‘Ugly’ shoes are cool. Lockdown only partly explains it

A decade or so ago, Crocs were a punchline.

The domed-shaped foam clogs became a kind of stereotypical fashion no-no, a shoe W Magazine noted is usually reserved for “gardeners, nurses, Mario Batali, and families vacationing at Disney World”.

Time Magazine named them on a list of the 50 worst inventions. A Facebook group from 2009 called I Don’t Care How Comfortable Crocs Are, You Look Like A Dumbass has more than 1 million followers.

But the fortunes of Crocs have reversed.

Now, the brand famous for being ugly is signing up celebrities like Justin Bieber and Post Malone to collaboration deals and you’ll find them on the feet of many influential Australian fashion identities.

The pandemic has helped — who needs fancy shoes when you never leave home?

But it’s more than that.

The story of not just Crocs but Tevas, Birkenstocks, UGGs and other types of once-unfashionable shoes is really about the cyclical, subversive nature of fashion.

The evolution of ‘ugly’ shoes

When they were first imported from Germany to the US in the 1960s, Birkenstocks were oddities.

They made their transition to trendy over the decades, first among Californian counter-culture types and later at 2013 Paris Fashion Week, when Celine creative director Phoebe Philo put them on her models.

Pretty soon, they were common in the offices of Vogue.

A collection of colourful shoes on a store shelf next to a sign saying "Birkenstock"
Birkenstocks became a must-have summer sandal in the past few years.(Reuters: Ina Fassbender)

This reclamation of “ugliness” has helped many brands.

You can see it in the recently cool-again Tevas — “some of the ugliest sandals known to mankind” but also one of the “hottest products” of last year.

And it’s behind the normcore trend, which celebrates basic, poorly fitting denim and the kind of gratuitously white sneakers Jerry Seinfeld wore in the 90s.

Nicole Adolphe, head of style at The Iconic, says these kinds of brands have transitioned from “something you’d associate with your dad or for around the house to a footwear choice of style-driven consumers”.

“Core to this style evolution has been the rise of the ugly-is-cool trend,” she said, which encompasses “oversized sneakers, mom-fit denim [and] flat forms, as consumers rebel against traditional fashion constructs.”

Our insatiable appetite for different, new and interesting — a frame of mind accelerated by the internet — means that what was even recently considered weird can quickly become embraced, says Icaro Ibanez-Arricivita, a fashion lecturer and researcher at Queensland University of Technology.

Two pairs of feet wearing matching colourful sandals
Teva sandals were named by fashion insights firm Lyst as one of 2019’s “hottest products”.(Instagram: Tevas)

Part of the appeal is ironic — liking something that’s unlikeable seems subversive and cool — and part of it is generational.

“It is something that older people don’t get,” Mr Ibanez-Arricivita says.

This is partly a clever marketing trick

Crocs’ president Michelle Poole told The New York Times recently the company collaborated with Post Malone because his brand was also “marmite”, a reference to the British condiment people tend to hate or passionately defend.

In this way, it has revelled in and profited from its outsider status.

Last week, when Bieber — another controversial pop star — teased news about his collaboration with Crocs on social media, the company’s share price rose 12 per cent.


Mr Ibanez-Arricivita links this back to Karl Lagerfeld’s idea at Chanel in 2002 to collaborate with main-street chain H&M.

“It is the tension between the comfortable and fashionable, the uncool and cool … that fine line, messaged the right way, can mean cultural influence [and] that equals lots of money.”

This happened with UGGs, too.

A model stands on a runway in a dress and UGG boots as attendees watch on and photograph her
UGGs on the runway in Berlin in 2009.(Reuters: Tobias Schwarz)

While it has always had a comfortably daggy image in Australia, and been popular among surfers in the US, it was reimagined in the 2000s after being bought by US company Deckers.

As Deckers claimed in a lawsuit against another shoemaker, it “repositioned the brand as a luxury line of sheepskin products”. It did so thanks in part to celebrity endorsements from Leonardo DiCaprio and Sex And The City’s Sarah Jessica Parker.

For Birkenstocks, the Celine show in 2013 led to celebrities like Miley Cyrus embracing the brand, helping to redefine that shoe’s image (though a company executive said in 2015 they were “not calculating what the next fashion trend is”).

There is an element of lockdown comfort here

Ms Adolphe said Australians had shifted their purchases this year to account for more time spent at home.

“We’ve seen them gravitate towards comfort-driven footwear from brands such as Birkenstocks, UGGS and the like,” she said.

But while lockdown plays a part, this pivot is mostly just fashion doing what fashion does.


Jessie Webb, 27, from Melbourne, is one of those Millennials who went for Crocs in 2020.

“I kind of like that they were ill-favoured in the past, so as much as I wear them for comfort and practicality, I also think they are worn as a bit of a statement.”

Mr Ibanez-Arricivita says that beauty and ugliness are perceived; they are not innate qualities of an object.

“Something that is not cool will eventually be cool. It is just about when and how.”