The co-founder of Huffer talks to Britomart’s Melinda Williams about the brand’s new Huffer House space in the new Hotel Britomart block, which comes at the end of a journey that felt like “a lap around the world and coming back home”. 

Melinda Williams: Hi Steve. How have you guys been doing this year?

Steve Dunstan: It’s been a very – what’s the right word – an interesting year of highs and lows. For us, going into lockdown was a bit scary. We’d just purchased all our winter stock so it was great that we were organised but it also felt like we were kinda caught with our pants down. So initially we just went into survival mode. But like a lot of people we pivoted and we were pretty blown away by the support we got online from our community and our customers. That was quite warming. Once we opened our stores again, it felt like Christmas trade for a long time. Being a local brand, we also had the supply of our own products, which we’ve worked really hard on. 

Moving from your current space at Britomart – in a building that’s earmarked for another long-term plan – to the new space is a big move. What made you decide to take the more permanent space?

Well, to go back a bit, last year, for three or four months we went on a brand journey and worked with an agency in Sydney to define Huffer after 23 years. Over those years we’d scaled the business up, opened more retail and wholesale and managed to grow the business. When we started out, we were a bunch of scallywag skateboarders who had an intuitive understanding of what the brand was and what we should do but with scale comes more people and systems and that intuitive understanding doesn’t necessarily extend through a big team. It was quite an emotional thing for me, having been at Huffer since day one to pull it all apart and put it back together and find those elements that had been there since the beginning that really helped us define it and build a path forward. Part of that was transforming retail and also coming home.

How do you mean “coming home”?

We’d been sniffing around with distributors in the Northern Hemisphere, and shooting some of our campaigns overseas but even before the Covid lockdowns happened, the biggest realisation we had was that we needed to come home. We’ve always been a Kiwi brand and we realised we had to come back to that. Pre-lockdown we shot two campaigns here and it was so refreshing to shoot here in our own native land. We were in the hood, shooting in Patea, with locals on the main street. It was such a moment – it felt like we’d come back around. It was like we’d done a lap around the world and come back home. 

How did that translate into the space that you’ve created – which you’re calling Huffer House?

As part of all that brand work, I realised we really wanted to ensure we earned the respect of the community. That’s important to Huffer and myself personally. It’s our mission. Part of that was to create opportunities to hang out and hold space for people in the community, using our platform to enable people to hang out. That goes back to where we started, and our culture of skateboarding and snowboarding. When we started Huffer it was because we wanted to give ourselves our own identity and not look like European snowboarders. The Huffer basement was our central meeting point where we came up with ideas, and when I think back, I always remember that space. 

So that’s translated into Huffer House at Britomart. I grew up catching the bus from the downtown bus station, skating down Symonds St from Cheapskates and getting on the bus. It feels right to be here. So it’s time for us to step up. Huffer House is about giving people the opportunity to hang out, whether that’s our neighbours at Britomart or our customers or the wider community. In a world that’s so digital, creating the ability to have a real space for lots of faces is really important. The digital landscape is getting better all the time so to compete with that we feel like we have to push the tactile experience to the next level. 

When you say ‘house’, do you mean like… a literal house?

Yeah, it’s laid out like a house, with areas that are like a lounge and a kitchen and bedrooms, and a front door and a side door for locals. The kitchen is represented by a big yellow desk that you can lean on and it will support you, and it’s a space where we’re going to host music showcases and podcasts. In a house, the kitchen is where people come together and eat, and at a house party, it’s the best place to be – it’s where the booze is and where you set up the turntables. Then there’s a men’s ‘bedroom’ and a women’s ‘bedroom’, with the idea there that it’s like when you’re a teenager and in your bedroom you express yourself with posters on the walls. So those spaces will work a bit like a gallery. We’re changing the retail experience so there’s less product and more ability for people to take stock, sit down, be a part of it. Coffee has always been a big part of our retail and it will be a big part of the store, with frequent opportunities for free coffee in exchange for a gold coin donation to the Mental Health Foundation, which is part of our People Presence project. People Presence is about using Huffer as a responsible platform to build support for mental health, giving people the opportunity to connect and be present. So that leads what we’re doing in the store. 

Did you work with someone on the design or do it yourselves?

We worked with an old friend of mine, Sam Lennon, who’s an architect, who has grown up with the brand himself. The brand work informed what we wanted to do but we didn’t really need anyone to tell us what to do. It felt quite intuitive and easy because we’d invested so much in the brand work.

Why did you decide to start your People Presence project?

I suppose being on the journey with Huffer, once we became a profile brand, so many charities used to approach us and we tried to help out where we could. But then I thought we needed to front-foot what we’re doing. Between Kate [Berry, managing director of Huffer] and I, mental health was close to us, as it is to our target market, and we decided that rather than working with a lot of different charities, we wanted to do a really good job of one thing. We have a responsibility to our community and our customer, and a valuable platform. I’m not a mental health expert but I want to use that platform respectfully. Our latest People Presence campaign let 20 people tell their own stories, with the theme of encouraging people to connect at a time we were in and out of lockdowns.