As Swazi celebrates its 25th anniversary, owner and founder Davey Hughes reflects on a remarkable journey.
If you ask Davey Hughes to name his company’s official birthday, he recalls it as if it were his first-born child – 10 October 1994. This was the date that the Swazi clothing brand made the transition from a simple design idea into a cult brand selling innovative high-end products to hunters, foresters, law enforcement personnel, mountain rescuers and the military around the world.
Swazi is now quarter of a century old and much more than a figment of Davey’s imagination. “When working in the mountains I recognised that there wasn’t a lot of decent outdoor gear available in New Zealand,” says Davey, who spent weekends in the hills going after pigs and possums.
“I realised I was an expert at getting cold and wet, and thought that perhaps I could use that knowledge to help people stay warm and dry.
“My first step was to make patterns, something that still makes me laugh. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, I simply made up what I thought was a good pattern, then got a friend to sew it up, before I tried and tested the garment in the field. To this day, while the manufacturing approach at Swazi has changed, the field testing process hasn’t. I still test each garment personally.”
However, over the years the company has grown to become more than just a clothing manufacturer. It is actively involved in conservation and educating young people to get out and enjoy the great outdoors, to hunt ethically and respect what they hunt.”
“I didn’t really think about it when we started,” he reflects. “I certainly didn’t envisage becoming a global brand, rather than just a New Zealand brand that also spread into Australia.
“It’s always a lovely surprise when people from overseas are as passionate about the brand as they are back in New Zealand. In fact, people from overseas are probably more passionate about our clothing than Kiwis are. It is more than just a brand, more than just a clothing company. People believe in what we do and what we stand for. That, for me, is the biggest buzz.”
Swazi now employs around 60 people and has moved to larger premises three times. Many of the staff are hunters themselves, so there’s a willing pool of test pilots at hand. It’s only this year that Swazi has had to outsource some non-technical fleece garments to a manufacturer in Thailand.
For the past 25 years, all of Swazi’s garments have been made in their factory in Levin, New Zealand. Despite this, the products are increasingly popular across the Pacific, due to personal experience.
Davey remarks: “I previously spent some time in the Highlands of Scotland working in fencing and forestry and I remember the struggle we had back then trying to buy good gear just to work in.
“Sometimes I would go to a ski shop and pay £200 for a jacket that would last five days working in forestry! So, although it wasn’t part of the strategy when we started up, I knew that our products would work well in European countries. Really, the plan originally was just to fill a niche in New Zealand.”
The first two Swazi products were a polar fleece jacket and polar fleece bush pants which Swazi initially launched in Australia, but it’s ‘people behind the products’ who are the secret to Swazi’s success.
Davey adds: “I surround myself with the best people I can and unleash them. I let them do their own thing, with some guidance and direction. It’s people and relationships that makes businesses.
“We have around 60 staff, so in global terms we are very small, very niche. The company is about the right size. It’s a family and we all know each other. The one thing I learned very early on was to lose your ego. It’s important to listen to customer feedback to create an even finer product than you could by working on your own.
“Each product we develop has to be tested in the field and at first it was hard to find people around the world who would do that testing. Now, we have people from all round the world, in all different weather testing the hell out of our gear.
“As leader of the design team, I also see that as part of my role. I love travelling the world and trialling our products. It’s something I’ve continued doing since we started.”
In the mid-1990’s Swazi had to take whatever fabrics were available on the market and utilise them into a design. However the company now uses three fabrics it has developed itself. The process has taken a quarter of a century and continues to this day, but Davey is a firm believer in putting in the hard graft behind the scenes to get the best results.
“When we develop a fabric it might take a year or two years to get right,” he points out. “Then, once we have that fabric it might also take a year to create a garment out of it that’s been tested properly. So, while I like to think that we are nimble and quick at getting to market, the whole process takes time.
“We actually want to make sure that the fabric and the garment is going to stand up to what our customers want and expect. You just can’t take shortcuts. Over the next five years we’ll continue to develop new fabrics and new products.”
As shooters prepare to stock up their winter wardrobes, Davey warns that hunters should be aware of products that have taken shortcuts and beware of imitations. “People will tell you that mimicking is a high form of flattery, but I just view it as people who can’t think for themselves and are not creative. It’s theft of an idea more than anything,” he says.
“One of the things I hate doing as a designer is copying an idea from other people. If someone comes up with a great idea, rather than copy it my thoughts are that it’s really cool, innovative, fresh and new. Good on them for doing it. I always feel that we need to do something smarter and better rather than copy the same thing.”
Davey points to the iconic Dribacks as a case in point for Swazi’s innovation. “Putting a waterproof membrane into a pair of thermal pants is something no one had ever done before,” he explains.
“So, when we brought out the Dribacks, all of a sudden you could sit down on wet grass, moss or even in the snow and when you got up again to walk off you didn’t have a wet ass. That was huge at the time.”
As the company prepares for their 25th anniversary celebrations, they are going back to Davey’s hunting roots and indulging in nostalgia with a small run of some original garments.
“They’ll be some cult followers who want to get themselves an old jacket that they used to have 25 years ago,” says Davey. “I love hunting and I travel the world hunting, so by association everyone thinks Swazi is all about hunting, but it is much more than that nowadays – as for the Swazi team, we’ll be having a big party!”
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