Huf Elevates Long-Time Employees After C-Suite Changes
Huf has shaken up its executive ranks by moving some company OGs into the C-suite in a bid to forge a new path forward for the streetwear brand.
The company, which entered its 20th year in business last year, has seen plenty of change. That included the fall departure of CEO and CFO Jon Brubaker, followed by parent TSI Holdings placing long-time employees Keith Murray and Hanni El Khatib into the chief operating officer and chief creative officer positions.
Meanwhile, CFO Hiroki Yamamoto returned to Huf in January to solidify the trio that’s now running the business.
“We understand the foundation and the roots, and have been here since almost day one,” Murray said of himself and El Khatib. “We want to make sure that the train doesn’t fall off the tracks and that (founder Keith Hufnagel’s) vision is still brought to the core audience. So, it made sense for us to be in these roles and lead the current team.”
Murray, who also serves as COO of sister skate brand Lakai, got his start at Huf in retail in 2004, two years after Hufnagel began the brand. Murray worked at the company’s Sutter Street shop in San Francisco as Huf made a name for itself as a retail purveyor of hard-to-find and emerging streetwear brands before evolving into the Huf clothing and skate brand it is today.
The executive appointments mark the first time since Hufnagel’s passing in 2020 that long-time employees are seated at the helm of the business, following a series of CEOs and owners that have passed through Huf’s doors. In more recent years that’s included Altamont Capital Partners’ investment in Huf in 2014, followed three years later with Altamont selling the brand to TSI Holdings. Former CEOs during that time include Steve Holley, Eddie Miyoshi, and most recently Brubaker.
“We’ve been through a few CEOs and with the passing of Keith, it was very hard for new leadership to come in and understand what he built and where he wanted it to go,” Murray said.
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Now under the new leadership, Murray is focused on pushing through this year’s bumpy patches as the market looks to harness control of excess inventory, promotions, and the possibility of a recession.
Murray’s looking at how to refine the distribution strategy in North America without sending a shock wave through the existing wholesale lineup of mall retailers, boutiques, and core skate shops.
He refers to it as a “cleaner” distribution strategy for the brand in hopes of getting key partners to make deeper buys, while also gaining more space in core skate and fashion boutiques. To be clear, in North America, he’s not looking to exit the mall retailers Huf successfully does business in.
The company’s current wholesale business has the brand in anywhere from 5,000 to 6,000 doors at any given time across North America, Europe, Asia, South America, and the Middle East.
In Asia, Murray likens Huf’s distribution strategy to that of Stussy. However, he doesn’t see that same model for the North American and European markets.
“We’ll always have a wholesale business. The core market and core doors are very important to this brand,” Murray said. “It’s our DNA and those are the stores and retailers that have helped tell our story and helped Huf become what it is today.”
That said, a greater emphasis on the e-commerce channel has been set in motion with the company looking to play catch-up in that space by building a team around the channel.
In Huf-branded brick-and-mortar, the company closed its New York store during the pandemic, leaving Los Angeles and San Francisco open. Murray said the next new store opening in the U.S. will be a return to the New York market, but 2023 is not the year to do that.
It also doesn’t make sense, from Murray’s perspective, for there to be a major push to grow company-owned doors in the U.S. given the robust wholesale business already in place.
“The Supreme model works because they don’t wholesale, so they can open in multiple cities in the U.S. But, for us, I’d rather grow with key (wholesale) partners in a key city,” Murray said.
That’s in contrast to a market like Asia-Pacific, where Huf and licensing partners operate some 30 stores in Japan. There’s also one in Hong Kong with a second expected to open late this year.
“We’ve been focusing heavily on areas of the world where our distribution is already very clean and controlled and starting to really progress with our direct-to-consumer business,” Murray said. “The next phase is looking to Europe and figuring out how we can grow there with our partners.”
He pointed to Milan and London as possible examples of where a Huf store could make sense.
The COO and the rest of the Huf team largely look at 2023 as the year of the reset, coming out of COVID but also a stretch in which the brand has bounced from one leadership strategy to another.
While Huf continues to see consumers shopping in their stores, retailers have been far more cautious with their pre-bookings in an effort to avoid oversupply.
“Going into the second half of the year, there’s going to be a lot of chased business,” Murray projected. “There is some newness within wholesale, but there might not be enough inventory on hand to fulfill the current consumer buying pattern because most retailers, from mom and pops to larger accounts, are being cautious on Q4 because they don’t want to sit on too much inventory.”
So far Huf has been able to avoid the widespread discounting. Last year it held an online warehouse sale to pump out extra product, but entered 2023 at normal levels, according to Murray.
“Right now, discount retailers are being flooded with a lot of brands, not to name any, but it’s concerning because you don’t want the consumer to always look for that,” he said. “We’ll do some sales here and there if it’s Memorial Day weekend, but we’re not dumping a full season at Ross because it just dilutes your brand.”
The company’s revenue is likely to be down on a year-over-year basis on account of what’s happening more broadly at retail. However, Murray is ultimately upbeat about where the brand is headed and, more importantly, he believes it’s set on a course Hufnagel would prefer.
“There aren’t that many people in our space from our time in streetwear that are still around,” Murray said. “We’re an anomaly because we’re a fashion streetwear brand but have skateboarding roots. We work in both worlds, so can sit in multiple retailers and still make sense to the end consumer. I think (Keith) would be aligned with the trajectory of where the brand’s going.”
Kari Hamanaka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.