Alasdhair Willis is on a mission to add new bounce to rubber boots. A former brand consultant for designer Stella McCartney, Willis hails from the world of publishing and also has a background in furniture design. Since taking over the creative helm of the iconic British brand Hunter Boots in 2013, the 44-year-old has helped catapult it into hip new territory with an expanded collection of fashion products from slick ponchos to stylish bags. Last season, the historic company caused a sensation when it staged a memorable festival fashion-inspired runway presentation as part of London Fashion Week. Yet as well received as that show was, this season Hunter is retreating from the runway, announcing plans to concentrate efforts on getting up close and personal with a legion of millennial fans by makings its presence felt at various music festivals. I spoke with Willis – who married McCartney in 2003 – about growing the Hunter brand, the importance of engaging with customers, and what his wife taught him about trusting his instincts.
When did your love affair with the Hunter begin?
Hunter's a brand I've been aware of virtually all my life, so it's not a brand that I learnt about just prior to me joining the team here. When I was young and my sisters were massively into horses, it was a product that they wore. So I had a strong awareness of the brand. But in terms of the love affair with it, it's more a case of just seeing what an incredible opportunity that this brand had. What I found so fascinating was that it's been around for 160 years and it has been loved and gone in and out of people's consciousness. But it never really moved away from what was essentially a rubber boot, and I couldn't see why. That's why I took the position.
You just say the name and all kinds of visions pop to mind, especially what's been happening in the past 10 years. The image of Kate Moss wearing Hunter boots to the Glastonbury Festival is iconic.
Exactly. We've got this rich heritage, and this rich history with the business. It dates back many, many years. But it's been the more recent history, since 2005, when Kate just wore humble Wellington boots at Glastonbury and, overnight, the brand transformed into a fashion and style icon. It opened up a whole world to the brand because she showed it in a completely different light. And from that day on, the product and the brand itself has been bought for reasons of fashion and style, besides the historical reasons of protection and keeping your feet dry.
You staged a runway show in London last year featuring the whole Hunter collection. But now you're veering away from that and celebrating and promoting the brand in different ways, including getting involved with festivals.
The fashion show for me was an incredible platform for us to demonstrate the brand and give a brand experience that could really engage the industry, and would cause people to think of us in a different way. It really started moving the needle in terms of changing the perception of what Hunter is as a brand today, moving forward. And it's not so much that we're moving away from the fashion show, it's just that I'm very aware of a changing landscape right now within the fashion industry where there's this strong, strong push towards genuinely putting the customer engagement first, which hasn't always been the tradition in the fashion business. So we are looking at how we can have a real level of engagement with our customer, which means we are looking at things in a slightly different way. But we're not saying that the fashion show platform isn't something that we wouldn't be doing in the future. It just doesn't fit within the strategy right now mainly because I'm trying to move into a more of a "see now, buy now" conversation with the customer, instead of the traditional way of showing things six months out.
When it comes to an age demographic of customers, Hunter runs the gamut. It's an ageless kind of style statement but obviously now you've got a real push on for those millennial customers.
We've really got a strong following from that age demographic. One of my challenges when I came into the business was how do you continue to have a business and a brand that can speak to and engage an older customer while having relevance and building a business that speaks to a much younger demographic. The way I went about doing that was to pretty much restructure the business, so we have clear brand categories which speak with the right product to the right audience through the right communications. The Hunter Original is very much my younger, more style-lead brand, and Hunter Field – which we're now very actively pushing – speaks to a slightly more traditional audience that wants more technical outdoor wear. They want design, but they're not so concerned about the fashion element.
What kind of design team do you have coming up with these wonderful ideas?
I have a team of six, including my design director, and that covers footwear, accessories and outerwear. So it's a really focused team. The design process that we've gone into is really working well. I brief the design team on what we're going to be looking at in terms of the stories of the season and then they go away and interpret that. Then I give them feedback.
You started as a brand consultant, and that's still something you're doing for other brands as well.
I consult for a number of companies and some, because of my deal with them, I'm vocal about, and some I'm quiet about. I've worked in this capacity since 2002. I left Wallpaper* [magazine] having gained a huge amount of experience with Tyler Brûlé, who's a genius guy and somebody I have huge respect for. We learned a lot about brands and about working with companies from the early days of creating advertising to getting into intelligence reporting on where businesses and industry were going. When we decided to all go our separate ways, I was reluctant to go and work for a company as a fulltime employee, although there were wonderful offers made to me at the time. I wanted to work closely with a small number of great brands be able to deliver a high level of impact in return for those businesses. And that's what I've done. For many, many years, I've been one of the lead consultants for Adidas. I still work very closely with them and I've done the same work with David Beckham on a personality level. I worked with Jaguar Land Rover and the BBC. I've worked with a number of business and brands. Right now I'm obviously very, very active with Hunter and it's a big part of my life, but I'm also just about to re-launch a U.K. brand called Warehouse, which is not a big international brand but it's a bit like Hunter, with a huge amount of love and followers in the U.K. It's in need of being made somewhat more relevant to a customer today.
You first met your wife Stella McCartney when you were consulting with her, just when she was leaving the fashion label Chloé to strike out on her own. What her brand stands for, and the way it resonates with women globally, has been brilliant. Do you still work with her at all in that way?
I'm on her board so I take a very active interest in her business and get involved and support her in a number of areas. But we try to keep our business lives a little bit separate if we can, because otherwise conversations can become quite predictable. We do try to have a life outside of our work but having said that, she's built an incredible business, an amazing brand, and that is how I met her. So that's always in the DNA of who we are as a couple. I'm incredibly proud because that brand is built on her, and her values and ethical beliefs. And she is, as a human being, occupying her place on this planet. In the early days, I remember very clearly how difficult it was and how ridiculed in some cases she would get from a lot of the fashion industry and how everyone said she'll never sell a pair of shoes in her life and she'll never have an accessories business and so on. And she took all those criticisms on the chin. She never let it get her down. She just forged ahead with her commitment to what she believed to be the right thing and what was right for her brand. Now she employs about 560 people worldwide and has 70 or 80 stores globally, and has an incredible business that is one of the shining stars of the Kering group. And she has a partner in its CEO, François– Henri Pinault, who champions her belief system and how you should run a business. That certainly wasn't the case 10 or 15 years ago, so it's an incredibly impressive story.
You've obviously taught her a lot about branding. What has she taught you about fashion?
Well, she's pretty good at branding herself. She doesn't need too much teaching on that one. I help out but she's pretty damn good herself. What has she taught me? We always have a bit of a laugh about it because she says, "Now you've found yourself in the fashion business," and I do not think of myself as being in the fashion business. I look at the brand, and at how we best communicate the possibilities around a brand. But the best piece of advice she gave me when I was getting involved in areas that are more akin to the fashion world was, "At the end of the day, you've just got to trust your own beliefs, and trust your own eye because when you start getting pulled all over the place by other team members, or investors, or the industry, or journalists, if you don't have that clarity of message in what you design or what you're overseeing, then it will unravel from there." She said, "Trust your instincts, go with your instincts and you'll be fine." It sounds like an obvious one but it is absolutely the best piece of advice.
This interview has been condensed and edited