So Ugly, It's Cool

Who’s Ugly Now: How Crocs Went From Hideous To Hit

The surprising staying power of the shoes that we love to hate and hate to love, and how it’s got Bieber and Minaj hooked around its clog strap.

Who’s Ugly Now: How Crocs Went From Hideous To Hit
Crocs x Justin Bieber with drew house Classic Clog 2Image: Crocs/Rory Kramer

As is Nicki Minaj’s wont, on May 10, the rapper returned to Instagram after a five-month absence to serve up a couple of images of herself perched on a desk, nude except for a clutch of cushions and a pair of bedazzled hot pink Crocs. That was a Monday; by Wednesday, Crocs had reported a stunning 4,900 percent spike in sales and enough visitors to its e-commerce site to crash the entire platform. Minaj certainly was a key marketing factor here, but hey, let’s not underestimate the (dubious?) appeal of a pair of stubby foam clogs. Crocs, it seems, sell themselves.

The past year bears this out. Covid-related lockdowns have expectedly propelled a desire and demand for loungewear and athleisure — and Crocs, billed as “the most delightfully comfortable shoes in the world”, has been a major beneficiary. In 2020, the company logged an annual revenue of US$1.4 billion, up 13 percent from the previous year; according to Lyst, monthly searches on its platform for Crocs topped out at 135,000. And it’s not just normies who are snapping these shoes up: at the recent Oscars, Questlove dared to emerge onto the red carpet in a pair of gold-hued Crocs. Likely echoing post-pandemic sentiments everywhere, he declared on Instagram, “I’m tired of suffering while stunting.”

So yes, Crocs are comfortable, but aren’t they also… kind of ugly? No doubt. For years, noses have been thumbed, fashion commentators have reeled, and reams have been written about their aesthetic deficits. In 2008, Newsweek published Steve Tuttle’s infamous anti-Crocs screed (Go barefoot. Wear boots. Anything but Crocs); in 2010, Time Magazine named Crocs one of its 50 Worst Inventions, deeming it just “attractive enough to do your laundry in.” There even exists I Hate Crocs Dot Com, a blog founded by one Vincenzo Ravina, who recently said of his least favorite footwear, “Subjectively, I think they’re objectively hideous.”

To be fair, Crocs were never intended to be visually pleasing. Originally designed by and for boaters, they were quickly adopted in kitchens and hospitals for their durability, skid resistance, and of course, comfort. And yet, the worlds of fashion, pop culture, and celebrities have come calling. In the past decade, Crocs have appeared on the runways of Balenciaga and Christopher Kane, and on the feet of personalities as diverse as Rihanna, Helen Mirren, and Pharrell Williams. The brand has also embarked on an astounding array of profile-boosting collaborations with the likes of Post Malone, Takashi Murakami, Madewell, the Grateful Dead, and KFC (yes, KFC). So engagingly offbeat are these partnerships that even Fast Company had to tip their hat.

Paradoxically, Crocs’ cultural impact has hinged on the one thing that they’ve been widely pilloried for: their ugliness. At the turn of the 2010s, they may have been sported with some manner of ironic distance (ahem, Jared Leto), but their upward trajectory has been closely tied to the emergence of — what else — ugly shoe chic. You know, Hood by Air’s two-sided cowboy boots, Balenciaga’s chunky Triple S sneakers, Gucci’s sneaker-sandal hybrid — Crocs fit right in there. In particular, for millennial and Gen Z consumers, “ugly” is just another word for “different” and “different” is just the stuff that fashion statements are made of.

As Carolyn Mair, author of The Psychology of Fashion, explained to Vogue, “When we encounter something novel, our attention is drawn to it. So, in addition to the comfort and utilitarian value of these shoes, perhaps it is the desire for attention that motivates wearers.”

In fact, Crocs has long been leaning into their most unique selling point. As early as 2006, they were creating ads that read, “Ugly can be beautiful,” before the company, in 2017, launched a new motto, “Come As You Are,” underscoring individuality and “inspiring people to be comfortable in their own shoes.” To that end, Crocs now arrive in a host of styles that invite customisation with Jibbitz, decorative charms that can be snapped onto the shoes’ vent holes. And no surprise, the youngs have responded in kind: Crocs have been a big hit on TikTok, where they’ve been included in organic viral trends like the Crocs Shaving Cream Challenge and spearheaded some of their own (#ThousandDollarCrocs).

2020’s comfort economy may have dealt Crocs a boon, though for some unfortunate-looking shoes, they could already claim a pretty sustained cultural presence. They still get called ugly, but isn’t that the beauty of them? Late in April, Justin Bieber gifted Victoria Beckham a pair of lilac Crocs duly studded with animal Jibbitz, part of his hotly anticipated collaborative outing with the shoe maker. “Crocs with socks is definitely the move,” suggests the Biebs. Mrs Beckham, though, took to Instagram to joshingly announce that she’d “rather die” than be seen in them. Truly, a ringing endorsement.

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