Metropolitan Life: ... and they called it hush puppy love

From naff to chic - how today's top designers have transformed your dad's lowly pigskin lace-ups. Allan Armadale reports
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Hush Puppies: let's unpack their semiotic content. Pipe-smoker Dad padding up to the attic to play with his double-0 gauge Flying Scotsman. Postgraduates called Gavin boring you about Jesus and Real Ale. Kenneth Clarke, brothel-creeping the corridors of power in a cloud of cheroot- smoke. These are the sort of images Hush Puppies conjure up.

The creation of the Wolverine tanning company in Michigan, the shoes were named after a deep-fried cornmeal biscuit used to pacify bad-tempered dogs. Until recently, they were only available in one colour, turd brown, and every pair was haunted by a phantom cardigan and copy of Aircraft Modeller.

After New York designer John Bartlett introduced a litter of kitsch candy- coloured Pups to his 1995 spring collection, however, American suppliers found that demand was outstripping supply. These icons of comfortable dullness were suddenly reincarnated as objects of celebrity desire. In Los Angeles, a Hush Puppy boutique with the incongruous name of Pleasure Swell opened its doors to eager customers such as Sharon Stone, Lenny Kravitz and David Duchovny. Designers Gene Meyer and Anna Sui offered paeans to Hush Puppy versatility, pairing them on the catwalk with smart suits and chinos. In recognition of its spectacular success, the shoe was declared the US fashion industry's Accessory of the Year.

It was only a matter of time before British retro went the whole hog and rehabilitated the crepe-soled pigskin shoe. Dignified by irony, the Hush Puppy is now the preferred footwear of the metropolitan easy-listener, perfect for a night at Madame Jojo's, soft-shoe shuffling to Perry Como. If you want to settle down on the butterscotch Dralon sofa with a Babycham, the Hush Puppy is just the thing to kick off before the evening's first game of Ker-Plunk.

Kate Purdy, 25, lifelong Hush Puppy-wearer and bar-school student, is sceptical about the trendification of her sensible shoes. "Are you sure they're fashionable? I bought them on the Isle of Wight." Moreover, she has evidence that their aura of comfy naffness has not been policed out of existence. "A friend of my sister had to dress up as a Hush Puppy at the Newport Children's Carnival." It's a publicity stunt that probably won't be repeated now the new range is selling under the Paul Smith banner.

David Rist, managing director of Hush Puppies, is quietly proud of the shoe's new status, and has something of his product's easy informality. "We were the original casual shoes in the pre-Nike world - before that, you had to make do with uncomfortable brogues." But Rist claims that he hasn't been frustrated by the Hush Puppy's association with the geriatric consumer. "People say to me, `you must be sick of old people wearing your shoes', and I say, `no, they're very important and satisfied customers.' But I'm pleased that David Bowie and Sharon Stone are wearing them - as well as millions of others."

Rist is a laid-back prophet of what he calls "the casualisation of the market place". "The days of the shiny black shoe are numbered," he croons, and I'm suddenly worried that the telephone line might be conveying subliminal messages telling me to go out and buy a beige polyester safari suit. "I'm sitting here in my open-necked shirt and hot-pepper Hush Puppies - I'm telling you, Allan, you want hot pepper, it's the colour of the Nineties. Liam Gallagher bought some the other week from our Stockport branch."

They're soft, they come in cheerful colours, they're the shoe equivalent of alcopops. Stockport? I'm convinced. I want hot pepper.