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The story behind Malcolm Gladwell’s favorite coolhunter

Editor’s Note: New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell featured DeeDee Gordon as a fashion-trend “coolhunter” in his 1997 article, “The Coolhunt.” The name stuck. At the time, she was working for Converse, spotting trends for the company.

Gordon is now a leading international trends expert and the president of innovation at Sterling Brands, where she advises many of America’s largest corporations on brand building and new product development.

Paul Solman caught up with Gordon to talk about how trends are affecting today’s marketplace. The text of the following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. Tune in tonight to learn more about the coolest trends and how businesses are capitalizing on them.

Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

Paul Solman: What is coolhunting?

DeeDee Gordon: People started talking about coolhunting back in the late 90s. There’s a group of people who would go out and scour the streets looking for the next big thing. They would take that information and report back to large companies that were trying to design products for youth culture.

Paul Solman: How did you get involved with Converse?

DeeDee Gordon: I was running a store on Newbury Street in Boston —

Paul Solman: That’s the fancy shopping street.

DeeDee Gordon: Yes, but I wasn’t running a fancy store. This was a store that revolved around surf culture and street culture. It was very youth culture oriented.

Paul Solman: Was this a clothing store?

DeeDee Gordon: Clothing, surfboards, skateboards, snowboards, music, anything that young people were into at that time. I was in my mid-20s, so I could say that I was part of the culture too. And companies would come into my store and ask my opinion on all kinds of things. What do you think of this sneaker or what do you think of the color of this shoe? What do you think of this ad campaign?

Paul Solman: Did you think it was a little weird?

DeeDee Gordon: Sure. And I realized that they were making really big business decisions out of my opinion—one person’s opinion. And it just didn’t feel right to me. I realized that there was an opportunity for me to not only gather my own opinion, but the opinions of my friends and my friends’ friends and other such like-minded people. So I created a report that actually gathered all of this information about what people were doing, what they thought was cool and what was happening in their area of the world. I started publishing it through an agency in San Diego.

Converse is one of the companies that would come in and ask to look at things. I started developing a relationship with one of the women that worked there, who was also in “The Coolhunt” article. I started doing consulting work for them, and I would report on trends and things that were happening in culture. I would look for patterns and products.

Paul Solman: What’s an example?

DeeDee Gordon: Well, it could be a new color. It could be taking a shoe, a basic tennis shoe, and turning it into a sandal. Out here in Los Angeles, there were Latino kids who were wearing Adidas slides with socks. They were like sport sandals. And so we — the Converse team — created a shoe that was inspired by that. And that was the one that Gladwell wrote about. It was a very popular shoe. And it was that shoe and the One Star that kind of defined a generation. It was the shoe of the 90s.

Paul Solman: Do you know to this day why?

DeeDee Gordon: People could just identify with it. And I also think that Latino and Hispanic culture was really starting to take hold in the U.S., and young people were really excited by it and interested in it.

Paul Solman: How do you know whether or not something will be cool today?

DeeDee Gordon: So I don’t cool hunt. I haven’t cool hunted in a long time. I now run a business, and we do new product development for clients. We look for opportunity and for white space. That is, we look for a very obvious space that isn’t being filled by a brand. So we can study a whole group of people, and later on we look for a type of product or category to fill that space. There’s an opening here for us to create something.

When I do my trend research today, I’m really looking at more macro trends. I’m looking for larger scale movements that aren’t going to go away quickly. One of the trends I think is really important now is “gender untethered.” Specifically, we look at gender fluidity and how that’s going to impact the future, impact brands. Another trend is “agri-culture” where people want to know where their food is coming from or where the materials from their clothing is coming from.

“Frugeois” is another one. It’s our commentary on frugal living. Millennials are extremely conscious of what they’re spending. They are looking for deals. They are looking for things that are going to last a long time. They are looking for things that they can reuse. They are responsible. They are green. So they want things that are cheap and that are designed to function, that last and look really good.

Paul Solman: So what is your definition of cool?

DeeDee Gordon: My definition of cool… it’s something that’s popular. It’s something that makes you feel good. It’s gratifying. It feeds into the brand of me. That is, it supports my self-identity. In this day and age, people spend a lot of time defining and branding themselves. How do people view me?

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