Friday, December 1, 2023

Does Australia make the world’s best boots?

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“We don’t chase every customer because we don’t want to steer too far away from our DNA,” he says. There are certain design principles that will not change: the use of a single piece of leather to craft the boots, for instance. “But we do experiment with different materials such as recycled leather,” he says. “And there is an ongoing exploration of other boots, beyond the Chelsea [boot]. It will always be the iconic boot, but there is more to R.M.”

Brian Fernandez is the brand manager for the Ugg franchise in Australia, which is licensed through Accent Group (it also owns the licenses for Hoka, Superga and Doc Martens, among others). For Fernandez (who wears Ugg slides for our meeting), the brand is a rite of passage, something each new generation believes it has discovered – and this is part of the magic.

Ugg boots have been around since 1978, but every generation since then has rediscovered the brand and made it their own. 

“In the early 2000s you had people like Paris Hilton making the brand cool,” he says, “and now it’s people like [models] Hailey Bieber and Emily Ratajkowski.” Yes, he admits, the company “seeds” gifts to influencers, but much of the marketing is spread through TikTok, and is organic. “There are styles that constantly sell out – because they are featured on TikTok – that we have nothing to do with,” he says. (If you’ve tried to get your hands on a pair of the Ultra Mini Platforms, you will know this to be true.)

For Fernandez, it’s the way the fashion industry has embraced Ugg that has been key to its ongoing popularity.

Uggs on the runway for the Vivienne Westwood ready-to-wear fall-winter 2023-2024 fashion show. Getty

“Just this past year, Vivienne Westwood had Uggs on the runway; so did Martine Rose,” he says. In fact, British menswear designer Rose went one step further, custom-dyeing Uggs for her Pitti Uomo show in January. “And when someone like [actress] Julia Fox wears them, they sell out. They get the tick of approval from fashion, and that trickles down to everyone else.”

Adam Blake doesn’t think of Blundstone as a fashion boot, though others do. “We don’t consciously chase fashion,” he says. “We can barely believe people think we belong in that space, although they seem to.”

Blundstone joint-CEO Adam Blake is surprised how the company’s work boot has become a desirable fashion item.  

The Australian fashion brand Aje used Blundstones in 2016. “It’s amazing really, but when we ask designers why [they use the boots], they say it’s because they don’t stand out too much. They’re a blank canvas.”

There is a strong association, too, between customer and brand. “People feel like they own R.M.,” says Grossman. “Sometimes I’ll be in a store and customers will come in and just want to talk about the boots. They’re not there to buy. They’ve got what they need.” He gets “all kinds of feedback,” he tells me (“What they love, what they don’t”) and says his job is to “listen to feedback, but also stay true to what we think is right”.

‘It’s easy when you’ve been around for a long time to rest on your laurels. But you still have to prove yourself.’

Adam Blake, Blundstone

For Ugg, evolving is non-negotiable. Fernandez invites me to “the Ugg room” at Accent Group’s Sydney office where we are surrounded by shelves filled with all manner of Ugg shoes: sandals, clogs, slides, sneakers and, of course, the famed boots. “The market is ready for more,” says Fernandez, adding that expanding the product range is part of the brand’s aggressive push into Asia, especially Korea.

Ugg Tassy platforms are among the brand’s constantly evolving design output.  

Though Blake is adamant that Blundstones are not fashion items, he says the company is “at a point where we are more interested in collaborating and partnering [with fashion brands].” Happily, those partners are coming to Blundstone, and when the time is right, it will happen, he says.

“It’s easy when you’ve been around for a long time to rest on your laurels,” he says. “But you still have to prove yourself. You have to show your relevance. Getting into people’s hands is not a given.” Or, indeed, their feet.

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