In 1995, Hush Puppies was on its last legs.
The Michigan firm had been selling casual brushed-suede shoes since the ’50s, but by the mid-’90s was down to sales of 30,000 pairs a year. Parent company Wolverine was thinking of pulling the plug for good on the insulating crepe-soled shoes that were credited with saving Keith Richard's life when he touched an ungrounded microphone in 1965.
But then something strange happened. According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, in the autumn of 1995 word reached two Hush Puppies executives – Owen Baxter and Geoffrey Lewis – during a New York fashion shoot that re-sale stores in the Village and SoHo were seeing the shoes steadily getting snapped up.
Call it geek chic, but the cool kids were buying up Hush Puppies, not because they were fashionable, but for the exact opposite reason.
By the end of the year the company had sold 430,000 pairs and the following year the figure was four times that amount. Today Hush Puppies sell more than 17 million pairs of shoes in more than 165 countries around the world.
It is the kind of story that will have multi-million dollar marketing teams throwing their Sharpies around the room in frustration. Gladwell likens it as much to the rise of unknown books to bestsellers to the rise of teenage smoking yawning and the spread of viruses. Early adopters were creating a trend that would start an epidemic. The popularity of the shoes reached a certain point and then tipped into a craze.
Fast forward twenty years, and, although the game may have changed, the final score is still what everyone wants. Take the NMD, adidas Originals' star player and the sneaker of the moment. This shoe launched late last year; a lightweight performance/fashion hybrid in the middle of winter.
Taking inspiration from three previous shoes from the brand's archives - the Micro Pacer, Boston Super, and Rising Star – it brought the high-end desirability of Yeezy Boost and the comfort and focus of Ultra Boost together into one perfectly judged shoe. History and technology – what more could anyone want?
For adidas, there was little to lose. While on the surface it appears the German company is a direct competitor to Nike, by the end of last year when the NMD arrived the Oregon firm has a staggering 48% of the USA’s footwear market. adidas’s 9% share has declined every year since 2011. Sketchers and Under Armour have made huge surges, and adidas is now the third biggest footwear brand in the US after UA.
Unlike Hush Puppies' mid-’90s windfall, we live in a world dominated by the internet. And wherever the internet goes, hype is never far behind. While a brand like Nike is said to spend $8 million per day on so-called "demand creation" – that's $100 a second – the trick for high fashion sneakers is to still make it look like, as with Hush Puppies, the buzz is resonating from street level.
"The rise of sneaker culture can be attributed to digital communities and social media," explains Solberg Audunsson, co-founder of Takumi, an app which connects brands with relevant Instagram influencers for social media campaigns. "When Kanye West was seen wearing all white adidas Ultra Boost sneakers they became instant classics and were immediately sold out."
"adidas followed up with the NMDs in December 2015 without any celebrity signups, but they were no less successful. With NMD, adidas built buzz without celebrities as they knew they didn’t have to. By releasing the shoe to top-tier retailers first and making sure they were exclusive through scarcity - to go along with "the shoe that followed the Ultra Boost" message - they knew influencers on social media and sneaker communities like r/Sneakers would show off their hard-to-come-by shoes, driving further demand."
adidas, like many brands, develops relationships with top influencers in these communities and gives them exclusive access to the shoes before anyone else. The brand no longer relies on retailers’ shop windows to showcase their product, using them exclusively for distribution and logistics.
According to Audunsson, the showcase is on Instagram where the sneaker influencers are repping the hard-to-acquire gear which in turn drives demand from their follower base. Instagram influencers in the 1,000 to 10,0000 followers range have much higher levels of engagement than traditional celebrity accounts – by almost 3.5% – meaning social media campaigns often generate increased exposure compared to traditional celebrity endorsements, he adds.
Rarity is key. Just scroll down the adidas store page and almost all NMD colorways are sold out – an instant reminder that you are being too lazy and are too late. The "innovators" tend to be the ones who the brands approach and the next tier is the "early adopters"; the true sneakerheads who line up outside the store on the first day of release. The "early mainstream" group cotton on to the hyped models a little later, buying the sneakers at a reselling cost.
This is the point where models can become halo models, teetering or falling over the tipping point into the mainstream, says Enrico Moratti Polegato, CEO and president of Diadora.
Two of the company's exclusive, hyped models, the N9000 and V7000 from its 1990 running catalogue, were re-intepreted through a series of high-profile collaborations, working with some of the world's top sneaker stores they created the Diadora x Raekwon x Packer and Diadora x Patta and the Ronnie Fieg and Kith collab for the RFV7000 – to name but a few.
"Today there is a market of collectors that sell these limited edition shoes at a price that is much higher than the original one," says Polegato. "The buzz and hype generated from these activities have made these styles two brand icons, that have become appealing for the mainstream market and now they are part of the best sellers of our seasonal collections."
One brand that knows about hype and nostalgia is BOY London. The London company started in 1976 and can be seen as perhaps the first word-of-mouth fashion phenomenon. The first BOY store was opened in 1976 on the Kings Road by Stephane Raynor, who had been selling clothes to Malcolm McLaren at his shop "Let I Rock."
Every day of trading, the streets outside the shop would be packed with its elaborately dressed and styled clientele, while inside Billy Idol worked the till and Phillip Salon made the tea. BOY went from being on the underground forefront of punk and the dawning New Romantic scene to being worn by Warhol and Madonna.
"With the state of fashion today and at the pace everything is going, the cycle of fashion has become so volatile," says Jeromy Lim, brand manager at BOY London. "Designers are leaving major fashion houses and consumers are a bit confused at the state of what’s going on in our industry," he said.
"Brand loyalty will always exist, but with the mass exodus of designers that people are loyal to, consumers are turning to trends instead. If you couple that with the instant accessibility of the internet in terms of who's wearing what, then there will be a tipping point and it becomes a bit of a craze."
The tipping point, as described by Gladwell, is the point of critical mass, the boiling point, the threshold – where the unexpected becomes the expected. When, say, did Nike's hugely popular Roshe One tip over the edge? The shoe itself had a simple futuristic aesthetic that tapped into the mindset of young people in places like Berlin who liked the comfort and style of a sneaker but didn't want to look like they were being too flashy.
The name was chosen by designer Dylan Raasch because it was similar to the term for a Zen master: Rōshi. Reading between the lines, they wanted something that sounded Japanese, as if it was a special edition that had filtered back to Europe. You could say Superdry used a similar tactic.
But it can be argued that endless colorways and technology have removed the sheen. Flywire, Jacquard, Hyper Breathe, Flyknit, iD, LD-1000,... if it's in Nike's back catalogue, it's been applied to the Roshe silhouette. With great sales success comes a move away from the product by the early adopters.
For the Roshe, this is the tipping point: where the exposure is too much and the hype is going down. Here comes the "late mainstream," people who bought the sneakers at a reselling cost at a more cut-down price. Also, fakes are kicking in here. Finally come the "laggards": the more general public buying into the second tier colorways.
Julia Munder is the international marketing manager of Maxwell Scott Bags, and recently carried out research into the older sneaker generation (aged 25-40). "I'd say the point of being a fashionista is being on top or rather ahead of the fashion game. These influencer-girls dictate the trends for a mainstream audience. As soon as it's mainstream, it's uncool for them to wear - it simply defeats the point of being a fashionista. They move on to the next future trend and so does their audience after a short while."
Munder says that, for hype to happen in the first place, the product has to be good and the story behind it has to be strong and marketable. "When the hype fades, the best thing to do is develop new campaigns, products and focal points," she adds.
The NIKEiD program is the perfect example of how Nike is reboosting the chart. It lets users recreate hyped-up models like the Sock Dart into their own bespoke colorways. Special colorways and components that are only available through the iD program have the power to reignite a product.
adidas has carefully updated its current models, the Yeezy 350 line for example, by tweaking the shape slightly. This way consumers feel like it's a new product and buy into the hype again. When so much hype surrounds one product already, a little can go a long way. But while brands are always on the lookout for ways to rebrand existing products, which save costs on one hand, it can also damage innovation.
Orsola de Castro is founder and director of Fashion Revolution, a global movement in 90 countries that aims to raise standards in fashion and make it more sustainable. De Castro argues that, in some ways, over the last 20 years globalization and the internet have highjacked subcultures, meaning we are increasingly told what to where. "Yes, we are sold trends that are as manufactured as the recent boy bands," she says.
"Trends are now dictated by the industry and are no longer a spontaneous fashion moment spawned by students, protesters, clubbers and artists. This has decreased their power and increased their use for commercial purposes only."
Polegato says no sneakers are safe from the tipping point into obscurity, but that may not be the last we see of them. "I believe all products are part of a cycle that finally makes them die off in popularity, so I assume even these two models in the future will be substituted with new ones more in line with the future trends."
"But I also believe that, the stronger the story and the quality behind the products, the more they last in the market. Or, like the N9000 and the V7000, they can disappear and then come back after some years. Sometimes they become unforgettable."
On the topic of NMDs, the adidas x Pharrell NMD "Human Race" is finally dropping this weekend.