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Puff love

2 May 2022
Huffer founder Steve Dunstan is celebrating 25 years of the brand he launched as a 21-year-old.

Worn by everyone from Hollywood stars, snowboarders and students to farmers and fashionistas, Kiwi brand Huffer has plenty to celebrate as it turns 25. Words Josie Steenhart

One of the earliest Huffer campaign pics shows a then 21-year-old Steve Dunstan modelling one of his own designs, the Grundo jacket. Fast-forward quarter of a century and you’ll still find Steve rocking his merch as he celebrates Huffer’s 25th anniversary.

And while some things have stayed the same – Huffer’s core brief is still all about edgy yet functional garments for the street and snow (and everywhere in between), and in fact you’ll soon be able to purchase a reissue of that exact jacket (more on that later) – as you’d expect from that long in the biz, a lot has changed too.

“The 90s that lead up to Huffer launching in 1997 shaped who we are and how we roll today,” says Steve.

“It was a time when diversity in culture was developing with subcultures that started influencing each other. The streets were deep and full of experiences as people came together to hang out. Music, art and skateboarding feed of people interacting together and it was mostly the cities and the streets within where it all thrived.”

“Launching the brand was very organic and felt like an extension of the lifestyles that we were living,” says Steve. “It felt like there was the need to do so as it provided identity to a subculture that we represented.

“With snowboarding in its infancy, our product had relevance for a new movement. Snowboarding was taking our street influence and everything we learnt through skateboarding to the mountains, and our product followed.”

Steve says the first collection of just seven pieces “was predominantly made up of waterproof, breathable outerwear, made for the hills but drawn from the streets, creating garments that provided the functionality of keeping you warm and dry but also an aesthetic that represented the culture that was infused within us and our upbringing in the 90s.”

These days Huffer is practically a household name, and offers dozens of designs at any given time, from shorts and tees to knitwear and accessories and an expansive womenswear collection including dresses and skirts – not to mention a range of ridiculously warm jackets (aka the Huffer puffer) that have been a consistent signature of the brand.

Huffer’s cult-status down and puffer jackets (Steve is quick to define the difference: one is made, as the name suggests, from down, while the puffers are filled with a recycled synthetic plume) have been around for almost all of the label’s life. Their first down jacket was made locally, filled in a factory best known for duvets.

“Down and puffer jackets have been part of our DNA from the start,” says Steve, “ with original sketches before our launch and then into our first range within our second winter season. It was a natural extension from where we started, with waterproof breathable outerwear mixed with the fact that our studio was freezing in winter!”

“We wanted to bring the ‘joy’ factor to garments with our knowledge and know-how combined with our influences, so it was a natural progression. With that being a successful formula and over two decades of development, we have definitely had the space to create some truly unique and exciting jackets and continue to do so.”

Original sketches of the much loved Huffer puffer.

What have been a few of the founder’s highlights along the way?

“That first delivery of product,” says Steve. “I think that was one of the biggest achievements to date. People telling you to give up before you started but persevering, driven by the want to create and represent. There were many reasons to not do it from the outside but when you are in it, there
was only one way.”

“Our ability to take where we have come from and translate it to a wider market – growing from skate and
snow and into many households around the country by staying true to who we are and living our values has been a huge achievement."

“And seeing that we have successfully grown into new generations with a highly engaged youthful community supporting the brand. These people weren’t born when we started. I’m proud of that achievement.”

There are currently 148 dedicated Huffer crew and 12 New Zealand stores, including two in Christchurch, one in Dunedin and one in Queenstown, with Huffer HQ in Auckland’s Ponsonby and ‘Huffer House’, a collaborative store/workspace/hangout zone at Britomart bravely opening its doors mid-pandemic in 2020.

Many though, will fondly remember the Huffer Basement space on Queen Street, a striking, all-white heritage space where from the late 90s to 2016 many creative collaborations happened, Huffer designed and sold its wares, held fashion shows and Free Coffee Fridays (the free coffee and donuts always drawing a crowd) and Lorde launched her Pure Heroine album with a live release gig.

“Huffer’s secret sauce has always been people, and subsequently, community,” says Steve. “It all started at the Huffer Basement. This is where it all came together in one physical space. A place for us, a growing team, and friends to hang out. Full of rich memories through the years of highs and lows with many lessons learnt.

“It was natural for us to want to hang out in the space and from there, Free Coffee Friday was born. We provided the coffee, and our friends came along providing the chat. It was connection over a cup and it grew to be an event world famous in the community.”

From 2018, the brand has worked with the Mental Health Foundation via its People Presence capsule
collections, with everything from socks and slogan tees to beach balls and frisbees adorned with splashes of neon yellow and positive messaging, and a portion of sales going directly to the Foundation.

Another capsule range, and one that will resonate with South Islanders, is Huffer’s Missions Wānaka collection, a custom yardage inspired by “the magical mountains of Wānaka”, from the topographical print of the mountains to colours that draw on Lake Tekapo’s vibrancy, the earth of Roys Peak and the surrounding grasslands, and cut into jackets, shorts, pants, puffers and even hats.

“The South Island has the most amazing power and solitude to it,” says Steve. “We’ve travelled the world and shot campaigns throughout but getting back to where we started, the hills have a sense of strength.

“The backdrops of the Southern Alps mixed with the colour and life of the city makes for who we are and what’s natural to us. We have a deep connection and appreciation for the outdoors but we pass through it to be with people and come together in cities and towns.”

Asked for some of his favourite Southern spots, Steve flags Arthur’s Pass as “the most amazing drive. It seems like at every corner the landscape changes.”

“Coronet Peak was my stomping ground as a young snowboarder,” he adds. “I loved the fact that it was 20 minutes from downtown Queenstown and on the edge of the alps, with crazy views. That mix of being in the elements but also connected to people in a day.

“I’ve also been lucky enough to have been into Lake Lochnagar, north of Lake Wakatipu nestled in and
surrounded by the alps. It’s helicopter access in, and once you turn the blades off it’s the most peaceful place ever.”

The latest covetable Huffer collection to watch out for is one celebrating its 25th birthday. Dropping at the end of May, the limited-edition range “pays tribute to the past and forges the future in one range” and is a “modern interpretation” of those original seven designs from 1997, mixed with “learnings along the way to the present”.

“I am really excited to see it come together,” says Steve. “It’s been over a year in the making and it captures the essence of why we started the brand.

In the meantime, new graphic-print t-shirts celebrating the brand’s 25-year journey have been released each week from the beginning of April.

If Covid restrictions allow, Steve also confirms a party is on the cards. “We have started our celebrations… and the celebrations will continue,” he says, though the team are clearly not downing tools entirely, as Steve has big plans for the year ahead.

“Continual progression, expanding our opportunities to connect and hang out, as we’re in one of the most exciting phases of transformation,” he says when asked what the future holds for Huffer.

“New Zealand is our home, so you will see more great Kiwi collaborations, and a heck of a lot of Free
Coffee Fridays when the time is right. Although we are 25 years in the making, [being] a world-class brand is in our sights and we are pedal to the metal and making new friends on the way. Let’s go!”

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