In the last 20 years, the United States has experienced two rough recessions.
We’ve all heard the hemline theory: Bullish times raise hems; bear markets drop them. A similar phenomenon seems to happen in hair fashion. Hair goes up in down markets. At least it did for two hair-related inventions.
Topsy Tail arrived at the outset of the economic downturn in the early 1990s and Bumpits during the so-called Great Recession in 2008. Both products were wildly successful, grossing more than $100 million.
Topsy Tail was the hairspiration of Tomima Edmark, who came up with the idea after being laid off from her marketing job at IBM.
Edmark’s eureka moment struck at a movie theater when she spotted the woman in front of her wearing her hair in a French twist.
Edmark realized she could use crocheting needles to turn a ponytail inside out and make numerous hairstyles.
Trial, error and few prototypes later, in 1989 Edmark created Topsy Tail – a thin piece of plastic shaped like a mini-tennis racket that allowed users to easily turn the common pony tail into a variety of enviable hairdos.
Topsy Tail entered the market in Dallas boutiques. Edmark hired my firm, Accessory Brainstorms, which got the product into department stores.
Edmark also signed a deal giving an infomercial company exclusive rights to sell Topsy Tail, with the exception of department stores, further boosting sales.
The Topsy Tail brand was sold to Scunci in 2002. After an initial attempt to repackage the product into a kit, Topsy Tail remained a sleeping asset. Now Conair (which bought Scunci) has it available to consumers, after having been off the market for decades.
While Topsy Tail was a hit, Edmark’s follow-up products didn’t fare as well. After a slump, however, Edmark is back. She founded HerRoom.com, one of the largest online retailers for lingerie. The takeaway: It’s better to build a sustainable business around a line of products, rather than a one-hit wonder.
The year was 2008. Like Edmark, Kelly Fitzpatrick hit rough economic times when her real estate business slowed.
A former hairdresser, she was inspired to wade into the inventing waters after watching an episode of The Big Idea with Donnie Deutsch, a television show that frequently featured inventors.
Pain from an old hand injury forced her to close her hair business, but Fitzpatrick remembered how clients wanted the volume she produced for them with combs and hairspray, but were unable to replicate at home.
She created Bumpits, a lightweight plastic half-moon insert that sits on top of your head and lifts hair to give the illusion of volume.
Fitzpatrick made more than 50 prototypes before finding a company called Jet Mold to help her design a lightweight gripping hair insert.
Then she and her 20-year-old daughter trekked to hair shows with a homemade instructional video to demonstrate Bumpits.
She discovered it would sell better to consumers than salons. She created a cheap ad using her daughter as a model, bought TV air time and the commercial was picked up by MTV. Orders poured in. A fad was born.
Bumpits also may have fortuitously benefited from Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, the 4-foot-9-inch, cocktail-swilling icon of MTV’s Jersey Shore, which debuted in 2009.
Snooki didn’t use Bumpits. But her signature poof may have added to the popularity of the retro hairdo popularized by Jackie Kennedy-Onassis in the 60s. Back then, the style was known as a bouffant.
When sales took off, Fitzpatrick licensed Bumpits to an As-Seen-On-TV company – the same one that did the famous Snuggie infomercial. At the retail level, beauty/hair accessory specialists Ulta, Sally’s and Claire’s, as well as drugstores Walgreens and CVS picked up the product and are still selling it.
Toward the end of Bumpits’ reign, around 2010, the product was the brunt of negative spoofs on late-night TV and the Internet. But as they, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Fitzpatrick laughed at the spoofs all the way to the bank.
Fitzpatrick introduced a second Bumpits product, but it hasn’t sold as well as the original.
Bumpits still sells about 20,000 units a month, down from 1 million units a month during its first year on the market. Fitzpatrick knew a decline was inevitable. But she now enjoys a life more financially comfortable than she could have imagined before Bumpits.
Edmark and Fitzpatrick are living proof that inventors can find light at the end of recessionary tunnels.
And they have similar advice for other aspiring inventors – never give up on your dreams and never accept “no” for an answer.
Who knows, “yes” might be right around the corner.
Joan Lefkowitz, an original marketer of TopsyTail ™, is president of ACCESSORY BRAINSTORMS, NYC, a licensing agency, sales representative and consultancy for Fashion/Beauty Accessory and Lifestyle Inventions. Accessory Brainstorms is always looking for inventions in these categories, and offers one-on-one consulting. ACCESSORIES Magazine awarded Joan for “Most Inventive Products” and cited her as one of the 100 most important accessories industry “Movers and Shakers”. Contact at www.accessorybrainstorms.com.