I went to see the new Paddington movie, not to watch Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey playing Dad, nor to catch an evil Nicole Kidman being bad.
I wanted to see how my favourite cuddly companion was doing. The answer was that Paddington looked great in his duffel coat and felt hat big enough to hide his marmalade sandwich.
But where were the rubber boots — in sunshine yellow or flame red — that were an essential part of his style?
The makers of Paddington can’t have known that rubber boots are now challenging Jimmy Choos, Louboutins and Manolos as the most fashionable of footwear.
Paddington would only have to hotfoot it to Hunter on London’s Regent Street to satisfy his desires. Inside, among the walls of green bush, the floors tiled like a Victorian veranda and giant projections of landscapes or weather maps, is a rainbow of small boots in green, black, pink, orange…
Even Paddington’s signature duffel coat, in grown-up sizes, is part of the resurgence of this British heritage brand.
Behind Hunter’s transition from field to fashion is Alasdhair Willis, Hunter’s creative director, whose own personal move from a childhood in the North Riding of Yorkshire to London set the tone for the new store.
“You feel very much that the reference to the great British countryside has been brought into the city — it’s a simple but effective concept,” says Alasdhair, sitting on a bench surrounded by rubber boots of all sizes and colours. Then he shows me something to shock the hunting, shooting and fishing brigade: Hunter wellington boots with platform heels.
He traces the first fashion flash for Hunter back to 2005 when Kate Moss wore sexy denim shorts and rubber boots to the Glastonbury music festival. The original brand was founded in 1856 and has two royal warrants of appointment from the Queen, who is frequently seen stomping around in boots for horsey events, and the Duke of Edinburgh.
The barn-like main floor of the Hunter store suggests a country world, reinforced by the duffel coats, padded jackets and trench coats that have been introduced a brand that was originally just footwear. Alasdhair is proud that already 22 per cent of sales are in the stylish outerwear, while the label used to be about rubber boots that might be sold in a convenience store next to the toilet paper.
But the designer, whose training was in fine art “creating something out of nothing”, says that an important part of his role is not to lose traditional customers.
His idea was to divide the brand into different categories such as Hunter Original, which encompasses changes in the weight and structure of boots and has an urban attitude, and Hunter Field, “which speaks to outdoors and is a much more technically driven product that you can wear when climbing the Cairngorms.’’
Alasdhair spends his non-city life in Worcestershire “in mucky conditions, walking miles in the hills”, with his wife Stella McCartney and their four children — just like his own upbringing, watching his sisters “mucking out their horses” and walking the hills with his father.
He realised the need for Hunter’s rubber to be given a new techno treatment, lightening the weight and adding a carbon and bamboo lining.
Given the task in 2012 by Searchlight Capital Partners to bring the heritage brand up to date and expand its reach, the Alasdhair Willis method goes beyond a catwalk presentation during London Fashion Week. There will be a roll-out of stores in New York’s Soho, in Asia, in Canada and in continental Europe, probably beginning with Germany, which is attuned to the “outdoorsy” lifestyle.
But the main aim is to re-position a heritage brand, respecting to the past but representing the present and the future — hence the digital effects of mountain greenery and the giant two-floor LED screen that shows anything from scenic views to fashion shows to music festivals.
And the weather. In an arrangement with the Met office, weather reports pop up on the giant LED screen as part of digital effects that also include clouds floating above and birds twittering in the lift.
“The mistake is to rely too heavily on the past — business should be about looking forward,” says Alasdhair. “It’s about a level of responsibility, doing what is right for the long term, to be respectful of the heritage, to utilise what is relevant — going forward, rather than back.”
And the future is rubber boots in all the colours of the rainbow. Even if they are destined to get covered in mud.