A-list celebrities stroll out of coffee shops wearing them. Toddlers slip them on before preschool or play dates. Teenagers personalize them with ink drawings. Men and women wear them everywhere, from ski resorts to carpool lanes. Ugg boots -- like it or not -- have become a fixture in footwear culture.
Sheepskin boots, known by the generic term ugg or the brand name UGG, feature an upper consisting of a suede exterior lined with soft, temperate fleece and, modernly, a rubber sole. This functional footwear was first worn in Australia and remains a deeply entrenched symbol of its national culture. By the 1970s, however, this boot -- originally bulky, mid-calf length and the color of weak, milky tea -- began a migration to other shores, including the United States.
During the 1990s, UGG Australia boots began to receive brand name recognition in the United States when they began seeding the boots with fashion editors and celebrities (and made right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh the company's unlikely spokesperson). In 2000, UGG Australia sales rose after Oprah Winfrey bought 350 pairs for her staff -- and introduced the boots to millions of viewers as one of her Favorite Things. And actress and PETA activist Pamela Anderson helped make UGG boots a hot item -- at least, until she realized they were made of sheepskin, not just fleece sheared from sheep [sources: Graff; Sentenac].
Today, uggs and ugg-inspired boots are sold around the world and come in many colors and lengths. Some models are outfitted with long, wavy fleece trim -- the trademark of Mongolian sheep -- while others feature sneaker- or clog-style style variations.
The ugg's rise from utilitarian foot warmer to fashion icon may have been a relatively fast one, but it's also been riddled with controversy. Namely, trademark disputes, marketing missteps, devotee backlashes and a slew of less expensive, faux-leather competitors and knockoffs.
So how do surfers fit in the mix?
The History and Popularity of Ugg Boots
No matter how you spell it -- ugh, ug or ugg -- recorded accounts of sheepskin boots have been around since the late 1800s, when Australian shepherds used leather straps to lash sheepskin around their feet and ankles.
By the 1930s, several manufacturers were selling sheepskin boots in small batches. Australian World War I pilots laced them up to ward off frostbite during unpressurized flights that reached altitudes of up to 40,000 feet (12.19 kilometers). (This would be like rolling your car window down and driving at 200 miles per hour in temperatures of 60 degrees below zero in Fahrenheit -- or 322 kilometers per hour at 51 degrees below zero in Celsius.) The pilots may have coined the term we know these boots by, calling them "flying uggs," short for "ugly" [source: Conley]. However, if you're looking for someone to thank (or blame) for uggs' current place in the fashion world, turn to surfers.
In the 1970s, surfers who rode the cold waves of Australia's Byron Bay frequently slipped into sheepskin boots once they were beachside. One of those surfers, Shane Stedman, quietly trademarked "ugh-boot" and, later, "ugh," and then sold the rights to fellow surfer Brian Smith, who began selling the boots in Southern California. Ugg boots caught on with the local surfing community and spread to neighboring coastal areas [source: UGG Australia].
And that's when Doug Otto stepped in. Otto, the founder of California-based Deckers Outdoor Corp., had already developed a niche in the footwear market. His company's most successful product, the Teva all-terrain sandal, had met with early success; however, sales leveled as big-name competitors like Nike and Reebok introduced similar offerings. Otto saw potential in Smith's simple sheepskin boot with a cultlike following. And, although sheepskin and fleece were thought to be prohibitively expensive by some industry insiders, Otto believed manufacturing the boot would pay off, especially during sandal-sales slumps in the winter months. By 1995, Deckers had purchased the ugg boot design -- trademarks and all -- from Smith for more than $12 million [source: All Business, Conley].
Although Otto surely believed the company's foray into winterwear would be a good one, few could have predicted the lowly sheepskin boots' success. Within a few short years, UGG Australia, as the Deckers' division was called, would outsell its Teva line hands down. In fact, UGG Australia would become the driving force behind the American company's renaissance, transforming it into a global powerhouse -- and its leading product into a pricey status symbol.
UGGS and Trademark
While the UGG Australia brand gained a foothold in the U.S. around the turn of the century, an entire mom-and-pop industry in Australia continued to churn out small batches of rustic ugg boots. And that didn't sit well with Deckers Outdoor Corp. executives, who were making diligent efforts to shift the UGG Australia image to one of luxury and refinement. No longer did the company cater indiscriminately to discount retailers and drug stores. Instead, its marketing efforts targeted high-end boutiques and celebrities, all in hope of creating consumer demand [source: Conley].
As part of its brand recognition and expansion strategy, Deckers Outdoor Corp. began purchasing ugg-related trademarks throughout the world and sending out cease-and-desist letters to Australian-based manufacturers of ugg boots, some of which had been in business for decades. It was a move that led to contentious legal battles over trademarks and intellectual property in Australia, which eventually resulted in a favorable ruling for the country's ugg cottage industry: Ugg was deemed a generic term and not a brand name in Australia and New Zealand, and multiple manufacturers have the right call their products uggs, too [source: Australian Sheepskin Association Inc].
Ugg boots made by companies based in Australia and New Zealand, such as Blue Mountains Ugg Boots or Mortels Sheepskin Factory, can be purchased online and shipped to the United States and other countries. And plenty of competing brands produce non-sheepskin boots that mimic the look of uggs. However, some companies attempt to pass these boots off as UGG Australia-brand products to cash in on the company's success.
Deckers Outdoor Corp., which in 2010 garnered 87 percent of its overall revenue from the UGG brand alone, turned its attention to retailers selling counterfeit UGG Australia boots. Although the company owned hundreds of ugg and ugg-related trademarks in more than 100 countries, it faced increasing competition from low-priced knockoffs.
The company claims that with the help of customs agents, attorneys and private investigators, it stops more than 60,000 fake UGGs from making it through U.S. customs each year. Unfortunately, this means some consumers receive, instead of the boots they purchased, a letter from customs officials and Deckers Outdoor Corp. stating that the patent-infringing item they'd ordered had been seized and was slated for destruction. And, because the fakes hadn't been purchased from UGG Australia, they wouldn't be receiving a refund, either [sources: Conley; Kemp].
How to Spot Fake UGG Boots
Not all ugg-style boots made by companies other than UGG Australia are knockoffs -- some are high-quality (or inexpensive but similarly styled) boots that were made legally by other companies. However, the UGG Australia brand has become such a moneymaker that there are plenty of shady manufacturers trying to capitalize on the label's popularity (and high prices) by selling cheaply made, lower-priced knockoffs as though they're actual, brand-name UGGs.
Web sites selling faux UGGs often use photos of actual UGG boots, which can make it difficult to tell whether you're ordering a counterfeit version. But once you've got a pair of boots in your possession, there are telltale differences. If your boots are made with real fleece-lined sheepskin, you won't be able to separate the fleece from the suede -- at least not without the help of sheep shearer. Knockoffs are often composed of foam sandwiched between cowhide on the boot's exterior and fleece on the interior [source: Kemp]. To find out what your UGG (or counterfeit UGG) is made of, grasp the inside of the boot with one hand and the outside with the other, and attempt to pull them apart from each other. If you're able to separate them, you're probably holding a fake.
Because much of the UGG's trademark stitching is visible on the exterior of the boot, it offers another way to spot a fake. If the stitching is uneven, if the seams are crooked or if some stitching is missing where the seams connect, your product is probably counterfeit. The same is true if the sole is inflexible; authentic UGG boots feature a thick but pliable sole.
According to UGG Australia, authentic UGGs include three security features that set them apart from faux UGGs. First, there is a reflective sticker depicting the company's sun logo on the exterior of the shoebox. And, when turned to a 90-degree angle, the logo will change from black to white. Second, some UGGs have a label sewn into the interior of the left boot. This reflective label also includes a sun logo that changes color from black to white. Third, if the model you purchase does not have a sewn-in label, check the outsole of the left shoe; the brand's color-changing, reflective sticker can be placed there, instead [source: UGG Australia].
How to Clean and Care for Ugg Boots
Some podiatrists warn that walking around in uggs isn't the best thing for your feet. The generously sized boots allow the foot to slide with each step, and most uggs don't provide the kind of arch support included in many modern shoes. Combined, these features may cause wear on the toes and ankles or even lead to back and joint problems with prolonged use -- though mostly in people with predispositions to certain conditions. To combat this issue and to keep your boots comfy as you tamp down the fleece insole over time, you can buy UGG-brand or third-party insoles for your boots. But if you have foot, back or joint problems, check with your doctor about what kind of footwear is best for you [source: Douglas].
Whether uggs care for your feet is debatable, but if you want your uggs to last, you'll need to learn to care for them. Start by treating the exterior boot surface with a waterproof protector. Typically, this process includes spraying a coating of waterproofing on the boots, allowing them to dry for at least one day and then lightly brushing them with a suede brush in a single direction to raise the nap. Waterproofing will help keep the porous sheepskin from being damaged or stained by the first puddle you happen to encounter. It will also make it easier to remove stains in the future.
If your uggs do become stained, all is not lost. Spot clean the area by first moistening it with cold water and then gently applying a cleaning agent designed for use on delicate leather. Tamp, rather than scrub, the surface -- friction could damage the nap. Rinse the area by dipping it in cold water or by using a sponge to dab at it. Allow the boots to air dry for at least a day, and then brush the suede to raise the nap [source: UGG Australia].
Treat your uggs well and they may even outlast the fashion's life; the only constant when it comes to trends is that they're always changing.
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- Australian Sheepskin Association. "Save our Aussie Icon." (Feb. 5, 2012) http://www.saveouraussieicon.com/
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- Sentenac, Hannah. "Pamela Anderson Learns UGG Boots Made from Sheepskin, Speaks Out Against Them." Fox News. Feb. 28, 2007. (Feb. 5, 2012) http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,255145,00.html
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- UGG Australia. "What is Counterfeit and Why is It Wrong?" (Feb. 5, 2012) http://www.uggaustralia.com/beware-cheap-ugg-boots-for-sale/counterfeit-education,%20default,pg.html
- Warren, Lydia. "Skinned Alive to Make Fake UGGs: Horrific Footage Reveals Slow, Sickening Deaths of Raccoon Dogs." Oct. 12, 2011. (Feb. 5, 2012) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2045016/Raccoon-dogs-skinned-alive-make-cheap-copies-Ugg-boots.html