Since establishing her luxury wool accessory brand Honest Wolf in early 2020, Sophie Hurley and her husband Sam have been changing the way we think about the humble fibre. Hailing from a farming family in Aotearoa’s deep south, Hurley’s interest in wool traces back to her youth, where she spent many of her formative years helping out on her parent’s farm. Between this, and her background in marketing and sales, it might seem obvious that Hurley would go on to start her own wool brand, but it wasn’t until she moved to her husband’s third-generation family farm on Papanui Estate that the business idea would actually come to fruition.
Motivated by their shared desire to restore wool back to its former glory, Hurley and her husband have built a brand that, while centred around sustainability and ethics, also produces products that are fashion-forward and crafted with quality. Having recently expanded into bricks and mortar retail in the small town of Hunterville – and with plans to launch a pop-up store in Tāmaki Makaurau’s Britomart suburb this month – there’s a lot on the horizon for this luxury farm-to-arm brand.
Below, Hurley sits down with FQ to share more about her rural upbringing, the journey that saw her go from a corporate career to owning her own brand, and her unwavering love for all things woolly.
Let’s get up to speed. Could you tell us a bit about you, your background, and your career to date in a few sentences?
Myself, my husband Sam and our two children Harry and Gussie call Papanui Estate home, a third-generation family farm in the middle of the North Island close to Hunterville – which is also the home of our Honest Wolf flagship store.
I grew up in Wanaka and went to boarding school in Christchurch, so rural living isn’t unfamiliar to me although Papanui is a lot further afield. Following my marketing degree, I worked in sales and marketing in Auckland before going abroad with Sam.
After our travels and getting married, we moved back to my husband’s family farm on Papanui Estate. Finding myself in a location where continuing my career was challenging due to travel, and being a new mum, Sam and I started brainstorming business ideas… and not long after, Honest Wolf was born.
Tell us a bit more about your family’s background in the wool industry. Has wool and farming always been passions of yours?
Both Sam and I grew up in farming families. Summer holidays were often spent in the wool shed, rousing with Dad and learning a lot about wool from a young age. I grew a passion for the fibre, having had a personal connection to it. Over the years, wool has gone from a hero product to having a steadily declining price. As I grew older and understood the impact of this, I began to dream of bringing the fibre back to its former glory which inspired Honest Wolf.
What inspired you to start your own wool accessory brand?
My connection and passion for wool combined with challenges of living so remotely with a growing, young family prompted the start of the brand. Plastic bags had just been removed from supermarkets and we saw an opportunity to better use our wool in a new way. Honest Wolf started with the Casual Shopper which quickly sold out, so we then branched into more luggage and accessories.
Congratulations on receiving the award for the Best Emerging Business in the Rural Women’s Business awards! What did it mean to you to receive such an award?
Thank you, I was very surprised to receive it as there were some incredible candidates that I was up against! A lot of work went into the entry of the awards, and I learnt a lot about the business as I was answering the questions. Putting pen to paper and realising what we have achieved over the last three years in business as a couple was awesome. And to be recognised is even more incredible.
What’s it like working with your husband?
It’s never something I thought I would be doing but it made so much sense for our family to start something together. Sam was a big driver of how and why it all started. There were a lot of challenges along the way, and without him, I’m not sure I would have had the drive to continue. He is incredibly encouraging and a lot of the time, it doesn’t feel like work and that is something I don’t take for granted.
We are slowly learning how to separate business and family time, trying to switch off at certain times of the week as it can be all consuming living on the land the brand is built upon. Luckily, we are on the same page in that we like to get off farm to freshen up, get our city fix, and revive every once in a while.
What aspects of the business do you both manage?
I look after the day to day running of the business like managing stock, customers, staff, inventory, the retail shop, marketing, and finances. Sam is managing wool supply, quality checking, working on new product development and looking for ways to improve our current product. Sam is really detail oriented, so these roles come naturally to him. Sam also looks after the sustainability practices, which is a constant journey.
What does an average day look like for you?
Having a small business means managing day to day tasks all of the time. You can be pulled in all sorts of directions each day and each week, it brings new and exciting opportunities and challenges, but it can mean that I’m here, there and everywhere. I mix up my week spending a few days at home on the farm with my children, then I’m in the shop where I can fully focus on completing tasks, meetings with the numerous teams we work with. When I’m home, I will switch off from work until the children are in bed and then I catch up on a little more work.
As all business owners will know, it comes with hectic times but the flexibility it provides to be able to work around my children is exactly why we started the business. Honest Wolf has grown with our family, at a pace that suits us.
What’s the best part about living rurally?
The balance in life it provides our children. They can get out in nature every day and be with us at work and play. We have so many adventures on the farm together, and we are able to watch them grow up around us each day.
What has been your biggest career highlight since launching Honest Wolf?
One highlight was our products being selected for the New Zealand Trade conference. Our products were gifted to 15 delegates around the world for the international conference that was meant to be here in 2021. Another highlight to come is opening our first Auckland pop up! We will be at SpaceFor in Britomart from Wednesday 8-29th November, 2023 showcasing our full product range to our community in Tāmaki Makaurau – just in time for Christmas gifting season. I’m really excited to connect with our customers in person and spend some time in the city.
Why do you think your products resonate so well with people? Is there anything that has surprised you about the New Zealand market?
I think our products resonate because of our story, it is so familiar to so many communities around NZ. Kiwis are very supportive of our own industries, and we tend to buy local before looking abroad. Our story of diversifying to use wool in new ways, so it doesn’t go to waste, resonates with many.
Product wise, Honest Wolf appeals to everyone! Whether you’re fashion conscious, sustainably-minded, or all about practicality, our accessories cater to everyone. Classic in design, and made with quality, they hold longevity and have earned a reputation for being well-made.
What’s next for you on a personal and professional level? What can we expect to see from Honest Wolf over the coming months?
We have some amazing collabs with like minded brands we love, so keep your eyes peeled in the new year! We’ve been working on these partnerships for the last few years, so it’s very exciting to see them come to fruition.
Hometown’s best-kept secret… The real fruit ice cream at the store next to ours. It’s a really good place to stop on a road trip through Hunterville.
My guilty pleasure is… Whenever I go to town or stay in the city, Uber Eats. Because takeaways don’t exist on the farm!
Best current season fashion purchase… Kathryn Wilson loafers. I always wear white sneakers so I wanted a change up for an everyday summer shoe.
The best book I’ve read recently… I’ll be honest, I can’t really get to a book with young children, unless it’s their own! So the last book I read for myself was actually a few years ago… Do emails count?
My favourite place to travel to… Going home to my family in Wanaka. Best holiday destination in the world is within mountains and lakes.
If I could have dinner with any three people on earth, dead or alive, I would choose… My grandparents. They passed at an age where I feel I had so many unanswered questions. I have a lot I would like to learn from them and now I’m at an age where I have so much more intrigue.
The most cherished item in my home is… Our dining table. It is from my sister’s French industrial store called The Vitrine. It has created so many family memories already. It is a special piece.