While some shoe brands are fleeting, the Hush Puppies brand hit the ground running in 1958, and it is still around fifty years later. It has the distinction of being the world’s first casual shoe.
The oddly named brand originated from a Southern food (fried corn fritters) called “hush puppys.” According to the Hush Puppies website, “a company salesman discovered that farmers also used these hush puppys to quiet barking dogs. At the time, tired feet were known as ‘barking dogs’ and the salesman reasoned that his soft, lightweight comfortable shoes could quiet them, too.” Hush Puppies became the shoe’s trademarked name in 1958.
The shoe’s moniker led to the brand’s graphic image—a photo of a basset hound purchased for a mere US$ 50 that became the visual symbol for Hush Puppies on shoes, boxes, store displays, and in ads.
Hush Puppies shoes were distinguished by their casual look of brushed suede and a crepe sole. Apparently the style was a good match for the late ’50s. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra’s notorious “Rat Pack” (his entertainer drinking buddies Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop) wore Hush Puppies, as did Britain’s Prince Phillip.
In its early years, the brand managed to embed itself in popular culture around the world. Hush Puppies appeared in Canada in 1959, the United Kingdom in 1962 and Japan in 1965. During music’s “British Invasion” of the ’60s, British rock bands wore them on tour. In fact, the maker of Hush Puppies claims it was the venerable shoe that saved the life of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. At a 1965 concert, Richards touched his guitar to an ungrounded microphone. “Knocked unconscious, medics believed that the crepe soled Hush Puppies shoes that Richards was wearing insulated him—and saved the future of rock `n roll,” the company says.
In the ’80s, the Hush Puppies basset hound became a living representation of the brand in television and magazine ads. In one award-winning television ad, the hound is seen on a subway grate with his ears blowing in the wind—a spoof on Marilyn Monroe’s pose in the film The Seven Year Itch. It was named one of the top 50 television commercials of all time.
Still, the brand may have disappeared were it not for an interesting revival that occurred in the ’90s, according to Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-selling book The Tipping Point. For Hush Puppies, Gladwell says, “the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995. The brand had been all but dead until that point.” But then, Gladwell reports, “Hush Puppies had suddenly become hip in the bars and clubs of downtown Manhattan.” It all started with “a handful of kids in the East Village and Soho” wearing the shoes “because no one else would wear them. …No one was trying to make Hush Puppies a trend. Yet, somehow, that’s exactly what happened. The shoes passed a certain point in popularity and they tipped.”
At that point, designer John Bartlett featured a new line of brightly colored Hush Puppies in the 1995 NY Fashion Week show, adding to their cultish quality. The Council of Fashion Designers in America named Hush Puppies its 1995 “Accessory Product of the Year,” and then Hush Puppies was named company and brand of the year by trade magazines in the United States and the United Kingdom. Hush Puppies has been prominently placed in movies, most notably Forrest Gump and the Austin Powers series. By 2006, 19 million pairs of Hush Puppies shoes were sold in 136 countries, according to the company.
Today Hush Puppies is owned by Wolverine World Wide, a leading maker of casual, work and outdoor footwear. Wolverine also owns such footwear brands as Merrell, Harley-Davidson Footwear, Patagonia Footwear and Sebago.
The Hush Puppies brand celebrated its 50th anniversary in style in 2008. The company produced a limited edition Hush Puppies Basset Hound plush toy in two sizes. Proceeds from the sale of the toy are being donated to Best Friends Animal Society, the largest animal shelter in the United States, to build a new Puppy Care Center. The fundraising effort also included a “Pennies for Puppies” point-of-sale canister that appeared in retail stores across the US.
The Hush Puppies story is far from over. The company helped create the walking shoe category and, in recent years, has produced everything from lightweight to environmentally friendly shoes. There were a few times in its history when Hush Puppies appeared to be going to the dogs—but somehow this brand has kept right on walking.