Richard Dennen wonders if the Aussie fashion icon’s range for men is a metrosexual step too far
Remember those heady days of 2003? It was when the world went mad for a simple sheepskin boot; a boot originally designed for sheep-shearers and then one adopted by surfers in the Sixties and Seventies. It was when Kate Moss was photographed at Glastonbury wearing a pair. It was when a gang of celebrities — Hugh Grant, Britney Spears, Charlize Theron, Lucy Liu, Minnie Driver, Heather Locklear and Mariah Carey — each decorated a pair for the Art & Sole auction that December. It was when this boot became a global phenomenon. And it all started, at least according to UGG Australia, when a young surfer, Brian Smith, arrived in California with a bag full of sheepskin boots in 1978. Deckers bought the idea in 1995, and by 1998 they had a line out of two boots and four slippers.
But it was hardly a new idea. This sort of boot had been around for hundreds of years, popular in China and Antarctica, popular with pilots at high altitudes in the first and second world wars to keep their feet warm in non-pressurised planes. Technically, they were originally designed for poor kids in Southern Australia — a far cry from their Hollywood champions, where the words UGG, ugh and ug have been around forever (look in the Australian Oxford Dictionary footnote, ‘derivation: ugly’.) But, whatever.
By 2003 UGG were laughing their way on to the international runways. Kate paired her baby blue numbers with skinny jeans and a wool jacket. Sienna Miller wore a red pair with a black outfit, a Balenciaga Lariat bag and Ray Ban wayfarers. Drew Barrymore wore them on any and every flight she went on and other Hollywood actresses — Sarah Jessica Parker et al — lived in nothing else on set.
These were seminal UGG moments on a never-ending fashion rollercoaster. They were on-message, on-trend and on everyone. But so what? The backlash had already begun when UGG Australia, a California-based company, with a product made in China, started legal threats across the country to defend their trademark. A month after that grand celebrity auction in the States, Bob Baldwin, MP for Patterson, made the point clear: ‘It defies belief that a word like ugg, which we use in a generic sense in Australia, could be trademarked and jobs be threatened this way. It’s like putting a trademark on the word ‘jeans’. Everyone in Australia knows that jeans or ugg is a description of a piece of clothing.’
In 2006, Uggs-N-Rugs in Western Australia won its case to have the word removed from Australian Trademarks Registry. A Save our Aussie Icon campaign was even launched. When the first trademark was going through in the US on 7 March 1986, the federal trademark office’s examiner Susan Heller asked, ‘What is the significance of the term UGG?’, she was told under oath that, ‘There is no significance of the term UGG in the relevant trade or industry.’ The hottest fashion accessory was getting mired in legalise.
But this dirty controversy did nothing to dampen the UGG boot stomping its way around the globe. Today, they’re still one of the most searched-for fashion items on eBay. Type it into Google and you have just under three million hits to choose from, and they still appear to be on many a foot. When UGG launched the Langley, a sort-of riding boot with a sheepskin lining, it became an immediate international hit, despite costing more than $600. The company is set to make profits of more than $500 million this year, and is showing a 130 per cent rise year on year. So perhaps the brand is recession-proof too.
But quietly, almost as if from nowhere, one can feel an underground backlash beginning. There is something a bit pre-credit crunch about them, a bit tacky; and fashion-wise, like any super-trend, they’ve become a bit of a no-go, a bit passé, a bit chav, a bit déclassé; fine as slippers, acceptable on the beach, but not for the pavement. Would Kate Moss now be seen out in them? Unlikely.
And perhaps they’ve gone too far this time with the launch of a men’s range — an over-ambitious move, the national newspapers feel. The Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists has weighed in, pointing out that their flat soles leave the arches limp and can cause painful tendon conditions. And, perhaps, the opening last month of a European flagship store in London’s Covent Garden was misplaced. B-list celebrities turned up in force, quaffed champagne and checked out the new UGG ranges.
Perhaps the building of this palace — ‘designed with rich tones, soft materials and sheepskin accents’ — for the boot will be seen in the future as on a par with the British building the grandiose New Delhi, the construction of a new imperial capital that in fact heralded the last days of the Raj and the swan song of the Empire. Someone should tell the UGG authorities that they are fiddling while Rome burns. And there is revolution in the air. Perhaps.