Wanaka company takes on the world

Angela Hook, with Jack and Annie, modelling some of the D-fa range of dog jackets. Photo by...
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 are crazy'."

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 activity jacket.

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 "baby".

"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 controls.

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 strengths.

"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 said, laughing.

Mrs Hook described her sister-in-law as "brilliant".

"I can think about it [a design] - she can turn it into something."

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 knowledge.

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 Washington.

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."



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