Ugly Shoes Have Taken Over Fashion

Andrea Cheng
Photo credit: Victor VIRGILE

From CR Fashion Book

Photo credit: Y/Project

The year was 2016 when right there, to the chagrin and shock of the fashion crowd, amid beautiful floral appliquéd dresses and frothy tiers of tulle on the Christopher Kane Spring/Summer 2017 runway, were Crocs—“surely the least redeemable of footwear as far as fashion sees it,” one critic wrote. They were mercilessly ridiculed. And while they were made over under Kane’s discerning eye—marbled and decorated with gemstones—it wasn’t enough for fashion editors to forget that they were Crocs.

Photo credit: Estrop

And even when Kane dug in his heels, so to speak, and resolutely continued his partnership with the ugly-shoe brand, the industry collectively refused to budge on its position. The consensus was: This shoe is too ugly, too hideous for fashion.

Since then, Demna Gvasalia of Balenciaga had a hand in making Crocs a thing, leaning into the ugliness of it by turning it into a kitschy token for Spring/Summer 2018: He stretched it to a soaring 5-plus-inch platform, colored it in bubblegum pink or sunny yellow, and affixed cute, child-like “Jibbitz” to it, along with the Balenciaga logo. The monstrosity sold out on the first day of pre-orders, and they’ve been spotted at fashion weeks.

Photo credit: Victor VIRGILE

Crocs isn’t the only “ugly” footwear brand that’s piqued the interest of high-fashion designers. In the last few years, Birkenstock, known for its very practical contoured footbed with anatomically shaped insoles that’s designed to provide comfort and support, has struck partnerships with a number of marquee brands. At the beginning of the year, a collab with Valentino, which debuted during Men’s Paris Fashion Week, saw two Arizona sandal styles: a monochromatic red version and a black one with VLTN in white stamped across the side. There’s Rick Owens, who, for two seasons (Fall/Winter 2018 and Spring/Summer 2019), introduced Birkenstock hiker boots and Arizona sandals in two-tone colorways. And most recently, Proenza Schouler announced Arizona and Milano styles redone with Velcro straps, contrast topstitching, and four colorways.

Photo credit: Instagram / Birkenstock 1774
Photo credit: Instagram / Birkenstock 1774

“Birkenstock and Proenza Schouler both share a common respect and admiration for the craftsmanship and detailed work that goes into all of our products, and we are excited to celebrate these all-important qualities in our collaboration,” Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler said of the partnership.

To round out the ugly-shoe trifecta is Ugg, which, since the early aughts, has been deemed and dismissed as “basic.” Even after collaborations with Jeremy Scott and Brad Goreski, Ugg never really took among the fashion elite—until Glenn Martens of Y/Project gave them the cool streetwear edge they so desperately needed. For Fall/Winter 2018, he pulled them up all the way to the thigh and then slouched them to an extreme degree.

“Ugg for me was the first collab, which really made sense, because it’s such an honest brand,” Martens previously said in an interview, likening the wearing of Ugg boots as putting your thighs in butter. “I never really wore Uggs until I did this capsule. When we started working together…that was when I understood the popularity of the shoe. Putting on an Ugg is extremely comfortable. We were like, ‘OK, if your foot can be so comfortable, why don't you put your whole leg in there?’”

And just like that, Uggs have finally been embraced. The same season, Chitose Abe of Sacai collaborated with the brand, so did Eckhaus Latta and Heron Preston, who most recently reimagined two Ugg styles—Classic Mini and Tasman—with his signature design codes: splashes of traffic-cone orange, translucent rubber outsoles, and highlighter yellow pull tabs.

Photo credit: Instagram/Heron Preston

But why—and how—is this happening when just three years ago none of this would have been entertained? If we were to pan out and look at fashion at large, it appears that the industry—which had prided itself on being arbiters of taste at the highest level—is wrestling with some sort of an identity crisis. Take a glance at the street-style scene at any of the fashion weeks from the past few years, and you’ll find outfits that swing from unapologetic maximalism (unthinkable mash-ups of outsized proportions, clashing colors, and bizarre prints) to plain boring (distressed tees, retro jeans, and chunky sneakers).

Photo credit: Getty Images

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” wrote author Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in 1878. Nearly a century and a half later, her words still hold weight: Beauty is subjective—one person’s definition of beauty (or ugliness) may differ from someone else’s. It’s an idea that Rei Kawakubo has been vocal about when it comes to her designs for Comme des Garçons. “For something to be beautiful, it doesn’t have to be pretty,” she famously uttered. “If I do something I think is new, it will be misunderstood, but if people like it, I will be disappointed because I haven’t pushed them enough. The more people hate it, maybe the newer it is. Because the fundamental human problem is that people are afraid of change.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

In other words, staying the course, relying on what’s been done, and playing it safe, is, well, boring. While challenging the status quo, toeing the line, and inciting shock is strangely, perversely gratifying. And in a digital age in which the pace at which we consume newness has accelerated, it’s become increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd.

"'Ugly fashion' means 'not the mainstream'—it's not what everyone's wearing, it's not what the general population deems as 'in' right now," said Megan Collins, a trend forecaster from Trendera, in an interview. "The conversation between fashion, beauty, and ugliness has always existed, but this is the first time we live in a culture where so many people are taking part in this conversation."

Photo credit: Karl Prouse/Catwalking

It’s hard to talk about this shift from painful needle-thin stilettos to comfort-driven styles without mentioning the rise of normcore—the anti-fashion movement that okayed tees and jeans in 2014—or the fashion history-defining moment in which Phoebe Philo, who put fur-lined Birkenstocks on the runway years ahead of anyone else, wore her Adidas Stan Smith sneakers to take her bow after the Celine Fall/Winter 2012 show. Both sparked a more utilitarianism spirit in fashion (and perhaps it’s why these designers opted for comfort over performance, teaming up with brands like Crocs, Ugg, and Birkenstock as opposed to sports giants like Adidas, Nike, and Reebok). It feels more relatable. And as the Internet continues to democratize fashion, everyone has a say.