From The Tipping Point
by Malcolm Gladwell
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For Hush Puppies – the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole – the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995. The brand had been all but dead until that point. Sales were down to 30,000 pairs a year, mostly in backwoods outlets and small-town family stores. Wolverine, the company that makes Hush Puppies, was thinking of phasing out the shoes that made them famous. But then something strange happened.
At a fashion shoot, two Hush Puppies executives – Owen Baxter and Geoffrey Lewis – ran into a stylist from New York, who told them that the classic Hush Puppies had suddenly become hip in the clubs and bars of downtown Manhattan. ‘We were being told,’ Baxter recalls, ‘that there were resale shops in the Village, in Soho, where the shoes were being sold. People were going to the Ma and Pa stores, the little stores that still carried them, and buying them up.’ Baxter and Lewis were baffled at first. It made no sense to them that shoes that were so obviously out of fashion should make a comeback. ‘We were told that Isaac Mizrahi was wearing the shoes himself,’ Lewis says. ‘I think it’s fair to say that, at the time, we had no idea who Isaac Mizrahi was.’
By the fall of 1995, things began to happen in a rush. First the designer John Bartlett called. He wanted to use Hush Puppies in his spring collection. Then another Manhattan designer, Anna Sui, called, wanting shoes for her show as well. In Los Angeles, the designer Joel Fitzgerald put a twenty-five-foot inflatable basset hound – the symbol of the Hush Puppie brand – on the roof of his Hollywood store and gutted an adjoining art gallery to turn it into a Hush Puppies boutique. While he was still painting and putting up shelves, the actor Pee-Wee Herman walked in and asked for a couple of pairs. ‘It was total word of mouth,’ Fitzgerald remembers.
In 1995, the company sold 430,000 pairs of the classic Hush Puppies, the following year it sold four times that, and the year after that still more, until Hush Puppies were once again a staple of the wardrobe of the young American male. In 1996, Hush Puppies won the prize for the best accessory at the Council of Fashion Designers awards dinner at the Lincoln Center, and the president of the firm stood up on the stage with Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, and accepted an award for an achievement that – as he would be the first to admit – his company had almost nothing to do with. Hush Puppies had suddenly exploded, and it all started with a handful of kids in the East Village and Soho.
How did that happen? Those first few kids, whoever they were, weren’t deliberately trying to promote Hush Puppies. They were wearing them precisely because no one else would wear them. Then the fad spread to two fashion designers who used the shoes to peddle something else – haute couture. The shoes were an incidental touch. 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. How does a thirty-dollar pair of shoes go from a handful of downtown Manhattan hipsters and designers to every mall in America in the space of two years?
The book The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the phenomenon of word of mouth, or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life, is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas, products, messages and behaviours spread just like viruses do.
The rise of Hush Puppies is a textbook example of an epidemic in action. Although this and other examples may sound as if they don’t have very much in common, they share a basic, underlying pattern. First of all, they are clear examples of contagious behaviour. No one took out an advertisement and told people that the traditional Hush Puppies were cool, and that they should start wearing them. Those kids simply wore the shoes when they went to clubs or cafés or walked the streets of downtown New York, and in so doing exposed other people to their fashion sense. They infected them with the Hush Puppies ‘virus’.
The second distinguishing characteristic is that little changes can have big effects. How many kids are we talking about who began wearing the shoes in downtown Manhattan? Twenty? Fifty? One hundred – at the most? Yet their actions seem to have single-handedly started an international fashion trend.
Finally, these changes happen in a hurry. They don’t build steadily and slowly.
These three characteristics – one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, the fact that change happens not gradually but in one dramatic moment – are the same three principles that define how measles move through a school classroom or the ’flu attacks every winter. Of the three, the third – the idea that epidemics can rise or fall in one dramatic moment – is the most important, because it is the principle that makes sense of the first two, and it permits the greatest insight into why modern change happens the way it does. The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic, when when everything can change all at once, is: the Tipping Point.