Days of reign: Britain's love affair with the welly boot
They are everywhere. From the farmyard to the High Street. From Royal Ascot to the Isle of Wight. The humble welly is now king.
If you had to trace it back to one moment, it would be Glastonbury, 2005. A total mudfest. Thunder, lightning and flash floods turned the ground into brown glue. The festival started late, campsites were washed out and even the smartest of the smart sets dragged themselves around the site with bedraggled hair and damp jeans, like victims of a Hollywood disaster flick.
But amid the dreariness, there was light. Kate Moss was the queen of rock, in wellies.
The mud didn’t spell style disaster – it was the model’s triumph. Kate instinctively knew to leave her Manolos in the trailer and instead slip into the most practical Hunters. By doing so, she stamped her glamorous fashionista’s approval on a footwear basic.
Wellies became the new ‘it shoe’. Being waterproof, they were perfect for rock festivals during the wet British summer. The Hunter’s had a moulded orthopaedic shape that could be described as comfortable. They even hugged the leg just enough to look sexy.
By the time Glastonbury returned in the summer of 2007, the Scottish company was able to report an 85 per cent uplift in sales as everyone from pop phenomenon Lily Allen to TV girl of the moment Cat Deeley recalled Kate’s sensible footwear and pulled on the rubber.
As Claire Saunders, Hunter’s marketing director, told the Financial Times in 2010: “We couldn’t have asked for better publicity.”
Their popularity inspired a host of competitors to wade in. Indeed, you might say the welly market soon became flooded. Sunshine-bright Cath Kidston boots were must-haves for ‘going glamping’. High-street stores introduced wellies with high heels. Green gumboots were replaced by racks of pinks and purples, animal prints and florals.
A string of wet summers has only raised the welly’s profile. Recent attention has rested on another Kate, the former Miss Middleton, and her choice of upmarket Le Chameaus, popular with the hunting-shooting set.
When Kate visited a campsite recently, fashionistas pored over her choice of a pair of the French company’s leather-lined Vierzonords, with a neoprene layer for extra warmth, which cost about £300. Will this mean a French takeover? The Guardian fashion writer Hadley Freeman doesn’t think so.
“Part of the appeal of wellies is that they’re cheap,” she says. “One of Marc Jacobs’ biggest successes in recent years has been his cheaper line of wellies, Marc by Marc Jacobs, which, last time I checked, were about £60. So I doubt if too many will be persuaded to start paying £300 for theirs.”
“We’ve seen huge demand for our wellington boots recently,” says Paul Arnett, head of footwear at Barbour, which sells boots from about £50 a pair.
“We think it’s down to the very bad weather that we’ve been experiencing, along with the growth in popularity of music festivals. Wellies have become part of the festival outfit – it’s become a style statement.”
The fashion has even jumped the Atlantic to New York, where summer rainstorms can be seriously spectacular. But still, are sophisticated Manhattanites really happy to swap their stilettos for wellies?
“They are, in a kitschy sort of way,” says Freeman, who is based in the city. “It rains a fair amount in New York, but I have noticed that New Yorkers love to bring out the wellies at the slightest excuse. They see them, I suspect, as adorably, quaintly British.”
The welly success story is all the more remarkable when you consider just how boring the old boot has always been. Hunter had produced well made, relatively expensive boots for well-heeled farmers and outdoors types from a factory in Dumfries, south-west Scotland, for generations. The Queen and Princess Di each had a pair. Heather was not set on fire.
The turnaround wasn’t entirely down to Kate Moss, however. As early as 2004, Hunter, then part of America’s Gates Rubber Company, were realising that they might get more out of their rubber boots.
With the world economy booming, fashion could afford to get frivolous. A range of colourful wellies to mark Hunter’s 50th anniversary caught the eye of the fashion editors and the public, and a charity campaign helped raise the boots’ profile.
However, Hunter struggled financially and went into administration in 2005. The following year they were taken over by fresh investors with keen retail instincts – including Peter Mullen, the former CEO of Thomas Pink, the current chairman.
The new team followed dispiriting trend by closing the Dumfries factory and shifting manufacturing to China while moving its headquarters to Edinburgh. But their plan was to turn Hunter into a luxury brand.
New products were introduced, each one designed to appeal to a certain type of wellington boot devotee.
There was the Lady Northampton, with canvas uppers, for the horsey set. The Balmoral Neoprene for shooting trips. And special editions for the likes of Jack Wills, Fortnum and Mason and the Beijing Olympics squad. There was even a collaboration with Jimmy Choo: a croc print version costing £255.
These days you can buy a range of branded accessories from umbrellas to keyrings. There’s even a ‘festivals survival pack’, which includes a torch, first-aid kit and an eyemask (to help you get some sleep).
Despite the challenge of Le Chameau and the like, Hunter Boot Ltd continues to grow. Recently the company announced a new injection of capital from a US private equity outfit called Searchlight Capital Partners.
Chairman Peter Mullen told the FT: “Hunter is enjoying great success and the brand continues to go from strength to strength.” The welly boot is going truly global.
“Wellington boots now account for a major part of our footwear sales,” says Arnett at Barbour.
“We are experiencing great interest in this area of our business and we expect demand to continue to increase. There’s now a choice of more livelier colours for our younger customers. But the standard traditional green boot is still our bestseller.”
The Queen, for one, would be happy with that. Rock on, in your wellies.