An Old Dog's New Tricks : Hush Puppies' Return in the '90s Is No Small Feet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hush Puppies, the brushed pigskin shoes popular when Kennedy was president, have a new leash on life.

Thanks to a revival of retro fashions, the clunky shoes long shunned by shoppers again have broad appeal. Wolverine World Wide Inc., which makes the shoes, expects sales to surpass 1.5 million pairs this year, up from a low of 100,000 pairs in 1994.

Hush Puppies offer a case study in reviving old brands. Beginning in 1995, Wolverine shipped the shoes to fashion boutiques in Los Angeles and New York's SoHo district to make inroads with urban trendsetters. They snapped up the decades-old styles in updated hues: lime green, powder blue, electric orange.

At the same time, Wolverine showered free Hush Puppies on Hollywood celebrities, getting the shoes on the pages of fan magazines and on such TV shows as "Suddenly Susan" and "Melrose Place."

"A geek chic thing was happening, and the shoes fit right in," said Jeff Lewis, Wolverine's vice president of marketing.

Having gotten the shoes on all the right feet, Wolverine is taking aim at mainstream consumers. It is spending about $5 million on TV ads aimed at men and women 18 to 34 years old. These are the first commercials for Hush Puppies in 10 years. There will also be magazine ads shot by celebrity photographer Richard Avedon--a nod to the shoes' fashion-forward image.

Helping the brand with shopping mall customers is a trend toward informal office wear, retailers say.

"We are living in a much more casual workplace today, and Hush Puppies are right up that alley," said Jim Gundell, senior vice president in charge of men's footwear at Bloomingdale's.

An unexpected phone call from an up-and-coming designer triggered the return of Hush Puppies. New York men's clothing designer John Bartlett wanted dyed-to-match shoes for his 1995 fashion show.

He got them. Days later, musician Harry Connick Jr. showed up on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" wearing purple Hush Puppies that Bartlett had given him. To the delight of Lewis and other Wolverine executives, Connick showed off the shoes by cartwheeling across the stage.

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Before that, Hush Puppies received an unplanned plug when actor Tom Hanks wore them in "Forrest Gump," a 1995 film partly set in the '60s. And Wolverine had received reports that vintage Hush Puppies had become coveted thrift-shop finds.

"There was something in the air," Lewis said. "We had the feeling the shoes would take off if we tried as hard as we could to react."

Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Wolverine, a company known for functional boots worn by construction workers, put an outside stylist in New York on retainer to keep it alert to fashion trends. (Look for a platform-soled shoe in the fall.)

Wolverine also sought out retro fashion designers and let them run with gimmicky ideas. At the Pleasure Swell, his boutique on La Brea Avenue, Joel Fitzpatrick sells exclusive designs: glow-in-the-dark Hush Puppies and "bulletproof" models made with Kevlar, a synthetic fiber used in bulletproof vests.

Seated at a bare wood table in a loft overlooking the sales floor, Fitzpatrick displays his latest creations: bright pink and green shoes with square toes--a shape inspired by a pair of Armani sunglasses.

"Rectangles are going to be big," Fitzpatrick said.

His Hush Puppies clientele includes such celebrities as rock musician David Bowie and actress Susan Sarandon. He's given away hundreds of shoes to actors on behalf of Wolverine.

"Ellen DeGeneres must have 50 pairs by now," he said.

Wolverine is also using a Hollywood public relations company to get its shoes on the right feet. The firm, Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, persuaded the cast of the TV series "Wings" to wear the shoes and presented Brooke Shields of "Suddenly Susan" with a stuffed basset hound--the Hush Puppies trademark--for her dressing room.

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Wolverine is taking its promotional efforts into high gear with offbeat TV commercials that position Hush Puppies (and their owners) as fashionable and relaxed.

In one spot, a young man with large ears kneels at a woman's feet and proposes marriage. She shifts her feet to hide his ears with her Hush Puppies before answering, "OK, sure, why not?"

The ads, which are airing during prime time in Los Angeles and other big cities, avoid using nostalgia. The only hint at the line's heritage is the basset hound that appears at the end of each commercial with the slogan "We invented casual."

"We want to show the shoes are casual and cool and up with the style of today," said Chris Elliott, creative director at Wolverine agency Bozell Worldwide. "The retro movement has worked for Hush Puppies, but we don't need a commercial to further that."

In taking Hush Puppies to the masses, Wolverine risks turning off the fashion-forward customers that embraced the brand two years ago and made it hot.

"There is danger any time you take something the fashion world has cradled for a while. As soon as it hits the airwaves, they are on to the next thing," Elliott said. He argues that new styles can keep Hush Puppies fresh.

Behind the return of Hush Puppies is a three-year corporate reorganization. Beginning in 1993, Wolverine streamlined divisions, cut costs and modernized factories to enable the company to respond more quickly to trends. It dropped inexpensive lines susceptible to foreign competition in order to focus on higher-end shoes.

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Sales climbed to $511.1 million in 1996 from $333.1 million in 1993. During the same period, income nearly tripled, to $32.9 million in 1996 from $11.5 million in 1993. Hush Puppies account for 9% of Wolverine's domestic unit sales, up from less than 1% three years ago.

"The company has done a terrific job reviving the [Hush Puppies] label," said Lee Backus, an analyst with Buckingham Research Group in New York. "They brought it into the fashion business."

Even so, sales of Hush Puppies do not approach the 3 million pairs sold annually during the early 1960s, for prices as low as $8.95. They now cost six to seven times more.

The challenge for Wolverine is keeping Hush Puppies in fashion while staying ahead of competitors, such as Aerosoles, that are quickly adding colorful shoes to their lines. Can Hush Puppies outlast the retro trend?

Some retail shoe buyers think so.

"The novelty of the product may diminish over time, but it still has tremendous appeal to customers," said Bloomingdale's Gundell.

"What is attractive about the brand on an ongoing basis is comfort, and that is not going away."

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