Friday, December 10, 2010

Sheepskin Showdown

I've always had a bit of a hate-on for Uggs and their wearers.  Mostly, it's that zombie-like foot dragging teenage girls do down mall corridors and crowded sidewalks.  The swooshing, scraping, sheepskin shuffle.  For the love, pick up your feet!

photo credit: Stephen Lewis
I get it.  They are one of those products, discovered by niche groups for utility and comfort, then adopted by the fashion set, somewhat ironically.  Skater punks wore Converse OneStars and nurses wore Crocs.  Australian surfers wore generic twinfaced sheepskin boots, bought at corner stores and gas stations.  Now, they're ubiquitous.

Etymological legend says that 'uggs' or 'fugs' began as shorthand to describe the knee-high sheepskin boots Aussie pilots wore in WWI... you need your Flying Uggs in that unpressurized cockpit, Mate!  Shoe companies have been using the 'Ugg' title ever since (see: 1930's company Blue Mountain Ugg Boots).

Now, we say UGG like we say KLEENEX, the registered trademark has transcended brand status, coming to identify the entire genus albeit but one species.

But it's been an uneasy and litigious rise:
  • "In the process of transforming an item of utilitarian footwear into a ubiquitous fashion icon, UGG’s corporate parent, Deckers Outdoor Corporation—an American conglomerate selling an Australian sheepskin product manufactured in China—sparked an acrimonious international trademark dispute that ensnared politicians, reshaped fashion and hobbled a national industry in order to shape a global one." (Wall Street Journal online, Sept 9 2010)

Deckers, the American company that bought Uggs in 1995, has aggressively hunted the competition through:

  • trademark infringement lawsuits (ie: against rival sheepskin boot company Koolaburra),
  • fraudulent eBay auction pogroms,

Fake Uggs -->
SiteJabber estimates they are the most counterfeited brand of 2010,
topping the list just above Coach, Tiffany's, Louboutins, and sports jerseys.
  • cease and desist campaigns against the cottage industry boot companies that showed fledgling international sales (most famously, the McDougall family 'Uggs-n-Rugs' which lives on here!) 

Uggs is in the news again, with the recent filing of a trademark infringement lawsuit against Emu Australia.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the California suit alleges Emu is misleading consumers:  In response, Emu Australia's Dave Porter:
  • The... law suit makes us laugh down here in Australia. What does the word “Australia” convey to consumers as part of the Ugg® Australia trademark?  Customers do care about trust and true brand heritage...they are also smart! Eventually the truth about these brands that try to leverage off Australia will become widely known; that they are not in fact genuinely Australian.
According to the same Wall Street Journal article, Deckers reported a 25% third-quarter profit, record international sales, and an improved margin.  The brass claims this is due to "more compelling products and a wider consumer audience".  I have to balk at this, since Ugg boots are as recognizable as the Christian Louboutin red sole, and their appeal has little to do with expanding product lines or converting untapped markets.  They are a one-note brand.  In my opinion, Uggs owes their meteoric rise and freakish staying power to the cult of celebrity.  They have been long-favored by stylists and their big-name clients as in-between takes footwear:

Pammy Anderson, on the set of Baywatch
Of course, teenagers mimic their idols, especially if the slippers being sported have an inaccessible $175 price tag... then they MUST be good!  Oprah's gave them her regal seal of approval when she chose them as one of her Favorite Things in 2000.  Kate Moss wears them at Glastonbury, SJP drops her kids off at school in them.  It's impossible to open a People Magazine and NOT see them nowadays.

Uggs is now the high school mean girl, so popular and powerful that she doesn't need your approval anymore.  But... I'm sensing the inevitable backlash, cafeteria revolt, and regime change.  Uggs corporate stance presumes there are only two kinds of people who don't do the sheepskin shuffle: those who can't afford $180 boots and those who just haven't bought a pair... YET.  This we-don't-need-your-business-but-we'll-take-your-money attitude is particularly dangerous for a company that proffers a utilitarian item, steeped in heritage.  Suing Australian companies for manufacturing their traditional footwear looks ugly on an American company that does all their work in Economic Processing Zones like China.  This Goliath just keeps kicking David while he's down, and it's distasteful enough to turn non-Ugg wearers like myself into Ugg-boycotters.

So good luck in court, Emu.
I can't imagine Emu Australia's advocates needing to say anything other than this:

Take a look inside, not even the company, but the boot itself.
Emu Australia, Made in Australia
Uggs, Made in China.

Find great AUSTRALIAN brands at NatureShop: Love From Australia, Emu

1 comment:

  1. I have yet to read one of your posts when I haven't learned something interesting. You certainly aren't afraid that you might be alienating certain groups (ie. redheads, UGG wearers etc.). Keep 'em coming.