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It looks like Ugg love

The sheepskin boot has taken the world by storm. An Aussie surfer started the craze, then Oprah gave it a big kick-start.

December 20, 2009|By Julie Neigher
  • FRESH LOOK: Ugg's Bailey Button boot.
FRESH LOOK: Ugg's Bailey Button boot. (Ugg )

Sheepskin footwear is (a) gorgeous,( b) hideous, (c) comfortable, (d) clunky or (e) a national uniform.

At the very least, you should have selected "e," but the answer probably doesn't matter. The fur-lined boots everyone seems to be wearing -- even in July -- are a fashion phenomenon that shows no signs of abating.

The king of the hill -- Ugg Australia -- hit the U.S. market like a sledgehammer and sales started to soar around the turn of the millennium, defying all odds for what should have been just another fad. Instead, in the third quarter of 2009, the company sold more than $212 million in products. Surely, the word "Ugg" will be printed on many a gift box this holiday season.

So, if you're wondering how one product maneuvered its way onto the conveyor belt of mass culture, we provide a few answers below.

In the beginning

It's thought that Australians were wearing some sort of sheepskin-lined footwear for decades (and that the term "ugg" evolved from "ugly boots"), but if you're looking for someone to blame -- or thank -- for the U.S. invasion, consider Australian surfer Brian Smith, who started the Ugg Australia footwear company in 1978. Seeking to increase sales of his fur-lined boots, Smith came to the U.S. with about two dozen pairs of the footwear, selling them to California surfers and, eventually, to the Hollywood set.

The sheepskin is twin-faced, meaning that the wool is still attached to the suede during the construction and dying process. That makes the fur very porous. So, if you've always wanted to know why Angelenos wear sheepskin footwear with shorts in the summer, it's because the material is naturally thermostatic. The boots will keep feet cool in 80-degree weather and warm when it's 10 below. Breath-ability is key.

In 1995, Smith sold his company to the Goleta-based Deckers Outdoor Corp., which decided to expand from its basic "heritage" line to include a handful of new styles; a few years later, the company opted to reposition Ugg Australia as a luxury brand.

In the late 1990s, Deckers switched the primary focus of the footwear company to the international market. What started as a small enterprise to clad the feet of Australian surfers now seems intent on world domination. Or, at least, boot domination.

Touched by Oprah

Looking back, it seems apparent that, as with most enterprises, there was a tipping point at which operations moved into warp drive. For Ugg Australia, that might have been in 2000, when Oprah Winfrey got a pair of Ultra boots. She liked them so much that she ordered 350 pairs for herself and her staff.

Then, in 2003, when the pink and blue Classic Shorts were featured on her "Favorite Things" holiday show, pandemonium ensued. (In 2007, that list included the company's Classic Crochet Tall Boot.) Boots appeared on auction sites, selling for triple their retail value. Footwear News dubbed the label "Brand of the Year." And Ugg managed to ensure that various starlets, who love to comb through the swag suites at film festivals and award shows, were photographed wearing their product.

Debbie King, Bloomingdales' vice president for women's shoes, admires the brand's longevity and appeal to a broad audience. The company is always on the move, she says, updating styles and colors to keep the footwear fashion forward.

"They just keep offering newness and fresh ideas . . . like the Bailey Button [a style with a button on the side]. In the fall season, Ugg is the No. 1 brand we sell."

Last December, the Washington Post reported that Ugg boots had "yet to go out of style" -- even during the recession.

"Several styles of the boots . . . were sold out on Nordstrom's website . . . and were not expected to ship for at least a month," the Post reported. "Nordstrom limits sales of Ugg products to four per customer at the request of the manufacturer, which was worried about shoppers reselling them online. . . . Indeed, many products that are supposedly sold out wind up on the Internet -- often with a higher price."

Ugg Australia has become involved with big-name charity events as well. On Dec. 15, Fred Segal Feet, Ugg and Studio One Collaboration held a benefit for the Surfrider Foundation's West Los Angeles / Malibu Chapter. At the event, Ugg Australia boots were silk-screened live by FreshPressed, featuring unique artwork from Shepard Fairey (20% of all proceeds from the event went to the charity).

Of course, popularity begets criticism. Two years ago, Zoe Lem, a British celebrity stylist who has done work for magazines such as Elle and Marie Claire and who blogs at MyFashionLife.com, was asked, "What do you think is the absolute worst trend at the moment?"

"Most definitely Ugg boots!" she declared. "They are the ugliest things I've ever seen, along with Crocs! Ugg boots have become so popular through celebs . . . wearing them, but they make the ankles look fat and are just so hideous I don't get them at all."

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