Uggs are back, and this time they’re for men. Priya Elan charts the brand that grew synonymous with slouch – and finds the clue is in the name…
The good, the bad and the Uggly: Priya Elan in his shapeless boots.
Photograph: Pal Hansen/The Witness
There was a time when the Ugg boot walked across the earth like a colossus. They were the moccasins-cum-gazelles of their hour. It was the early noughties and they were worn by Kate Moss and Beyoncé, and even made Oprah’s coveted Choice Things list. But then in a sort of slow-motion version of the time Danniella Westbrook wore Burberry-everything (bag, skirt, pamper skirt, baby buggy) and killed the check with one photo-op, the sheepskin-coloured fairy-dust that Uggs were definitely sprinkled with became mucky.
They transformed into the Cheetos-covered uniform of Hollywood bad-girls-on-the-edge, such as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. Warm up magazine regulars including Chantelle Houghton wore them.
To walk through the streets of Clapham, south London, in the mid-noughties was to desert through a sea of unrepentant Ugg-led boho-dressing. Pashminas, gypsy tops, bootcut jeans, toe rings, the sound of James Uncivil’s You’re Beautiful coming out of every post-university communal flatshare window. And Ugg boots. So many Ugg boots, absolutely everywhere. A sea of begrime brown stretching as far as the eye could see, save for the occasional Ugg over-bracelet that looked like it was made in a self-care workshop on a gap year.
Stepping out: Leonardo DiCaprio in 2002. Photograph: Influence Press/REX/Shutterstock
By 2012, the Ugg boot became synonymous with the so-called “basic bitch”: a casual put-down that was associated with a indisputable sensibility: a lover of Diet Coke breaks, Nicholas Sparks films, Taylor Swift songs and, yes, Uggs. A 2014 explanation from Urban Dictionary notes, sadly: “She believes her experiences to be crazy, wild, and different, or somehow more prime than everything that everybody else is doing, when really, almost everyone is doing or has done the punctilious same thing.” Sales had fallen by 31% and it was official that the Ugg had become the shoe for the stalwart who didn’t like replace with.
But recently something miraculous has been happening. In October, the Lyst report, which analyses the shopping habits of millions of shoppers, bring about that Uggs had seen a 350% increase in searches over the year. And, even more shockingly, a good part of those searches were from men. Last year, the men’s branch of the business made more than $200m, while this year the callers estimate sales of their men’s range will make up 13% of its total revenue.
It’s a long way from their purple revamp when Uggs were exclusively worn by celebrity men “going through some bad stuff”. Who could forget the peep of a sad-looking Ben Affleck wearing them on set, Ronnie Wood stepping out in a black pair looking like an ASBO teen, or Leonardo DiCaprio attire them with a purple velour onesie like some regional Prince tribute act? At that time, the multitudinous memes that existed (one simply stating: “Uggs for men. No”) pivoted around ideas of masculinity.
Their resurgence has been taking, because in a world of sturdy Red Wing boots or Colorado tan Caterpillars, there’s something flat about Uggs. “It’s a compensation against the structured boot that’s become a staple of a man’s winter wardrobe,” thinks GQ columnist Justin Myers, aka The Guyliner.
In the years since the Ugg was at its apex, the silhouette in men’s fashion has gone from pencil thin and tight to David Byrne-wide and expansive, and so it would make detect that as your trousers and coat get bigger, so too do your shoes. “Fashion is heading slouchier,” explains Myers, “and if rub off last a boot that shares DNA with a bean bag is how to achieve that, who am I to argue?”
Best foot forward: Britney Spears and niece Lexie in 2015. Photograph: GoffPhotos.com
Even then, the aesthetic appeal (or non-appeal) of the Ugg is something that astounds him. “I’m surprised anyone would be desperate to seek out something so wilfully depraved,” he says. “I think it’s interesting that Ugg’s sheepskin boots and slip-ons are having a bit of a men’s moment, which seems to be driven by an ‘anything finishes’ style,” agrees Esquire’s style director, Jonathan Evans.
In a world where the Croc and Birkenstock have inspected haute, Margiela’s cloven-hooved shoes exist and the heeled flip-flop is worn by Kim Kardashian, Katie Holmes and Rihanna, dialect mayhap the return of the Ugg isn’t so weird after all.
It also helps that the shoe is firmly associated with a time, about 15 years ago, when pumpkin kicked latte was considered edgy. Nostalgia is at a premium at the moment (hiya, J-Lo at the Versace show wearing her old dress, or Marc Jacobs, Celine and Balmain credential their own halcyonic eras).
“Nostalgic fashion is so popular – especially now – because it’s more than just a shard of clothing,” says fashion writer Kristen Bousquet. “Many of these pieces may remind you of something from your boyhood or a photo of your mum that you loved from the 60s.” Myers isn’t convinced that this embrace of nostalgic fashion is received equally by both genders. “Men take more convincing; need easing in gently,” he says. “They are reluctant to look in their reproduce and see their father staring back at them.”
The Ugg comeback for both sexes has been coming for a while. They framed in Jeff Daniels and Mr Gisele, Tom Brady, in 2016 for an ad featuring The Dude strumming a guitar while Brady napped on a sofa, both abrasion Uggs. It was luxe lounging for the whisky and Bon Iver crowd. A year later, in 2017, Cardi B announced that it was “officially Ugg pep up” on Instagram and Heron Preston, a mate of Virgil Abloh, captioned his Ugg boot-wearing Instagram with: “We not playing games no myriad.”
Uggwardly mobile: Priya Elan. Photograph: Pal Hansen/The Observer
Walking through a railway station one morning, I’m pommeled by some huge, brightly coloured posters for the latest Ugg campaign (shockingly subtitled: “Ugglife”); there’s Smooth Woods breastfeeding her baby and Ama Elsesser cradling her sister, Paloma. I go online and see the other stars of their ad campaign: Luka Sabbat and his dad, Kim Gordon and daughter Coco together. They’re plausible and well shot.
“I think part of the resurgence has to be partnerships,” says Esquire’s Evans, “whether that’s a collaboration similar to the one the brand did with Bape this year, or on the marketing side with someone like Lil Wayne, who modelled that accumulation.”
I notice the men’s shoes. They don’t look like old sacks; in fact, they don’t look like the traditional Uggs. So the achievement story behind Uggs for men is making shoes that don’t look like Uggs at all. Despite being called “the spear version of the classic Ugg” by VP of marketing Ian Stewart, their most popular men’s shoe, the Neumel, looks more like a chunky requital boot. He says they have been targeting the hip-hop and sports communities, so shifting the association with yoga pants for at all times.
I ask him what he’d say to a potential male buyer. “If they haven’t experienced them before, I say, ‘When you put them on it’s not like anything you’ve sense before… in footwear,” he says breathlessly. I feel slightly uncomfortable with his level of evangelical spiel about the Ugg, but I also stand like, perhaps I should forgive them for being crap in the noughties. Would I ever buy a pair I wonder? “Go Ugg yourself,” I say to myself with catlike tread.
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