For decades, one fashion accessory was more synonymous with Britain’s most famous music festival, Glastonbury, than any other: Hunter Wellington boots.
Paparazzi photographs of the likes of Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne and Alexa Chung wearing their Hunters in the early aughts propelled what were once functional footwear favorites of country life into cool style statements with broad global appeal. To many, Hunter — which held a royal warrant, and was established in Edinburgh as the North British Rubber Company in 1856 — became a brand as quintessentially British as afternoon tea, queuing and talking about the weather.
But this week, days before this year’s (uncharacteristically sun-soaked) Glastonbury got underway, Hunter was forced to file for administration, the British equivalent of bankruptcy, owing creditors about $146 million. Pandemic-related supply chain problems, Brexit and inflation all played their part. However the company largely blamed the dry-up in demand to unseasonably warm weather in its largest market: the United States. Online, however, some customers also aired their theories on what had gone wrong. Namely, that Hunter’s offshoring of production to China had led to stumbles in quality control, resulting in split rubber and sodden toes. Today, prices for the tall rain boots start at around $175.
“Part of the Hunter magic was that they were built to last, and so were also built to become a part of your life,” bemoaned Anna Murphy, fashion director of The Times of London, who said that she had spent the earnings from her first job on a pair. “They equated to permanence, to being in and of the land, and not just any old land but this particular one.”
Similar to brands like Burberry and Barbour, Hunter capitalized heavily on its British roots when it sought to shake off a dowdy reputation and reinvent itself as a 21st century fashion powerhouse. Beyond their more recent adoption on the festival scene, Hunter wellies (as Wellington boots are affectionately known in Britain) were also a longtime mainstay of both working farmyards and aristocratic piles, worn by everyone from Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth to those cleaning out the stables. For all their ever-increasing colors and styles, it was that tie to British life that held such considerable appeal to newer customers from Boston to Beijing.
“In America there has always been a sizable group of shoppers fueled by Anglophilia and a fascination with English lifestyle pursuits, particularly those of the upper classes,” said Daisy Shaw-Ellis, accessories director at Vanity Fair. “People don’t tend to walk across muddy fields in the drizzle for fun in America, they just get in their car and drive. But they also love that quintessential English country aesthetic, and the Hunter Wellington boot is a major symbol of that here.”
Alasdhair Willis, who is married to the fashion designer Stella McCartney, served as Hunter’s creative director between 2013 and 2020, and for a time the brand showed at London Fashion Week. But competition in the premium rubber boot business also grew stiffer, with niche brands like Le Chameau and Aigle as well as major fashion players like Prada and Balenciaga gaining ground as the latest social signifier to stomp in for those in the know. And when the United States had some of its warmest and driest winters on record in recent years, sales tumbled dramatically.
That said, Hunter now looks to be stepping toward a lifeline and a possible next chapter. A current statement on the company website, accompanied by the signature red white and black logo, reads: “We’re creating a new experience for you. Sign up below to be notified when we launch!”
Hunter’s intellectual property was sold to Authentic Brands Group and announced earlier this month. An American company, Authentic Brands also owns the rights to other once-beleaguered household-name brands like Brooks Brothers in the United States and Ted Baker in Britain in order to license them out to partners. Now, it believes it can breathe fresh life into Hunter.
“Our business is built on the premise that there are amazing brands that mean a lot to people that have been operating on inefficient or broken models for years, and Hunter falls into that camp,” said Authentic’s chief marketing officer and president, Nick Woodhouse. “But whatever country you are in, Hunter is the first name you think of when it comes to the Wellington boot, and that is so powerful. It is intrinsically and whimsically British, and we think exporting that around the world still has huge, untapped value.”
An American partner, Marc Fisher, and European partner, the Batra group, have already been chosen in order to design and develop footwear and run wholesale and e-commerce operations in those territories. But if Hunter is no longer owned and based in Britain, can it retain authentic meaning and value in its story?
“Hunter is so close to the hearts of so many people and has so many positive associations, from Glastonbury to the late Queen,” said Mr. Woodhouse. “But with all due respect, sometimes Britishness is better done outside Britain. We are not running away from Britain, and we have a big office in London. We are getting ready to bring Hunter, and ideas of what it means to be British, to a whole new group of consumers.”