowed us to geotarget, so we could say, ‘these bomber jackets are going to be popular in Japan, so we’ll target twitter users there’. It also meant we could see how products were trending in each market and our sales teams could go to retailers and say ‘look, this is the response to this product in your market.’ That was two seasons ago and it was very successful,” he explains.

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Hunter’s new website, designed in-house
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The brand’s new site aims to clearly differentiate between technical performance products and its fashion line, Hunter Original

Twitter has since published a case study on the brand’s use of the social media site and Hunter now has 200,000 followers on Instagram. The brand’s website has also been redesigned in-house with more of a focus on content as well as a simplified user experience. “That’s made a significant difference to the brand experience, and the ecommerce side of it is doing extremely well, it continues to grow,” says Willis. “It’s hard work delivering new content on a regular basis, but it’s a part of how people consume now. …I brought a number of people into the business when I joined, from Net-a-Porter and other companies, who understood that business well.”

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The new Hunter site also places more emphasis on photography, video and content about the brand and its heritage

Repositioning a 160-year-old business is no easy feat, but with an innovative approach to store design, fashion shows and digital content, Willis seems to have cemented Hunter’s reputation as a fashionable brand without losing support from more long-standing customers. And while creating new products and reaching new audiences remains a key focus for the brand, there are no plans to stop selling the classic boots which made it famous – or stray too far from its country roots.

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Hunter now has over 200,000 followers on Instagram, posting product shots, campaign stills and footage from events such as Coachella Festival
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Hunter’s Instagram page also includes a mix of rural and urban imagery, designed to cater to both of the brand’s key customer groups

“It’s a massive job – Hunter is nearly 160 years old, and has been effectively about selling a rubber boot, or permutations of that one product, ever since,” says Willis. “But we’re not about removing that. We just want to make sure there is a more clearly defined brand message.”

Lead image: Dan Medhurst

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