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The Drapers Interview: James Seuss, Hunter

Hunter reboots: the welly brand’s boss is making great strides in his plan to transform it into a lifestyle player.

Hunter’s Regent Street store is a shining showcase of the repositioning achieved in less than two years by the team led by James Seuss, who was appointed chief executive in December 2012.

Originally from Memphis in the US, this 25-year veteran of the retail industry took the top job in December 2012 after previous chief executive roles at watch retailer Tourneau, US footwear brand Cole Haan and designer label Stella McCartney, and a stint as managing director of jeweller Tiffany & Co. He was brought in after private equity firm Searchlight Capital Partners acquired a majority share of the business at the start of 2012. His brief was to take the 158-year-old wellington boot brand to the next stage of its development, targeting new sales channels and product categories.

Under his leadership, Hunter has launched a range of clothing, accessories and footwear for autumn 14, a multi-platform transactional website, Hunterboots.com, which launched on September 26, and the 5,300 sq ft flagship store at 83-85 Regent Street, which opened on October 27.
Speaking to Drapers at the store, formerly occupied by US lingerie retailer Gilly Hicks, Seuss says he was delighted with the initial response after the soft launch, which saw it open with little fuss and fanfare (an official launch event is planned for November 19): “We had our first sale two minutes after opening and welcomed more than 700 people on the first day, which felt really rewarding.”

The clothing range - which was first seen at London Fashion Week in February - was created as part of a strategy to divide the offer into two sub-sections for autumn 14 to further define and expand the range: Hunter Original, which includes the signature wellington boots and the clothing lines; and Hunter Field, which will launch for spring 15.

Hunter Field will comprise the ‘next generation’ of boots made utilising new techniques, materials and constructions, targeting consumers who
regularly go walking, shooting or riding.

“If Hunter Field is about the country and outdoor, the Hunter Original customer is more about the city, the urban customer, the festival girl,” explains Seuss.

“There is an opportunity for us to develop some technical outerwear pieces and we will start to do that from autumn 16, but the primary focus will be on performance boots.”

The price points for Hunter Field will be slightly higher than Hunter Original to reflect the increased level of workmanship that goes into them, starting at £100 for a pair of boots, compared with £90 for Hunter Original. Exit prices have yet to be confirmed.

It is Hunter Original, however, which is still seen as offering the greatest opportunity for growth, accounting for some 80% of the business. It has a larger target group with urban consumers, not just in the UK but around the world, explains Seuss.

He appointed Alasdhair Willis, husband of Stella McCartney, as creative director in March last year to define the new vision for Hunter and the result - the 175-piece autumn 14 outerwear, knitwear, accessories and footwear range - is now in store.

It includes the traditional wellington boots, but also other footwear such as Chelsea boots, block-heel boots and ballet flats for women, and lace-up boots for men, with the core footwear range priced between £34 for a short wellington boot to £118 for a leather high-heel boot at wholesale.

Wholesale prices for Hunter Original clothing range from £38 for a V-neck knit to £192 for a duffle coat. Styles include a women’s hooded cape, a high-gloss trench coat and a men’s black duffle coat with oversized toggles. Knitwear includes a jumper with a design inspired by the tread imprint of the boot. Accessories such as scarves and hats and a range of bags complete the collection.

The expanded offer is already stocked by Harrods, Liberty, Selfridges and etailer Net-A-Porter.

Seuss now sees the brand sitting alongside the likes of Marc by Marc Jacobs and Acne as a fashion-forward proposition, although he admits the Hunter customer base is diverse. He wears his wellies when taking his dogs for walks in the countryside near his Oxfordshire home, but hopes the addition of different footwear lines, plus clothing and accessories, will result in a lifestyle range that can be worn all day, all year round.

“We also look at how brands like Converse and Burberry, both at different price points, have taken their iconic product and turned it into a lifestyle brand, which is what we want to do,” he explains.

He says the team has been careful to only introduce products that make sense for Hunter as a brand, so there is a focus on waterproof and protective qualities fused with fashion.

“The block-heel boot, for example, is about lifting the wearer out of the rain, but they are designed so they can be worn all day too.”

Although own retail (including the new website) is expected to become an increasingly important part of the business, Hunter generates about 80% of its sales through its wholesale operation, and looking beyond autumn 14 Seuss is anticipating a strong spring season with its stockists. It has traditionally been the quieter of the seasons for Hunter by the nature of its products, but orders have more than doubled compared with spring 14, due to the expansion of the ranges and an increase in demand, although Seuss declined to reveal any figures.

Hunter has approximately 1,500 accounts in the UK with around 2,000 doors, including footwear multiples like Office, Schuh and Kurt Geiger and independent retailers such as mini-chains Jules B and Choice, and Psyche in Middlesbrough.

James Eames-Illingworth, formerly UK country manager of denim brand Replay, started as Hunter’s UK and Ireland country manager earlier this month to build on this momentum and increase sales for Hunter Original clothing in particular.

According to Seuss: “We want to maximise the business we have with existing accounts and there is a lot of opportunity to target outerwear accounts or more of a fashion account, which Hunter previously hasn’t been in.”

Outside the UK, Hunter has more than 3,000 stockists with about 4,000 doors and this is also an area poised for growth.

“We want to concentrate on key core markets rather than being in every market possible,” says Seuss. “These are the US, Canada, Germany and Japan then countries like Scandinavia, France, Italy, Spain and Korea. So in Japan, for example, we signed for a new joint venture with trading company Itochu in July, and we see great potential for developing that market.

“We opened a store in Taipei in October with our partner in Taiwan, [distributor] JJ40. There is an outlet store in New York and we are looking at a Manhattan store. We are looking to open a flagship store in Tokyo next year too and we would consider a smaller-format store for a city like Edinburgh.

“But our central strategy is about shop-in-shops, like we have in Harrods, and partner doors.”

The brand, which started life as The North British Rubber Company in 1856, now has a UK team of 125 people based at its headquarters in Edinburgh and offices in London, plus about 50 people in the US.

It recorded a 9.8% increase in sales to £81.7m last year, with the UK accounting for £31.3m of sales, followed by the US (£27.6m), Europe (£8.1m) and Canada (£6.6m) for the year to December 31, 2013. However, during 2014 the US has overtaken the UK as the biggest market in terms of sales.
With so many plans, for Seuss it is about taking one step at a time.

Honor Westnedge, senior retail analyst at research firm Verdict, suggests Hunter was a bit slow on the uptake and could have launched a flagship store and website a few years earlier to take advantage of the popularity of the brand.

But she believes the direction Seuss is taking Hunter in “is the right one to position itself as a lifestyle label and raise its profile both in the UK and overseas.”

Colin temple, managing director of footwear chain Schuh, says: “It could be a challenge to move away from the signature silhouette that Hunter is known for but I think the team is carefully managing the positioning and doing a good job of it, both in terms of product and distribution. James seems to have brought a lot of energy to the brand and has created a very strong team to move it on.”

Seuss says his focus is now on executing the strategy the team has developed and providing good customer service: “The business has expanded so rapidly that for us to manufacture and deliver in a timely way is critical.”

The majority of the collection is manufactured in China and Indonesia, with some of the clothing made in Italy and Portugal and selected knitwear and outerwear produced in the UK. This means the supply chain is an important priority.

“It’s not that easy to double production overnight so we are looking at our existing suppliers and new suppliers to bring online. We are very conscious about how the product is made so we have our own in-house standards, with our own corporate social responsibility manager who is regularly in the factories and looks at issues like worker safety and working conditions.”

It is also about staying true to the brand. “Although we have introduced these new categories, I think the majority of the Hunter business will always be in boots,” says Seuss.

“The heart of the brand is our iconic boot, that is the primary message and we have to build the rest of it around that.”

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