Cover photo from “Humble Aussie Ugg breaks through”

Humble Aussie Ugg breaks through


It’s a case of cross-cultural pollination that defies explanation by even the most studied of sociologists, but this Christmas the humble Australian Ugg boot is one of the hottest ‘must-have’ items on US gift-lists.

The Ugg’s popularity comes at the end of a frequently repeated cycle of US fascination in things Australian. In recent years, for example, Americans have succumbed to Kidman-mania, Dame Edna-philia and an easily aggravated condition known as Russell-Crowe-itis. The last time Australia received this kind of attention was with Ken Done and Coogi knits. Not to mention Foster’s and XXXX beer.

But like Dame Edna, who courted US audiences for years before finally striking a chord in 1999, it has taken more than one attempt for Ugg to get its boot in the door, so to speak. Cultural elitists would baulk at the very thought of it (Dame Edna for one would most certainly not approve), but this year, the Australian Ugg in fact celebrates its 25th year on the US market. For years a staple in Australian surfer communities, it is only in the last two years that this unassuming sheepskin boot has tapped US consumer interest to any significant degree. And now that the tide has turned, there seems to be no stopping it.

Last year, Ugg Australia posted second quarter sales of $US24.3 million ($AU31m) –  up 212% – and the company even made it to number 92 on the Fortune Small Business Top 100 list.

The current surge of interest in Ugg is easily explained, says Anders Bergstrom, Marketing Co-Ordinator for Ugg Australia. He attributes the success of the brand to careful marketing and what seems to be the only other way to get a product off the ground these days – the coveted celebrity endorsement.

“Ugg has always had a niche presence in the US,” says Bergstrom from his office in Goleta, California, where Ugg Australia is based. That is, until 1998, when the company began a “five year repositioning effort,” which included advertising in the hallowed pages of American Vogue. The exercise was only partially successful, says Bergstorm; the reception was lukewarm, to say the least.

In fact, it was not unlike the reception first afforded to company founder Brian Smith, the Australian surfer who in 1978, packed a suitcase full of Uggs and headed to New York with dollar signs in his eyes. He sold not one, and soon after this lacklustre performance, Smith moved camp to California to catch some waves before heading home. There, to his surprise, some die-hard surfers had already brought back their own Uggs from trips to Australia. That season, he sold 48 pairs of Ugg boots to five accounts.

Today the Ugg is so popular that distribution is “maxed,” says Bergstrom, and the account list has been closed.

This year, the high-end department store Nordstrom lavished Ugg with a special insert in their Christmas catalogue. Featuring a glamorous model, the spread coos with phrases like “This year Ugg is warm – and cool.”

Lee Carter, Editor of the New York-based online fashion magazine, has followed the Ugg explosion with interest.

To date, Ugg has received the seal of approval from the likes of Cameron Diaz and the original in hippie hippie chic, Kate Hudson.

“They are extremely popular,” he says, “but in an L.A. all-fame-no-taste kind of way.”

“I think they’re popular more for their intentional hideousness!”

Carter recalls that the Ugg boot first came to his attention one afternoon on TV.

“I remember watching [an infotainment show called] Extra and seeing people like Jennifer Aniston wearing them.”

“That’s when I knew it was an L.A trend,” he says.

Where celebrities go mere mortals are bound to follow, and seeing Aniston – a High Priestess of American style – don the Ugg was a clear sign that indeed the boots had arrived – and with a price tag to match.

Ugg Australia’s US range starts with simple Scuff model which sells for $US50 ($AU64). At the other end of the scale, the ‘Fluff Momma’ retails for a whopping $US300 ($AU380). In addition to a men’s and women’s shoe line, US patrons of Ugg now also have the choice of Ugg homewares, a children’s range, outerwear (including backpacks, jackets and coats), and a recently released handbag line.

However, Bergstrom says that the biggest coup came in 2003, when the company experienced what he refers to as “the crossover” into New York, the style hub from which many North American trends flow.

Following the lead of people like Aniston, Uggs finally found their way into top stylists’ wardrobes, and pretty soon they began to spring up like mushrooms on various television shows, and on the pedicured pads of more A-list celebrities.

Even Beyonce can't resist the humble Australian Ugg boot.
Even Beyonce can’t resist the humble Australian Ugg boot.

To date, Ugg has received the seal of approval from the likes of Cameron Diaz and the original in hippie hippie chic, Kate Hudson.

“Kate should be on our payroll,” jokes Bergstrom, such is the cache that she’s added to Ugg. And of course, how could you forget daytime doyenne Oprah, who was so enamoured with the Ugg that she gave away a pair to each audience member on one show.

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” acknowledges Bergstrom.

Last year was also when Bergstrom and his team championed an event called ‘Art and Sole,’ in which high-voltage celebrities like Mariah Carey, Jessica Simpson and Celine Dion take to a pair of Uggs with a craft set, the results of which can only be described as ‘creative.’ The boots are then exhibited in department stores before being auctioned off for charity.

Back in the days, Ugg was shorthand for ‘ugly’ among the surfer pioneers who clumped around in them after a day at the surf. Carter agrees that as far as Australian trends are concerned, he is ready for “anything!” over the Ugg.

“Certainly if you’re comparing it to a Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo heel, it’s ugly,” concurs Bergstrom.

“But Ugg represents a statement,” he says. “It’s a very unique shoe.”

This article originally appeared in The Courier Mail.