How Uggs Evolved From Being Basic to Becoming a High-Fashion Item

The North Face fleece jacket, black leggings and Ugg boots — that was the uncontested college-girl uniform all four years I was in school in Illinois. And it’s for this reason I didn’t want any part of it. Because I knew even then, over a decade ago, that Uggs and their overwhelming mainstream popularity somehow made them uncool — basic, before the put-down was coined.

I wasn’t the only one to look down on the shapeless sheepskin boots that populated the slushy streets of America. For so long, Ugg boots have lived on the fringe of fashion, having been the subject of scrutiny, sartorial controversy and disdain for its sole crime: ugliness.

Now, it appears that the tide is turning. But before we get into Ugg’s uphill climb from basic-ness (slash fashion purgatory) to high-fashion fame, it’s worth looking at how Ugg gained traction in the first place. Brief history lesson here: The sheepskin boots were invented in Australia to keep surfers’ feet warm after a day of catching waves. In 1978, Ugg founder Brian Smith brought the concept to Southern California with only $500 to his name, and by the mid-’80s, the brand had became an embodiment of the SoCal lifestyle.

And then came Oprah. She officially crowned Ugg as one of her favorite things in 2000 and catapulted the brand to unheard-of fame (thus, once again proving that there’s a direct correlation between her endorsement and sales). Ugg got swept up into the cultural zeitgeist, defining the decade, along with its equally divisive tracksuit counterpart Juicy Couture and the many buzzy celebrities associated with the two, like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.

Nicole Richie in Uggs
Nicole Richie (L) and Nicky Hilton (R) shopping in April 2004.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

Ugg boots suddenly were everywhere (on the red carpet, in the paparazzi photos and so on), and the celebrity trickle-down effect led to their ubiquity all across the country. Perhaps it’s for this reason — their prevalence from almost a herd-like mentality — that Ugg was never fully embraced in high fashion, even after striking partnerships with insiders like designer Jeremy Scott or stylist Brad Goreski. It’s an industry that prides itself on exclusivity and a sartorial POV that the average plebs aren’t supposed to “get.” Despite their spectacularly unspectacular silhouette, Ugg boots do boast a few perks, like ease, comfort and warmth (none of which, though, is a priority in fashion).

For nearly two decades, they were written off. So when designer Glenn Martens of streetwear label Y/Project chose to manipulate Uggs to an exaggerated extreme — stretching them to hit the upper thigh and slouching them to a significant degree — for his fall ’18 menswear show in Paris, it nearly broke the Internet. A few days later, designer Chitose Abe of Japanese luxury label Sacai also made the unexpected decision to partner with Ugg, adding a striped knit socklike upper to the boot. Yosuke Aizawa of White Mountaineering, too, put his mark on the boots, transforming them into chunky lace-ups that could weather an activity as demanding as hiking a snowy mountain trail.

thigh-high ugg boots, y project fall 2018
Thigh-high Ugg boots at Y/Project’s fall ’18 show at Paris Men’s Fashion Week.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

On the celebrity front, fashion favorites have recently been spotted wearing their Uggs and — surprisingly — no one’s mad about it. Rihanna is one such example (though she could commit every single fashion faux pas imaginable and still be hailed as a trailblazer). She landed in JFK in an oversize nylon Gucci jacket, sweatpants and Uggs, and it’s a look so average, so gloriously normcore, so right in line with today’s streetwear aesthetic, that it’s actually brilliant. Model and Ugg-enthusiast Adwoa Aboah (aka one of the coolest, most in-demand models around — she most recently graced Edward Enninful’s debut issue as the editor-in-chief of British Vogue) also recently wore a pair with a ski jacket and sweats.

And just like that, Ugg no longer seems terribly uncool. There are a lot of factors that had to have happened — a perfect sartorial storm, if you will — for Ugg to find itself at the center of fashion’s scrupulous attention for the first time. There’s the athleisure movement that emphasizes comfort over everything else, nostalgia for the ’90s and early aughts spearheaded by the new wave of supermodels (Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid for instance), a deep and sudden fascination for “ugly fashion” spawned from peacocking street-style stars and maximalist designers like Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, and the aftermath of normcore that’s still felt even years later.

Sales-wise, it’s paying off for the brand. In a recent report, parent company Deckers Brands exceeded expectations and saw an increase of overall growth of 7 percent to $810.5 million in the third quarter. Ugg alone saw an uptick of 4.3 percent to $734.7 million after years of “soft sales” since the early 2000s.

At this rate, with sales on the rise and fashion’s change of heart, Ugg could very well go down in history for defining not just one, but two decades. As for me, the forever Ugg skeptic, I’m now a proud owner of a pair of Uggs that I can’t, for the life of me, stop wearing.

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