February 16, 2014 London
The atmosphere was electric, inquisitive. What was Willis, who in a former life was a publishing guy, brand consultant, and furniture-design entrepreneur, going to pull out of his bag of tricks? (Magic was a theme, as Dynamo, the great British magician, was in attendance, even joining models for a smoke-and-mirrors disappearing finale.) When the first looks hit the runway—as if by magic—any lingering skepticism melted away: The clothes were really good. With floods in England, the polar vortex in North America, and unseasonably mild temperatures thanks to global warming in Siberia and Sochi (where athletes are slushing around in what should be snow and ice), fashion increasingly has to seriously address the elements. We all need protection from us, and from schizophrenic Mother Nature, but in a cool, chic way. Cue Willis.
When the models strode over the water (splashing the front row in the process), eyes naturally turned to the footwear. And there it was: a heeled rubber boot. There was a Chelsea boot for men, and another with a black and white paint-splashed effect. When the audience's eyes finally moved up, they saw some very technical fabrics like vulcanized rubber, neoprene, high-tech fleece, and vinyl. The color palette was practically print-free—moss green, deep purples, tobacco, red, yellows, and shimmery silver. Functional details abounded: double enforcing with two zippers on a fleece jacket, big pockets to carry survival instruments, shorts for wading through floods, a fierce balaclava—presumably to rob Mother Nature, not a bank. The sleek design was notable. There were clean lines, even on an anorak; no-nonsense military jackets; a sturdy silver puffer jacket that had us thinking of space jumper Felix Baumgartner, or Sandra Bullock in Gravity. It became apparent why Willis is such a success in the design world.
Then there was a nod to Hunter's nearly 160-year history: A cozy woolen sweater with a funnel neck had the brand's "mustache" motif (what the Nova check is to Burberry). But key to the whole collection is that any of those looks would work equally well if you were a lumberjack in the Canadian backwoods, a fly fisherman in Alaska, a city girl heading to work in the rain, or a sports fan in a wet stadium watching a soccer game. It was at once urbane and rural, chic but totally focused on function. All of a sudden, Canada Goose, Moncler, Sorel, the North Face, and Christopher Raeburn are looking at some stiff competition.
Backstage, Willis said he wasn't just thinking of floods or polar vortices, but also where the next weather woes will hit—in the deep seas, or in space. That's not a million miles off, since Richard Branson plans to launch his first passenger space voyage in the next year or so. Willis also said he wants to move Hunter away from the "festival girl" tag it has been saddled with in the U.K. The label did outfit soldiers in the muddy trenches of World War I long before anyone pulled on its boots at Glastonbury. Willis' show was all so slick and professional, we had to ask: Did his wife lend a helping hand? "No," Willis said, unequivocally. "All Stella said was to go with my gut feelings. So I did."