The boot's on the other foot: how the humble Ugg went upmarket

They were once a must-have for anyone who couldn't be bothered to get dressed. Not any more, writes Harriet Walker
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Indy Lifestyle Online

They were the trend that sanctioned a thousand "pyjamas to the supermarket" runs, but Australian footwear company Ugg is now targeting more snappily-dressed clients with a luxury range of shoes, boots and handbags, with top prices approaching £1,500.

The brand's sheepskin booties spawned near-ubiquitous high street copies after being spotted on the feet of celebrities such as Elle MacPherson, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Moss in the mid-Noughties and becoming a style sensation, much to the despair of many a fashion commentator.

The squishy suede, fleece-lined slipper-boots soon became a point of social observation and mockery for the various tribes who donned them: yummy mummies, who bought the original Uggs to walk out in the slush with their Bugaboos; surly teens who opted for the cheaper high street knock-offs and scuffed their way through shopping malls without lifting their feet; eventually even fashion-forward boy-bands who wore them with skinny jeans.

Uggs were all-pervasive and inescapable, creating a culture of luxury loungewear so often were they teamed with pyjama bottoms on celebrity Sunday morning milk runs (Britney Spears and Eva Longoria among others) and so often caught by opportunistic Hollywood paparazzi.

But the new range, called "Ugg Collection" and launching next month at designer store Harvey Nichols, aims to pick the brand's name out of the gutter and restore its credibility after so many seasons of industry sniping. Once Katie Price has been seen in your products, goes the marketing shibboleth, it's time for an image overhaul. "Our 'rugged luxe' take in the Ugg Collection marries the luxurious comfort we're known for with premium materials and new styles that invite a new customer into the world of Ugg," says Leah Larson, Ugg's vice-president of products, of the new designs.

Each piece in the collection features a small nod to its provenance, with sheepskin linings still present (usually atop a towering heel or platform wedge) and the original rubber "lug" sole, as well as soft suede, outdoorsy-looking belt details and tweed effects, as well as bags made from waxed canvas and cotton. The signature durable and hard-wearing aesthetic remains, despite the prices of these items starting at £385 for the Alessia ankle boot, and going up to £1,485 for the Sassari weekend bag. The collection will be manufactured and produced in Italy, to further emphasise a note of high-end craftsmanship and luxury.

It's some distance from the humble origins of the Ugg Boot, so-called in the first place because they were so conspicuously ugly. The style was pioneered by Australian surfers who donned simple sheepskin mocassins on the beach in between sessions, which gradually evolved into a knee-high bootie. American actress Pamela Anderson was known to wear Uggs between takes of Baywatch.

The boot's development has also been marked by rivalries and lawsuits. In 1971, Australian surfer Shane Steadman first registered the brand name Ugg, as he recognised the potential in the product – but rival surfer Bryan Smith took the boots to New York in 1979, where he too registered the name Ugg in 25 countries, before selling it in 1995 to Deckers, the conglomerate behind this latest collection.

Since then, several imitations have sprung up, offering a variety of styles including pink Uggs, thigh-high versions ("thuggs") and "muggs", a menswear version offered recently by British retailer Peacocks for only £10.

None of these have been agreed by the parent company, which bodes ill for this most copied of cosy boot. But it's all good publicity during a transitional period in which attentions are turning from beach-bums and pramfaces to high-end luxury label lovers.

Story behind the brand

*The Ugg boots are believed to have started in Australia or New Zealand where the word "ugg" was used as a generic term to describe sheepskin boots. They were widely worn in rural Australia as early as the 1920s.

*In the 1970s they gained popularity as a more fashionable shoe in Australia and New Zealand after Deckers Outdoor Corporation began mass producing them.

*Their popularity abroad was started in 1979 among surfers who used them to stay warm when out of the water. They began as an American trend in the late 1990s and became popular in Britain in 2000, becoming a wardrobe staple.

*The Ugg boot has enjoyed celebrity popularity in recent years. Kate Middleton, Coleen Rooney and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson have all worn them.

*The low price clothes retailer Primark are soon to be releasing a version of the Ugg boot for men. The Mugg boot will tap into the increasing popularity among male wearers which has included Leonardo DiCaprio and Joey of The Only Way is Essex fame.

*In recent years some have denounced Ugg boots, including actress Pamela Anderson, for being cruel to animals. Animal liberation groups have lamented the trend for the sudden increase in demand for sheep hide that it caused.