It’s supposed to be cats that have nine lives, not basset hounds. But in the world of iconic footwear, it seems anything is possible. Hush Puppies are among the highlights of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, as the author theorizes on how this once-popular but struggling brand achieved a fresh momentum thanks to a handful of New York City hipsters.
The Hush Puppies brand is owned by the Wolverine Worldwide company that makes many kinds of work and recreational apparel. In 1994, when sales were in the sort of place not even people wearing worry free Scotchguarded suede shoes would step in, Wolverine was about to pull the plug. But some young Manhattanites started wearing them (no doubt with a sense of irony) around the East Village and Soho, getting them from small independent shops, and scouring vintage clothing stores. This trend caught the eye of a few street-wise designers, who incorporated the shoes into their new styles.
Suddenly, from shipping 30,000 pairs a year, Hush Puppies were virtually scampering out the door at a rate of 430,000 pairs in 1995, four times that number in 1996 and even more in 1997. Hush Puppies took the prize for best accessory at the 1996 Council of Fashion Designers Awards.
Not bad for a brand that has been around since 1958, just as society was becoming less buttoned-down and the demand for casual wear grew. The shoe itself came out of Victor Krause’s obsession with pigskin. As part of the family that owned Wolverine, Krause learned about tanning and believed pigskin could be a viable alternative to cowhide. Pigskin becomes soft and more flexible after tanning and is perfect for a comfortable leisure shoe.
As is so often the case with new ideas, Wolverine’s directors were less than enthusiastic, but his being a Krause probably helped. The new style might have been called Lasers, which was one name on the table, but sales manager James Gaylord (really) Muir came up with the canine appellation.
Funny enough, Muir was near the Appalachians at the time, having dinner with a regional manager from the southeast. Part of the meal was hush puppies. As anyone familiar with Southern cuisine is aware, these are balls of fried corn dough that got their name by being thrown to quiet down barking dogs. As he heard this explanation, he also remembered that barking dogs was a slang term for aching feet. Cue light bulb going off over his head.
After registering the name as a trademark, the company bought the photograph of a basset hound that became the brand’s symbol (for only $50) and introduced its new product at the 1957 National Shoe Fair in Chicago to instant acclaim. By the middle of 1959, the first one million pairs had been sold. Soon they were seen on the feet of celebrities like Perry Como and Warren Beatty. Queen Elizabeth’s other half, Prince Philip, wore a pair on a visit to the United States.
Those were the wonder years and they lasted long enough for Hush Puppies to become a recognized part of modern culture. However, despite being invited by President Mikhail Gorbachev to be the first American company to make and sell shoes in Russia, their subsequent popularity sank lower than a basset’s ears, until, quite by chance, a new generation embraced them.
The second wave saw Kevin Spacey and Nicholas Cage wearing Hush Puppies to complement their tuxedos as they accepted their respective Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor statuettes at the 1996 Oscars ceremony. The late Princess Diana once ordered a special HP collection.
But it isn’t just owners of barking dogs who give thank-you speeches for Hush Puppies. These shoes are responsible for so much more, albeit inadvertently. Back in 1965, the Rolling Stones were doing a gig in Sacramento, California. Keith Richards touched an ungrounded microphone while still holding his electric guitar, something that could easily have been fatal. Richards was knocked unconscious, but medics believe his was life was saved by the crepe soles of his Hush Puppies, a material chosen for comfort and lightness, but had an insulating effect here. A world without Honky Tonk Women, Brown Sugar and Tumbling Dice would have been all the poorer. Just think, one of the few things in this world capable of killing Keef was thwarted by a pair of cozy shoes.
By the middle of 1959, the first one hundred million pairs had been sold.