In recent years the sales of Hunter boots have been driven by fashion, but now the heritage brand has created a new line called Hunter Field writes Kim Forrester
Ten years ago, supermodel Kate Moss might have turned heads when she attended the Glastonbury Festival wearing a skimpy pair of shorts matched with a pair of green Hunter boots, but, as time would show, she also helped turn the company’s focus in a different direction. For in wearing those rubber boots she dragged the humble Wellington into the fashion mainstream and the once-functional piece of footwear became a highly desirable and much sought-after High Street fashion item. New ranges, new colours, new patterns abounded. It didn’t seem to matter that the people who wore them never so much as stepped off concrete — the boots were comfortable and looked good too. And anyone who was anyone was wearing them.
When, four years later, the firm collaborated with high-end shoe designer Jimmy Choo to create a collection of crocodile-print boots – the metallic silver ones were rather spectacular, to say the least — it would seem that the modern Wellington boot aimed at the splash-the-cash fashionistas had arrived.
Over the next few years , the fashion market continued to drive Hunter’s sales — in the 12 months to 31 December 2013, global sales topped £81.7million (up from £74.4million the year before), with significant growth in the US and Canada — so much so that the company decided to build on this success by launching a dedicated fashion category called Hunter Original, which debuted at london Fashion Week last year. A new flagship store in London’s Regent Street also opened.
But what happened to Hunter’s core market, those outdoor types who’d been buying these trusted Wellingtons loyally since the middle of the 19th century to use out in the field? Had the firm forgotten them?
It’s probably fair to say Hunter got distracted. But having listened to those loyal customers — farmers, gamekeepers, shooters, hunters and the like — the company has now put a renewed focus on looking after their needs. The result is another new category — Hunter Field — specifically aimed at the traditional outdoor lifestyle market.
Launched earlier this year, it was showcased in full for the first time at the CLA Game Fair.
“We are very proud of the innovation and craftsmanship that has gone into the new range,” says chief executive James Seuss. “The aim of Hunter Field is to produce great technical products for outdoor lifestyles for our loyal customers, as well as bringing new customers to Hunter Field.”
But before we look at the range, we need to understand the company’s history and why it now wants to reconnect with its past. Of course, everyone knows how the Wellington boot got its name: in 1817 the Duke of Wellington asked his shoemaker to create a new style of boot suitable to be worn in battle yet smart enough for informal evening wear. But it didn’t go into mass production until 1856, when the North British Rubber Company — founded by American entrepreneur Henry Lee Norris — began producing all kinds of rubber products, including boots, golf balls and hot-water bottles, from its Edinburgh premises.
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Within 20 years the firm had grown from a staff of four to 600 employees. The growth was partly due to the invention of the steam-propelled traction engine, which required solid rubber tyres. Things then went into overdrive when hostilities broke out in 1914 and the company was commissioned by the War Office to construct a sturdy boot suitable for the flooded trenches. During the war, more than one million pairs of trench boots were made — the mills had to run 24 hours a day to keep up with demand.
At the outbreak of World War II, the company was focused, once again, on helping the war effort, producing ground sheets, life belts and gas masks. There was an increase in demand for Wellington boots from troops on the battlefields of Europe, and once the fighting was over, the demand continued — mainly from farmers, gamekeepers and land agents, who wanted a narrower, more fitted boot.
In 1946 the firm moved into a larger factory to keep up with demand and a new line of industrial, agricultural and sea boots was launched three years later.
In 1955, the company introduced what was to become one of its traditional mainstays: the Green Hunter (now known as Hunter Original) with each pair being handcrafted from 28 individual pieces — more than half a century on, they are made the same way.
New line of wellies
Today’s new category of Hunter Field marries old-school functionality with the latest technology. Each boot is still handcrafted from 28 separate parts, but the materials used are state-of-the-art. A new rubber compound, which is soft, super flexible but highly resilient, has been developed, the recipe for which is a closely guarded secret. Think Coca-Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken’s original recipe 11 herbs and spices.
Hunter Field has two main lines: the Norris Field Boot and the (much-loved) Balmoral collection, which has been re-engineered to offer maximum comfort without sacrificing practicality, or, as global sales director Chris Dewbury says, “They combine the best elements of a walking boot with a Wellington.”
Hunter has worked with footwear manufacturer Vibram to develop two different and exclusive outsoles for the Balmoral: one that is a military-grade lightweight commando sole for rough terrains, and a sporty, technical sole, with a zigzag tread, that offers high-traction and shock absorption without getting clogged with mud. According to Hunter, the soles undergo rigorous trials, including flex testing in which 500,000 movements are performed with no sign of wear.
Each boot also comes with a choice of two contoured inner soles in 3mm or 5mm depths designed to ease foot fatigue. The boots have adjustable side gussets — fastened with a weatherproof buckle and webbed strap — to fit your leg perfectly. Alternatively, there’s a side-zip version, for the first time, in which top- quality YKK zips sit in a gusset to make them fully waterproof.
In terms of linings, there’s a range to suit different needs: neoprene, to keep your feet toasty warm; leather, for a luxury finish; and bamboo carbon, a high-tech material that wicks moisture away and helps keep odour at bay. Each boot comes with a 12-month warranty — though given they’ve been designed for performance out in the shooting field and all kinds of rugged terrain, one wonders if you’d ever need it. I’m sure the Duke of Wellington would approve.
Hunter Field boots cost from £150 and come in a variety of colours and sizes for men and women.