Agility matters: why Hunter not showing at LFW is a good thing

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Hunter Original, London Fashion Week spring/summer 2016

During spring/summer 2016’s round of fashion weeks held this past September, Hunter applied its usual experimental attitude to Twitter-owned live-streaming app Periscope. The British brand known for its wellington boots launched a campaign that saw live gigs taking place in the back of a customised vehicle. Exclusive access was provided to different artists who performed in the build up to the brand’s Hunter Original catwalk show.

While the initiative was a relatively quiet one given it was such a new platform, it made an enormous amount of sense for a brand that is entrenched (quite literally) in festival culture. It almost felt like a promise to who it could become; a nod to its authentic connection with music. Consequently it said it would carry the campaign through to 2016 with further gigs hosted on the way to the biggest festivals around the world.

Yesterday, the brand then announced it would be moving away from the traditional fashion calendar, no longer holding a London Fashion Week show and instead focusing wholeheartedly on exploring and amplifying this festivals opportunity.

It’s a decision that makes a great deal of sense. While fashion weeks are enormous marketing opportunities, and Hunter always did an incredible job of pulling in big names to ensure maximum press exposure – from Anna Wintour and Stella McCartney (wife of creative director Alasdhair Willis), to Paul McCartney, Rita Ora, and Salma Hayek – they’re increasingly an exercise in frustration for the consumer.

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Backstage at Hunter Original, London Fashion Week spring/summer 2016

At risk of preaching to the converted, here’s how it goes: brand spends big budget on fashion week show, invites big guests, does cool innovation piece to gain extra column inches and encourage consumer engagement. Consumer tunes in to said show because unlike in history, digital means everything is in real-time and accessible to them to fawn over as though they were in attendance themselves. They fall in love with it, and want to buy, but alas, they can’t.

While the communications side of the model has sped up, the backend hasn’t changed. The nuts and bolts of the industry remain as slow as ever, and while numerous brands have promoted exclusive ‘buy now’ items from the runway, most of the time a consumer has to wait circa six months before they can actually get their hands on the product.

The issue with that in today’s immediate and connected culture, of course, is that come next season when the respective items are suitable to wear, consumers are already onto the next idea, and less interested in purchasing what they would have been when they were truly captured in the moment. It’s an ROI conundrum.

Phew…

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Hunter at Glastonbury 2015

Needless to say, changing it is no small feat, particularly off the back of board meetings that lead with the line: “Because that’s the way it’s always been done”. But many are slowly but surely looking to kick that setup and come up with something else instead.

Matthew Williamson has already done it. Tibi found success by shifting towards monthly in-store releases a while ago. Both Jean Paul Gaultier and Viktor & Rolf decided to step away from ready-to-wear to focus solely on couture and fragrances. Other brands like Jonathan Saunders have announced they’re shutting down entirely, while some of the industry’s highest profile brands are losing designers in the face of the pace being just too much pressure. In short, any sort of change feels like it makes a lot of sense, and those willing to take the risk through restrategising should be applauded.

According to Hunter, it’s a time that feels right to move the needle on how it engages with its customer and how it excites the industry. Says Willis: “Hunter has been on an incredible journey these past two years, gathering real momentum as we set about transitioning this 160 year business. During this massive transformative period we have delivered four brand-defining Hunter Original shows at LFW. Using this success as a strong tail wind, and continuing our commitment to innovate, now is the time to push things further. At this time within our industry, the moment is right to change things up and, as a brand, Hunter can do just that.”

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Hunter’s New York pop-up store in November 2015

It will hold multiple global customer-facing moments during 2016, according to a statement. Detail is yet to emerge, but safe to say real integration with festivals, as well as shifting the model in terms of when and how consumers have access to product will be the priority.

On top of that, comes of course the global aspect – Hunter believes standalone stores are instrumental to its growth towards a lifestyle brand and numerous new openings are planned as a result.It is hoped the success of its first flagship on Regent Street in London, will be quickly replicated by its Tokyo store opening in March 2016, and then its further plans in New York and Hong Kong. There’s also a joint venture with Itochu in Japan and significant investment being placed in multiple languages for its e-commerce site.

Turnover during 2014 increased for Hunter by 17% year-on-year to £95.7m, with pre-tax profits of £15.4m, up 5% from 2013. This doesn’t therefore feel like a change that’s coming in the face of negative results as it has perhaps been for others (neatly spun into a positive news story), rather a bid to stay on top and keep performing to the advantages the industry can offer when approached in ways that work better. It’s also perhaps a straightforward admission that money can be more efficiently spent than the vanity project fashion week shows so often become.

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A heritage Hunter photograph

As the brand’s head of innovation and social media, Michelle Sadlier, posted on Twitter yesterday: “Taking risks, always innovating…so proud that Hunter has the agility and ability to do something epic like this!”

It’s nice, for once, to see that idea of “agile”, as we so often refer to the new wave of direct-to-consumer fashion start-ups, actually being played out in what is fundamentally one of Britain’s most treasured heritage brands.