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A deep dive into Ugg, Australia’s most influential streetwear export

IMAGES VIA MOLLY GODDARD X UGGS

WORDS BY ELIZA SHOLLY

How a simple sheepskin boot has influenced the fashion landscape.

To preface this deep dive, and provide a tidbit by way of introduction, may I begin by saying I am not Ugg boot averse. I j’adore them.

My first pair was purchased in 2007, following a tear-filled-argument with my mum about being the only outcast at camp without sheep-skin slippers. My best friend Bella had an older sister and a decadent Ugg collection to match.

Navy blue, pastel pink and the coveted chestnut brown. I had an older sister who was – to my dismay – decidedly unmaterialistic. While my priorities leant towards getting the high score on Simpsons Road Rage and owning a pair of prestige Australian footwear, she was equally happy with polyester knock-offs from Spend Less Shoes. No prizes for guessing who has gone on to become the better human being.

As the reader of a culturally relevant publication (hello!), I needn’t remind you that twenty-first-century consumption has changed the way the world reacts to trends. For those who are under the age of 26, it might be hard to believe that there was once a time when Australia lagged behind the rest of the world by way of cultural relevancy.

But the early 2000s was a time when our only claim to fame was that Paris Hilton once decided to sleep with one of our Idol alumni. The Americas and UKs of the world positioned themselves as the gatekeepers when it came to what was and was not, ‘in’.

As much as it pains me to go all Carrie Bradshaw right now, I can’t help but wonder whether we had it all wrong. Did early Australian Ugg boot wearers forecast our country’s biggest trend? Were Uggs perhaps before their time? And could they possibly be our country’s most highly-rated streetwear brand?

The Australian Ugg hits the mainstream

Cast your mind back to the 1970s. Smoking was still allowed in hospitals, and Australian life was reminiscent of a Vaseline-clad episode of Puberty Blues. Byron Bay surfers would slip into sheepskin boots once they were beachside, warming up their tootsies before a night in the panel van.

One of them, Shane Stedman, trademarked the name Ugg and sold it to Australian entrepreneur Brian Smith. Smith took some stock with him and hopped off the plane at LAX to sell the boots to ocean-bound Californians.

Once Pamela Anderson was spotted in a pair on the set of Baywatch, a metaphorical match was lit. It seemed our cross-continental friends couldn’t get enough of our footwear export.

In August 1995, Smith sold Ugg Holdings to Deckers Outdoor Corporation for $14.6 million. Although the owners had changed, Ugg still retained a link to the Australian identity and proceeded to market itself as such.

By 2003, the company saw yearly sales of nearly $40 million. Hysteria reached fever pitch when Uggs were mentioned as one of ‘Oprah’s Favourite Things’ – akin to winning a Grammy in the world of product.

As different variations and styles began to hit the market, Ugg hit genericisation. In layman (and non-advertising) terms, this means a trademark or brand name that, because of its popularity or significance, has become the generic term for a general class of product or service.

Panadol, Band-Aid, Google, Kleenex – these are all examples of products that have become common nouns in the English vernacular. Put simply, Ugg had done what companies dream of doing. How would they continue the momentum?

Reaching cult status

As the 2010s approached, Ugg boot hysteria began to dissipate Down Under. Perhaps they fell victim to Australia’s curse of tall poppy syndrome, or perhaps our consistent warm weather just emphasised an impracticality.

But in other parts of the world, things were only just beginning. Conjure up a memory of 2000s fashion and you’re sure to see an Ugg boot. Beyonce, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears made velour tracksuits and Uggs the it-girl uniform.

 

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And who could forget the iconic product placement/paparazzi shots of Kendall and Kylie shopping for a new pair at the flagship store in NYC? For a shoe that built itself on being easy and inconspicuous, owning a pair was shaping up to be pretty conspicuous.

Uggs collaborate

It would be easy to reject Ugg boots as just another once-trendy fashion faux pas – a frivolous moment in time that served a purpose. But if you examine the brand with the critical lens it deserves, and view it as a legitimate Australian export, you begin to discover the hold a simple boot has had on the wider fashion landscape for decades.

 

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Since its entry into foreign markets, the boot’s popularity has never dissipated. It has simply gone dormant in the public consciousness, only to regroup in the world of high fashion.

In 2017, the brand announced a collaboration with designer Jeremy Scott. True to form, he emblazoned the boot with his signature finesse, which included a large flame design and embroidery reading ‘UGG LIFE’. Soon after, Y/Project and Sacai incorporated manipulated versions of the Ugg in 2018 fashion shows.

When it comes to contemporary trends, streetwear sits at the top of the style pyramid. Balenciaga collections now resemble athletic tracksuits and Nicolas Ghesquière, the godfather of the movement, sits powerfully at the helm of Louis Vuitton.

And where are Uggs? Partnering with some of the most influential early streetwear adopters in the business. Eckhaus Latta, Y/Project, Bape – it seems no one is immune to the lucrative power of an Ugg collab.

Even Rihanna – who we all know operates at the intersection of celebrity and fashion – wore the Y/Project thigh-high pair on stage at Coachella. Soon after, style mogul Bella ‘homeboy’s gonna get it’ Hadid was seen wearing a pair of the Jeremy Scott Uggs in a Christmas picture with her family.

The unlikely intersection of nostalgia

 

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There are a number of different elements at play that have contributed to the renewed fascination with Ugg boots. During political and social instability, our longing for more temperate times can come in many forms. Fashion’s current vanguard longs for simpler clothing trends, much of which is steeped in an appetite for nostalgia.

Grandpa vests, platform shoes, the entire costume execution in Euphoria: young innovators – who would have been Ugg’s primary consumer at its peak – spend ample time looking back at generations past to find new ways to integrate the old. This isn’t unique to this generation, but social media and trend scrutiny have made it more apparent to everyday fashion consumers.

Another plausible concept is that amid a global pandemic, the boot just fits seamlessly into fashion’s obsession with being cosy. Living a sedentary life has removed the need for durable footwear, instead, we’re favouring anything that goes well with a matching tracksuit. Though, I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as an Australian still receives the royalties.

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