Angela Hook, with Jack and Annie, modelling some of the D-fa range of dog jackets. Photo by Fredrik Larsson.
An enterprising Wanaka couple have created an outdoor
brand - for dogs - and are now shipping to 11 countries, the
United States being the major market. Business
reporter Sally Rae reports.
It could be a question in Trivial Pursuit.
What do you get when you cross a very compliant husband and a
sister-in-law, who happens to be a talented designer, with a
thermally fragile dog?
The answer is D-fa and before you ask what D-fa stands for,
think about it for a moment.
That's D for dog.
The Wanaka-based company makes dog jackets and dog gear,
using the same design principles outdoor wear brands like
North Face and Icebreaker employ.
It all began when Angela Hook contacted her sister-in-law
Clare Cosson, a former designer for MacPac, after her and
husband Mark's dog, Jack, was feeling the cold.
The coat Ms Cosson whipped up for Jack proved to be quite a
talking point on the street.
"Literally, either people would stop us in the street and
say, 'Oh my God, that's the most beautiful thing. Where can
we get one?', or 'That is absolutely incredible - you guys
They started talking about D-fa in 2007, got serious in 2008
and, the following year, they hit the United States market.
It was never going to be a cottage industry.
"It was never going to be a couple of jackets done for a few
dogs - it was always either take it to the world or don't do
it at all," she said.
D-fa Dogs now ships to 11 countries, the United States being
its major market.
Its product range started with the Ice-Barker - "with
apologies to Jeremy" [Moon, founder of Icebreaker] - a 100%
New Zealand merino jacket, and the Sub-Woofer, a soft-shell
The range has since expanded and includes the Float Doggy, a
dog flotation vest, and leads named after world leaders like
Gandhi and Napoleon.
Mrs Hook reckoned the best name they came up with was the
Puff Doggy jacket "because it's just ridiculous".
She was adamant the company was not a pet brand.
The target market was "exactly" the same as what the likes of
Icebreaker had targeted.
That market was people who valued a healthy and sustainable
lifestyle, who valued quality and shopped with a conscience.
They liked being outdoors but did not see their dog as a
"It's not that type of surrogacy; it's an adventure-based
companionship," she said.
Humans had fundamentally changed the behaviour of dogs by
making them a part of their lifestyles.
While Mrs Hook encouraged dog owners to take their dogs with
them on outdoor adventures, she urged them to consider their
comfort and safety.
There was nothing healthier than getting out and spending
time playing with your dog - "just don't play naked, even if
you're covered in fur".
The company was a brand of the "new world". It grew up in a
recession, - and started on the day Lehman Brothers filed for
bankruptcy - and had never operated outside a recession.
But there had also been some positives about that. It had
allowed it to stage growth and not have that "terrible
fire-fighting growth" that happened so quickly a company
became a victim of its own success.
Despite the difficult economic times globally, there were
still people with money to spend and the company was still
going forward, she said.
It had been a steep, sharp learning curve and Mrs Hook often
described it as being like running up a hill, in heels, in a
headwind, through jelly. But it was also "bloody good fun".
They managed to work mostly without distributors and that
ability to forge relationships with customers was very
appealing to Mrs Hook.
There was an intimacy, consistency and constant feedback loop
and it allowed the company "to seed very deeply in
communities you want to adopt your brand".
With 15 years of consumer research and brand development
experience, she believed in the "power of the brand" and the
plan was for D-fa to "build a really, really strong brand".
Mrs Hook was responsible for the business strategy and brand
development, while her husband, who came from a financial
background, was in charge of logistics and financial
Ms Cosson brought more than 20 years of design experience in
the outdoor industry to the business.
The couple complemented each other with their respective
"Mark is probably the most unflappable, capable, adaptable
individual on the planet.
"He's definitely is the keel of the boat. I may be the sail
but he is the keel. And the keel often calls me to heel," she
Mrs Hook described her sister-in-law as "brilliant".
"I can think about it [a design] - she can turn it into
Wanaka was a "great place", being such an outdoors
environment, and there were plenty of dynamic, creative and
talented people who were always happy to share their
By next year, all their products, other than Float Doggy,
would be made in the US or New Zealand.
She got a "huge kick" from getting photographs from satisfied
customers showing their dog at the Grand Canyon, or in Denali
National Park in Alaska.
"I genuinely get a kick out of going, 'Ooh, there's one of
our jackets in the wild'.
"They saw it, found it, bought it and thought enough of it to
share it back with us."
Although the New Zealand market was good, it was never going
to be comparable to the US.
A company like D-fa needed the right consumption climate, the
right physical climate - in the form of plenty of rain or
cold temperatures or both - and the right canine climate,
where dogs were real companions and attitudes towards them
were also quite open.
Certain states in the US met those criteria particularly
well, including Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and
The American Pet Products Association's pet owners study in
2009-10 showed 45.6 million US households owned a dog. The
study had estimated $US47.7 billion ($NZ58 billion) would be
spent on pets in 2010.
Mrs Hook said she and her husband should probably be based in
the US and it was "definitely on the cards" for them to move
at some stage, to be closer to their major market.
However, she would not move without Jack and the 12-year-old
dog was too old to shift.
As well as Jack, the couple also have Annie, better known as
the Duchess, who was very obedient, but not quite so
enamoured of the idea of being a mannequin.
"She's often the one that has to stand still while I wrap a
bit of fabric around her and pin it together. You can see the
look on her face when I come at her with the tape measure."
Mrs Hook had always loved animals and admitted she could not
watch a dog movie without tears welling in her eyes.
Her most vivid childhood memory - along with falling out of a
car - was of her father returning home in the middle of the
night with the family's first dog in the back of the Hillman
Hunter. It had been dumped in a rubbish bin outside a dairy
in George St, Dunedin.
She had wanting to be a psychologist when she was young, an
idea she ditched when she realised she had little empathy for
people, she said, laughing.
"I still don't have any empathy unless you're a dog, in which
case I'm full to brimming."