Name a more divisive piece of clothing than an Ugg boot. We'll wait.
A shoe that now feels more like a trigger warning than the house slippers we once wore, it's hard to believe the Californian label wasn't always as controversial as it is today. But what started out as a beachwear staple for men that grew into a cold weather must-have for women now acts as a divider in the fashion realm: It separates the business casual from the Casual Friday, the fall from winter, and — dare we say it — the "basics" from, well, the rest of us.
To understand the history of the Ugg boot — and the world's fascination with it — it's important to go back to the beginning. Little is known as to why founder Brian Smith felt sheepskin was the go-to textile for wet feet and sand, but alas, the shoe for surfers was born. Soon, the boots pierced through ski culture, and eventually, the streets. In no time, they'd receive a blessing from Oprah — the talk show host named it one of her favorite things — appear in Vogue, and become the go-to for early-2000s style icons, like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Since then, everyone from Pharrell and Sarah Jessica Parker to Kendall and Kylie Jenner, to supermodels, have all been seen in them.
But as brands evolve from their status of early-aughts staples to current, millennial-obsessed closet mainstays, Ugg wants to cash in on the reputation its spent the past 40 years building via a pretty intense revamp, thanks to Decker's new president of fashion lifestyle brands Andrea O'Donnell. She enters the West Coast fashion house from a life of working for department stores nationwide and abroad. Upon her arrival, O'Donnell tasked herself with reintroducing the legacy that attracted her to Ugg in the first place; she's working to change the lens through which the world views the Ugg lifestyle — not just the Ugg boot.
The move to reshape — and therefore elevate — its four decade long reputation is a bold one, especially in a time when online shopping has seemingly replaced shopping malls, and ads are becoming one of the only way for brands — and the publications that feature them — to turn their expertise into profit. “If you look at the prevailing brand communications for most footwear brands, it tends to be featured in benefits, with [just] a picture of the shoe," O'Donnell tells Refinery29. "We wanted to move away from that and actually be more engaging, and interesting." To expand the conversation beyond its products and the narratives that feature them, Ugg has relied on casting high-profile musicians, actors, and sports stars, along with a slew of high-fashion collaborations, to reposition its place in the accessories market.
An offset of this narrative comes in the form of a "Collective," essentially its gang of West Coast art, music, and fashion savants who front said campaigns. Its debut featured the likes of artist Tasya Van Ree, model Colleen Heidemann, surfer Hanalei Reponty-Gudauskas, and more, with its sophomore follow-up featuring musicians Wyatt and Fletchers Shears, Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan, and Sonic Youth cofounder Kim Gordon, throw in a few Cali-based models. Not for nothing, the ads gain footing in this arena, featuring Ugg boots in a way we've never really seen before.
In the past two years, Ugg has also brought in Jeremy Scott and Phillip Lim to design capsule collections. “They needed to have worn and loved the brand for a long period of time, because we wanted to be able to tell authentic stories. This actually limits the number of collaborations we can do,” she says. O’Donnell believes Scott and Lim to have brought both flamboyance and edge to the brand, respectively. Scott’s visions, by the way, led to the remodeling of the Classic boot, replete with Swarovski crystal-embroidered flames. “We wanted fashion designers, not footwear designers. We wanted to connect with creative designers as opposed to leading from a celebrity perspective with the collaborations.”
That was another risk they were willing to take. And though marketing opposite aesthetics at the same time feels particularly confusing as Ugg is hard at work in their attempt to reestablish its Californian identity, O'Donnell insists it's all part of a bigger picture. In one image, we see Scott and co-stars Lil Yachty and Golden Barbie atop a couple of vintage Impalas in the desert. Think: full camp, and ultra-glam, with a touch of arrogance. Lim, on the other hand, didn’t even bother with a fleshed out campaign; he relied on a line-up of diverse models and the calmness of a light, airy studio to showcase his zipper boots for men. They're different, sure. But it also helps create a more diverse portfolio, something Ugg hasn't necessarily pioneered in the past.
“There’s a real trend towards fairly flamboyant-looking, fluffy shoes, and you can look at the Prada catwalks to find those," O'Donnell says, noting that Ugg is looking to make even more one-off creations replete with its signature sheepskin lining. In defense of oddball footwear, by the way, don't knock them until you try them. "We’re very much about leveraging our heritage and craftsmanship, along with our material expertise, to really do something truly unique."
In terms of uniqueness, the fact that the company's managed to secure publicity moments on the feet of some of today's most followed (and most imitated) influencers and editors is a feat in and of itself. How much of that is sponsored versus organic content is undisclosed, but according to a financial report by its parent company from October 26, Ugg's net sales for the second quarter declined to $400.4 million, a 2.9% fall from $412.2 million for the same period last year. But that doesn't necessarily mean its revamp isn't working. According to O'Donnell, a multi-million dollar sock business allows the label creative flexibility.
Despite just how experimental the future looks for Ugg, it's not going to be easy to get past the fact that — at least our generation — still finds them less than natural to pair with just any look. But when asked about the ugly factor, O'Donnell maintains the best, and maybe only, outlook around. It's with a bipartisan attitude that she takes Ugg a step forward.
"I have a phrase here, which is basically: I don’t mind ugly-cool, I do mind ugly-ugly," she explains. "I think there are a lot of iconic shoes out there that are a bit strange and unusual, but there’s something quite appealing to that imperfection and strangeness." It's worth noting that O'Donnell's first Ugg sighting was on Pamela Anderson, who she spotted putting gas in her car wearing a pair of Ugg boots with white shorts. "I thought, That is me."
"Ugg is one of those icons that's kind of ugly-cool, and I think that is a very special thing. I don’t mind [the hate] at all. It’s absurd — I’ve been wearing the brand for many, many, many years because of that. It stands out and is very special. There’s not much like it in the world."
In other words: It doesn't really matter what we think because, well, there's always going to be something ug(g)lier.