Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
When you hear the name "Ugg," you likely think of fur-lined boots as ugly as they are comfortable, Paris Hilton, and roving packs of middle school girls. Those visions are burned into minds of men, but not for lack of recent efforts from Ugg. The brand is attacking the men’s market with a scattershot approach, keeping at it with longtime brand spokesperson Tom Brady while adding in ambassadorships with a smattering of other pro athletes — from Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade to Baltimore Ravens running back Danny Woodhead — debuting a campaign with rapper Vic Mensa, and collaborating with self-described "classic but twisted" designer Phillip Lim.
The story with Ugg, as Chavie Lieber wrote for Racked in late 2015, is that a “bored accountant” named Brian Smith moved from Australia to California in 1977 and noticed US beachgoers didn’t use the sheepskin-lined footwear ubiquitous among his former compatriots. What most stories leave out is that when Ugg was founded in 1978, it launched as a men’s brand.
Now, Ugg is dedicated to making California its branding cornerstone under the guidance of Andrea O’Donnell, the president of fashion lifestyle brands for Ugg’s parent company, Deckers. Only by pulling from the Sunshine State — a place worthy of thousands and thousands of words deconstructing its myriad style influences — is Ugg able to keep a kaleidoscope of influences under a single tent. Mensa taps into the “urban” creative side of California, says O’Donnell. Lim is a little easier to explain — he’s Californian. Ugg also launched a “Collective” that includes Venice-born model Haden McKenna and Sakae, a surfer born in San Francisco and raised in Japan.
“We wanted to represent [California spirit] in a brand campaign,” says O’Donnell. “We'll always have a beach, a mountain, some kind of interesting architecture, and then the cast of characters that we're using to tell that story should be an expression of California: Ethnically diverse, creative, cool, interesting.”
Mensa’s presence makes more sense strategically. The Chicago rapper was brought on to speak to the younger guy that is missing from Ugg’s current portfolio. Collectively, Mensa, Brady, Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges (who co-stars in ads with the New England Patriot), and the other athlete ambassadors are working to overcome the feminine stigma that plagues the brand. “Men need a little more encouraging when it comes to fashion, and working with the right influencer can grant them permission to wear our product again,” says O’Donnell.
Ugg’s push into menswear is one of those unstoppable-force-colliding-with-an-immovable-object situations. Ugg has put massive amounts of resources into growing its men’s business — it’s been wrapped up in this battle since 2011 — because it represents such a massive growth area for the brand. A quarter of all women own a pair of Uggs; the brand hopes to get its men’s business anywhere near that. But the brand is up against stubborn men who can’t see Ugg as more than that maker of women’s boots.
Sam Poser, the footwear and apparel research analyst covering Deckers for Susquehanna Financial Group, isn’t optimistic that this perception is due for a change. Ugg’s men’s business grew 30 percent in the past year, but Poser says that’s immaterial if the brand can’t continue to feed the beast that is its women’s business.
Because of the size of each respective business, Ugg can still lose even if men’s grows exponentially. If its women’s business wilts at all, Ugg still finds itself at a net loss. Ugg can engineer success by keeping overall brand prestige up, though. Poser provides Lululemon as a model for how Ugg could successfully approach the men’s business: “What happens there is that your girlfriend, your wife, goes to Lulu and she buys you a shirt or a pair of shorts.” It also doesn’t hurt that Ugg’s most prominent ambassador is obnoxiously handsome. “While it's great that Tom Brady wears Uggs, they're really marketing him to the woman who's making this decision,” says Poser.
The easiest way for Ugg to grow its men’s business is by leveraging its greatest asset: the women’s business. Court women who can be evangelists for the brand and might push men toward the shoes, buy slippers as gifts, and create converts.
For men, Ugg slippers are the lowest barrier of entry into the brand. I poked around and spoke to several guys who had no problem admitting they already own or would like to own the furry house shoes. Guys hardly need convincing that the shoes are cozy — one glance tells you that — but that’s part of the problem. “I’d never wear them outside. I think they're hideous,” says one twentysomething San Franciscan.
“Historically, we've probably delivered more comfort than we have design,” O’Donnell says. This should actually help as Ugg worms its way into men’s lives. Giving up looks for comfort is, generally, not something that many men have problems with — it’s the reason one of Nike’s best-selling shoes is also one of its ugliest. Ugg wants to strike a balance between design and comfort, but it doesn’t want to shed the reputation that its shoes are as comfortable as a trusty pair of Air Monarchs. “We take that really seriously, particularly for men's, because unlike women’s fashion, looks might compensate for lack of comfort,” explains O’Donnell.
Expanding the line with more design-conscious items is the considerable challenge O’Donnell is up against. The battering ram to break down these barriers is considerably better product. “It's not just about investing and improving awareness. We’ve also added a very strong, immense design team,” she says.
Deckers’ team got an overhaul when men’s design director Enrique Corbi joined in early 2016. “He's giving us a level of taste, expertise, and creativity that we didn't have before,” O’Donnell says. The good news is that Corbi’s designs are hitting beyond the slippers men already feel comfortable with. The biggest driver of that 30 percent growth is the Neumel, a chukka boot with Ugg’s signature wool lining. It’s fitting that this is the style performing because it best combines what Ugg is known for (comfort) and what it wants to do (style).
The upcoming season, which is the one on which Corbi has the biggest impact, already promises to be a big one for Ugg Men. O’Donnell says that based on the orders retailers have already placed, a “fashion” boot has moved into Ugg’s top-10 sellers for the first time, joined by a pair of hiking boots.
This kind of interest in new design from retailers should encourage Ugg to concentrate on aesthetics, rather than hoping that ambassadors alone will woo male shoppers. Going forward, Ugg plans to focus on bringing on interesting collaborators, like Lim, rather than spokespeople. This will let Ugg take on a lot of different perspectives, and O’Donnell says the brand may tap anyone from “established industry icons” to graffiti artists.
What Ugg has in its corner is a reputation for offering guys a critically important feature — comfort — on top of reported Jay Z and Beyoncé money to play with. Ugg is a $1.3 billion brand in this for the long game. It can scour every corner of California, collaborate with the best and brightest, and maybe, just maybe, engineer shoes that are as comfortable as they are good-looking. In an effort to see what sticks, Ugg can throw so much against the wall that it eventually topples.