Andra Day wore Ugg Fluff Yeahs with her gold mesh gown to an Oscars after party. Addison Rae, Selena Gomez, Kylie Jenner and Kaia Gerber have been snapped wearing theirs on the sidewalk, on set and running to get coffee. For spring, London designer Molly Goddard gave Uggs a high-fashion spin, creating flatforms to pair with her feminine tulles, and come June, New York designer Telfar Clemens will release an Ugg sheepskin version of his famed Bushwick Birkin.
Not since the early Aughts have Uggs been so popular. Only now, there’s even bigger business in the footwear-driven-lifestyle sector, with the sale of Birkenstock to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-affiliated L Catterton, and the initial public offering of Dr. Martens.
The Southern Californa brand is poised to compete globally with its own head-to-toe ambitions. That’s due in large part to Andrea O’Donnell, president of fashion lifestyle at Ugg parent company Deckers Brands, a cool Brit who arrived five years ago at the Goleta, Calif., headquarters with experience at DFS Group, Lane Crawford and John Lewis department stores in the U.K.
During her tenure she has transformed Ugg from a sleepy cold weather boot business into a fashion player through buzzy designer collaborations and influencer campaigns (featuring from DJ Peggy Gou to fashion editor André Leon Talley).
O’Donnell and her team have built on the Classic sheepskin boots to create several innovative (and Instagrammable) footwear franchises, like the Fluff Yeah slipper sandals in raver colors, the Fluffita in a collage textile inspired by the California super bloom, and the Neumel chukka.
Last year they introduced the brand’s first dedicated ready-to-wear collection, with cashmere sweatsuits, fashion fleece and tie-dye biker shorts, which in coming seasons will evolve into more substantial outerwear, knitwear and activewear offerings.
“When I hired Andrea, I said your job is to disrupt us…I didn’t know what that looked like, but what she has done is remarkable. We’ve created a brand with core traditional accounts, new accounts and younger, more diverse consumers. It shows how much potential Ugg really has,” said Dave Powers, chief executive officer of Deckers, who bonded with O’Donnell over their shared love of ’80s and ’90s alternative music and their belief in a “no-a–holes” policy at work.
The relationship is paying off.
During the pandemic, cozy indoor and outdoor adventure dressing have been good for the bottom line. Deckers, which encompasses footwear lifestyle brands in both categories, including Hoka and Teva, reported record third-quarter results in February, propelled by Ugg, which saw net sales increase 12.2 percent to $876.8 million, compared to $781.1 million for the same period last year.
Powers sees potential for even more robust growth in the next five years. He’s aiming to scale rtw from 10 to 25 percent of the business, and retrofit Ugg’s 140 stores to better showcase the collection, which is front and center in the 11,000 square-foot Fifth Avenue flagship. He’s also expanding wholesale distribution from rtw launch partner Nordstrom to Saks Fifth Avenue, Dillard’s, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s this fall.
“It’s one of our top priorities. Now that we have proof of concept, we need investment in technical design and merchandising but also in bringing it to market — making our proposition online and with our partners more compelling,” Powers said, noting opportunity for expanding the brand further into Europe and China.
When O’Donnell signed on, Ugg — which was founded in 1978 by an Australian surfer in California — was stuck in the classics, with an aging fan base. “We had a lot of good intelligence on our customers, and one segment in women’s was saying her primary purchasing decisions were influenced by style.…So I knew we needed to change the way we thought about design,” she said.
Although she was an enthusiastic (U.K.-based) early adopter of Uggs in their Us Weekly, “The Simple Life” era, attracted by the starry SoCal associations, O’Donnell still needed a crash course in the actual California lifestyle when she arrived in the Santa Barbara area, where Deckers is based.
“One of the real big shocks was no restaurants open on Saturdays for lunch because everybody is out paddle boarding and surfing,” said the executive during a recent visit to her offices, where she was sporting her characteristically zany work attire of Eckhaus Latta dip-dye jeans, a vintage band T-shirt, an Isabel Marant grunge plaid coat, sustainable Ugg Fluff Sugar sandals in a Peeps-like shade of yellow and red David Bowie socks.
The first step in rekindling desire for the brand was to develop some tactical fashion collaborations. Under her direction, Ugg gave over its classic sheepskin boot to Jeremy Scott’s embroidered flames, Phillip Lim’s utilitarian zippers and Y Project’s slouchy thigh-highs that practically broke the internet when they hit the runway at Paris Men’s Fashion Week in 2018.
“In the early days, there was a lot of internal chatter about what is she doing with the brand? She’s crazy,” Powers admitted. “But product and storytelling trumped that.”
“They were giving us a perspective on our brand we hadn’t considered before — to challenge what we stand for and how we define ourselves,” said O’Donnell of the brand’s collaborators, which recently included Chinese-born, London-based designer Feng Chen Wang, who created a technical-inspired, transformable three-in-one sandal boot.
“I wanted to collaborate to expand our brand to female consumers,” said Wang, who has been pushing her men’s wear line in a more unisex direction, of what she got creatively out of the partnership.
Ugg x Telfar will include logoed boots, as well as T-shirts and underwear, hinting at more co-branded designer apparel and accessories to come as Ugg expands its fashion reach.
“We like what he does, we like what his brand stands for, and also, this sense of democracy, that his brand is for everybody. That’s what we are,” said O’Donnell. (Ugg brand prices range from $58 to $1,995, with most settling in the $100 to $250 range.)
“Ugg has this ubiquity that cuts across society — which is very much our vibe,” said Clemens. “But also as a brand it is built firmly on a tangible feeling, that comes directly from the materials and construction of the product. And that is rare for any brand and a very cool entry point for a collaboration. When you see Ugg you can feel them. That’s how we wanted the bags to act, for example.”
When it comes to Ugg’s own product innovation path, the Fluff Yeah, introduced in 2018, opened up the brand to play, and gave it confidence to do more in the fashion space.
“It’s completely outrageous…and there is something about the volume that is in most of our footwear — the Classic boot is a volume play,” said O’Donnell of the marshmallow-y slingback style, which comes in taffy-stripes, tie-dye, with Warholian flower motifs, or extreme platforms. “It was how to fashion-ize slippers in our heritage materials.”
“When you look at the different swatches and colors, it’s hard not to feel like you are in a candy store,” added Helene Frein, senior design director for women’s footwear, previously at Robert Clergerie, Calvin Klein, APC and Isabel Marant.
“We knew we had something fun, and spent a lot of time on the name and [$100] price because we knew it didn’t fit in the categorization of footwear and that there would be a debate is it a slipper or a sandal. There are still those debates, and we have done a lot of consumer research and 50 percent of people wear them outside,” O’Donnell said.
“When we thought this could really be amazing was when accounts didn’t know where to put it. It defies classification, it’s a unicorn. And when we put them in the windows of our shops, the feedback was instantaneous. It was a diverse, younger consumer,” she said. “We now know we have something, and the conversation is, where can it go globally?”
The Fluff Yeah became an acquisition driver for other Ugg styles in the U.S., particularly among 18- to 34-year-olds.
“I don’t think we knew how to connect with that customer until we had that. Getting that product and getting it on important people’s feet in the world of fashion, that was key. And it’s very rare you get a brand worn by those people at that price point because they can choose anything. That took the momentum to the next level, of effectively free publicity,” said O’Donnell.
“Go back two to three years ago, we couldn’t get a conversation with trendy boutiques.…Now they are reaching out to us,” said Powers, adding that the Ugg formula of developing footwear product franchises, some of which could theoretically be their own stand-alone brands, is one he’s looking to replicate at Deckers and through acquisitions.
Ugg’s casual, freedom fashion-feeling resonates in the rtw spearheaded by Khristene Son, a Gap Inc. veteran who has been designing statement-driven spring sportswear, including “Miami Vice”-like color block windbreakers, tie-dye faux-fur jackets, balloon-sleeved crewnecks, cropped tops and biker shorts, alongside more textural, classic outerwear for fall.
“The whole design philosophy is things should be softer than they look,” she said. “It’s such an emotional part of the brand experience, slipping your foot into a perfect shoe, and we want to deliver that through apparel.”
O’Donnell has also worked hard to evolve the brand’s values, making Ugg a canvas for self-expression.
Last fall, the “Feel” campaign launched spotlighting creatives wearing Ugg, including artists Sonya Sombreuil and Fulton Leroy Washington (Mr. Wash) as part of a partnership with L.A.’s Hammer Museum, and fashion legends Iman and Talley.
“Coming into the business, I knew from research that we had a relatively diverse customer base.…But we weren’t expressing ourselves that way. This was the Rosie Huntington Whiteley and Tom Brady years,” she said of the former faces of Ugg.
“I didn’t think it was the right representation of the brand going forward. So we made a decision within the first year to become more diverse and more real, using real people in our campaigns. André Leon Talley is the most recent manifestation, but we shot everyone from Kim Gordon to a rap crew in L.A. to older women, because I thought, ‘California is one of the most progressive places in the world,'” said O’Donnell.
Three years ago, Ugg started being more strategic around LGBTQ Pride, and this year’s capsule collection launching May 20 will feature a range of product, from rainbow disco stripe Fluff Yeahs to tutus.
LGBTQ inclusion is a priority within Deckers, which hosts an annual Pride festival on campus, and connected Ugg to a local youth foundation to host its first Pride Prom in 2019, a tradition O’Connell hopes to take global. (Deckers brands, including Ugg, have committed to featuring 60 percent people of color, LGBTQ and diversity of body types in marketing, and the company has pledged to have 25 percent of people of color representation at the director level in the U.S. by 2027.)
“We bring kids in, do a photo shoot, kit them out and tell their story. It’s validation you get from prom and from being photographed really cute and being seen by millions on our Instagram account,” said O’Donnell. “It’s a celebration.”
Sustainability is another business priority, although it’s a fine line to walk for a brand built on sheepskin.
“It is our heritage material and there are a lot of positive things about it; it’s a by-product of the meat industry, and if you look at both its biodegradability and its durability — our customers wear their Classics for an average of five years — the carbon footprint is really low,” said O’Donnell, explaining the brand is working with the Humane Society on “stress testing ethical protocols” and looking at ways to reduce waste by accepting more imperfections in sheepskin.
But fashion’s move away from animal products, fur especially, isn’t being ignored by the brand based in Southern California, where veganism and animal welfare are popular values, particularly among the young celebrities they are trying to court.
As a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact, Deckers is working on alternative and sustainable materials. Ugg’s The Plant Power collection launched in March with the brand’s first entirely plant-based shoes, including the Fluff Sugar flatform constructed from Tencel yarn made into faux fur with a cotton candy-like appearance, dyed using natural indigo, camellia or mulberry flowers, and a eucalyptus pulp sole.
“There’s a lot of work being done on raw materials, because 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from the processing of raw materials in manufacturing,” said O’Donnell, explaining that Ugg has partnered with the Savory Institute so that by fall 2022, she hopes to launch a number of collections using regenerative farming.
“It’s about creating a brand that’s desirable but diverse, accessible but with its own fashion point of view. What we are trying to do is make people feel,” she said of her outlook. “We’re having success with it and will continue to build in that direction. I’m hoping we’ll be the next accessible luxury phenomenon.”