On a recent morning, a man-boy with hair spun to straw by sun and saltwater was stooped by the side of the road, on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Cars whizzed past. He was holding in his teeth opposite corners of a turquoise beach towel, under which he’d stripped naked. Kicking aside the wet suit puddled around his ankles, he pulled on sweats and pushed his sandy feet into a pair of floppy tan boots.
In this and dozens of far colder surf spots around the world, plain brown sheepskin wrappers like his are known for delivering instant comfort to feet and shins numbed by the ocean. Yet many suffers, especially the really good ones, scoff at the Ugg boot. They would rather let their dogs thaw slowly in flip-flops than play footsie with a pelt. (In fact, the only intrasport style debate more divisive pits au naturel purists against guys who wear Speedos under their neoprene to prevent chafing and the contortions of the aforementioned striptease.) Roughly the shape of a meat loaf, the Ugg boot features a buttery hide, on the flip side of which is fleece. It comes in a variety of styles, all designed for subzero climates.
A midsummer afternoon’s spin through perfectly warm coastal exurbia turns up multiple Ugg sightings: a guy in baggy jeans and an unmarked pocket T pumping gas into a Jetta, a preteen wearing shorts and a sweatshirt in the Cats & Dogs queue at the multiplex, a woman with an airbrushed tan offset by a white miniskirt and tank top emerging from Starbucks. Indeed, thanks to tactical marketing, the shoe crosses gender and age lines.
These Ugg dilettantes are baffling to anyone intimately acquainted with an ice scraper. If you must indulge in the mukluk-and-anorak motif, please save it for Mammoth or Sundance. Better yet, take a lesson from New York designer Isaac Mizrahi, whose business started to unzip after he invoked the documentary Nanook of the North for his 1994 fall women’s collection. Even fans agree that the Ugg is neither wildly practical nor pretty, so how does it thrive?
One Ugg watcher, who describes the overshoe as the “quasi-official, semi-mandatory” footwear of his community, Point Dume, says the trend symbolizes a relaxed mind-set: “It’s indicative of operating at half speed, at 16 rpms.” You tug them on to fetch the Saturday-morning paper and then—why stress?—keep them on for brunch at the neighbors’ and beyond. Starting the day in Nikes or even Top-Siders might cause a dangerous acceleration of activity. But the flaccid Ugg foils any attempt at exertion.
The person largely responsible for these idle feet is Australian native Brian Smith, a prefab-concrete entrepreneur living in Encinitas. Back home, he and his teenage mates thought it was cool to wear sheepskin boots to school. (Today the Ugg is a dress-code taboo down under, banned on some campuses for undefined “safety and hygiene” reasons.) In the late ’60s, around the same time that leather sandals crept onto the American folk music scene, Ugg prototypes surfaced near Bells Beach, on the chilly southeastern tip of Victoria.
They were hand-sewn from scraps, strictly for use indoors. Then someone, probably a surfer, outfitted the boots with flimsy soles made from floor tiles, enabling short treks across the sand. When small batches began to hit the stores, Smith snapped up a pair. Years later the Ugg would be his ticket to the States. While trying to launch his business in 1978 with the original midcalf model, touting the “finest sheepskin in the world,” he had to tell wary buyers that no one knew how it got its name. “We always called them Uggs,” Smith says, “long before it was a trademarked brand.” The popular theory? They’re ug-ly.
The Ugg’s arrival in West Coast surf shops in the early ’80s coincided with a phase in which surfers here coveted all things Australian. The Aussies who dropped in at local breaks were loud, colorful, and full of tales about their giddy adventures on the wild frontier of waves. To decreasingly mellow Californians, cranky about crowded lineups, they were a joy-popping upper.
“I plastered my bedroom walls with magazine photos of Australia and guys like Terry Fitzgerald and Wayne Bartholomew” says Matt Warshaw, who would go on to edit Surfer magazine and write several books about the sport. He and his Manhattan Beach friends even looked down their peeling noses at American labels, insisting on Rip Curl wet suits, Quiksilver trunks—“board shorts” to the Australians—and Uggs. Any objections from the domestic authorities were easily dispatched: “But, Mom, the fleece slurps up water and brushes off sand, plus it’s really warm.” Sold.
Thus established, the glorified house slipper migrated east as a generation of beach-dwelling tribes grew up and settled inland. Steve Bojorquez, a West Hills artist and guitar maker whom friends describe as an Ugg zealot, acquired his first pair in the late ’70s. As a regular at Malibu and at Rincon—a break near the Ventura-Santa Barbara county line that in winter delivers long, dreamy waves—he can get colder than a scoop of sorbet. “Your hands shake so hard you can’t get the key in the ignition,” Bojorquez says.
Flannel cowboy shirts with snaps (frigid fingers fumble with buttons) have helped take the sting out of water temperatures in the 50s, but he credits the Ugg with prolonging his surf life. To show his appreciation, he keeps Southern California’s best-selling Ugg, the $110 classic model, on almost all the time. A much-loved second pair, mummified in duct tape, still resides in a box on a shelf in his studio. It was a forced retirement, Bojorquez admits, brought on by a family intervention. “This newest pair, I treat them very kindly,” he says.
Before Brian Smith sold Ugg Australia to Goleta-based Deckers Outdoor Corporation in 1995 for $14.6 million, pro surfers acted as the product’s plugolas. But the skate-shoe explosion of the early ’90s splintered the core surf market. Vans and Simple, the scene’s longtime low-top leaders, suddenly felt the pinch from Airwalk, Etnies, and other skateboard brands. Christian Fletcher, a tattooed Orange County bad boy who attacked waves as if they were vert ramps, was an early and ideal pitchman for Airwalk’s expansion from street to beach. Today all of the top surfers, from Shes Lopez to Shane Dorian, have shoe contracts. Footwear cool flows one way, from skate to surf. And skaters laugh at boots.
For Ugg the new competition meant not only holding on to hard-won space in Nordstrom but also wooing Middle America. Imagine hearing a nationally syndicated Rush Limbaugh profess his Ugg love to the masses. After that brief radio fling, Deckers targeted “fashion” consumers by adding cold-weather (including apres-ski) and street collections. Last year Ugg sales accounted for $15.3 million of Deckers $79.7 million in total company sales. Its latest push in O, Vogue, and In Style speaks to the type of woman who likes to know that when in Sundance, Courtney Love swaddles her toes in the mother of all Uggs: Fluff Mommas. Ads for the classic still appear, too, albeit in less-glamorous forums like Longboarder magazine, a destination for many female and older male surfers.
People who take their cool seriously can be judgmental. If it’s not if you wear Uggs that invites scorn, it’s how. Former Ugg spokesmodel Mike Parsons, for example, got a brutal dressing-down over an old photo that Surfer recently resurrected. There he is, hair as stiff as a short-board, tight Levi’s tucked into his boots. Shrugging off what the magazine described as “a tragic fashion faux pas,” the consummate pro showed no remorse. Of his look he said bravely, “I’ve never really cared.”
At 36, in the wake of an epic competitive career, Parsons this year won $60,000 in the Swell.com XXL contest for riding the winter’s biggest wave. The notoriety took him up a few notches in the eyes of elite surfers. “Hmmm, you know, now that Parsons is back in style, maybe an Ugg comeback is around the corner,” says Bill Sharp, editor of Surf News in Newport Beach.
Sharp once openly wore Uggs. Then he decided they were lame. Now he takes his Ugg knockoffs on snowboarding trips but keeps them out of sight in the car, for the return drive. At home, they never leave the closet, except for late-night runs to the grocery store.
Or so he says.