It looks like Ugg love

Sheepskin footwear is (a) gorgeous,( b) hideous, (c) comfortable, (d) clunky or (e) a national uniform.

At the very least, you should have selected "e," but the answer probably doesn't matter. The fur-lined boots everyone seems to be wearing -- even in July -- are a fashion phenomenon that shows no signs of abating.

The king of the hill -- Ugg Australia -- hit the U.S. market like a sledgehammer and sales started to soar around the turn of the millennium, defying all odds for what should have been just another fad. Instead, in the third quarter of 2009, the company sold more than $212 million in products. Surely, the word "Ugg" will be printed on many a gift box this holiday season.

So, if you're wondering how one product maneuvered its way onto the conveyor belt of mass culture, we provide a few answers below.

In the beginning

It's thought that Australians were wearing some sort of sheepskin-lined footwear for decades (and that the term "ugg" evolved from "ugly boots"), but if you're looking for someone to blame -- or thank -- for the U.S. invasion, consider Australian surfer Brian Smith, who started the Ugg Australia footwear company in 1978. Seeking to increase sales of his fur-lined boots, Smith came to the U.S. with about two dozen pairs of the footwear, selling them to California surfers and, eventually, to the Hollywood set.

The sheepskin is twin-faced, meaning that the wool is still attached to the suede during the construction and dying process. That makes the fur very porous. So, if you've always wanted to know why Angelenos wear sheepskin footwear with shorts in the summer, it's because the material is naturally thermostatic. The boots will keep feet cool in 80-degree weather and warm when it's 10 below. Breath-ability is key.

In 1995, Smith sold his company to the Goleta-based Deckers Outdoor Corp., which decided to expand from its basic "heritage" line to include a handful of new styles; a few years later, the company opted to reposition Ugg Australia as a luxury brand.

In the late 1990s, Deckers switched the primary focus of the footwear company to the international market. What started as a small enterprise to clad the feet of Australian surfers now seems intent on world domination. Or, at least, boot domination.

Touched by Oprah

Looking back, it seems apparent that, as with most enterprises, there was a tipping point at which operations moved into warp drive. For Ugg Australia, that might have been in 2000, when Oprah Winfrey got a pair of Ultra boots. She liked them so much that she ordered 350 pairs for herself and her staff.

Then, in 2003, when the pink and blue Classic Shorts were featured on her "Favorite Things" holiday show, pandemonium ensued. (In 2007, that list included the company's Classic Crochet Tall Boot.) Boots appeared on auction sites, selling for triple their retail value. Footwear News dubbed the label "Brand of the Year." And Ugg managed to ensure that various starlets, who love to comb through the swag suites at film festivals and award shows, were photographed wearing their product.

Debbie King, Bloomingdales' vice president for women's shoes, admires the brand's longevity and appeal to a broad audience. The company is always on the move, she says, updating styles and colors to keep the footwear fashion forward.

"They just keep offering newness and fresh ideas . . . like the Bailey Button [a style with a button on the side]. In the fall season, Ugg is the No. 1 brand we sell."

Last December, the Washington Post reported that Ugg boots had "yet to go out of style" -- even during the recession.

"Several styles of the boots . . . were sold out on Nordstrom's website . . . and were not expected to ship for at least a month," the Post reported. "Nordstrom limits sales of Ugg products to four per customer at the request of the manufacturer, which was worried about shoppers reselling them online. . . . Indeed, many products that are supposedly sold out wind up on the Internet -- often with a higher price."

Ugg Australia has become involved with big-name charity events as well. On Dec. 15, Fred Segal Feet, Ugg and Studio One Collaboration held a benefit for the Surfrider Foundation's West Los Angeles / Malibu Chapter. At the event, Ugg Australia boots were silk-screened live by FreshPressed, featuring unique artwork from Shepard Fairey (20% of all proceeds from the event went to the charity).

Of course, popularity begets criticism. Two years ago, Zoe Lem, a British celebrity stylist who has done work for magazines such as Elle and Marie Claire and who blogs at MyFashionLife.com, was asked, "What do you think is the absolute worst trend at the moment?"

"Most definitely Ugg boots!" she declared. "They are the ugliest things I've ever seen, along with Crocs! Ugg boots have become so popular through celebs . . . wearing them, but they make the ankles look fat and are just so hideous I don't get them at all."

A writer at the website DemiCouture announced: "Uggs are never acceptable footwear. Uggs are (besides Crocs, of course) the ugliest thing you can put on your poor feet. Come on . . . they deserve better. These shoes do their namesake proud; they are ugly!"

Criticism is not limited to the product. There are people who see Ugg Australia and its parent company as a Microsoft-like leviathan, protecting its interests at all costs and suing over alleged license infringements at the drop of a shoe.

What's in a name

In 2004, a group of small manufacturers in Australia formed the Ugg Boot Footwear Assn. to combat Deckers' claim that it owns all the rights to the name "Ugg." The association argued that the term was originally an abbreviation of the word "ugly," and, therefore, generic. According to the Dominion Post in Wellington, New Zealand, the Australian regulator of trademarks agreed with the association in 2006, and local manufacturers were once again allowed to call their sheepskin boots "uggs." Deckers Outdoor Corp. still owns the trademark in the U.S. and Europe.

And then there's the 2006 documentary "The Good, the Bad and the Ugg Boot," a 54-minute film that details the battle between Deckers and, among other clans, the McDougalls, who have been making "uggs" for nearly 30 years. An Australian government website described the film as "a story about cultural identity and survival in the age of globalisation. It's a spaghetti western narrated by Greig Pickhaver following the funny, tragic and heroic efforts of a couple of feisty small family businesses, in Australia and America, as they take on the giant US company, Deckers Outdoor Corporation, over a weird Aussie cultural icon -- the ugg boot."

But the criticism does not seem to have had much effect on the juggernaut that is Ugg Australia.

Nothing succeeds like . . .

Sienna Miller? Check. Justin Timberlake? Yes. André Leon Talley? Ten pairs of slip-ons, please. Hollywood offspring such as Kingston Rossdale and Violet Affleck have been spotted in Ugg Australia products. And for those who cannot have enough, there are more than 150 styles from which to choose.

Which bring us to the knockoffs. Ugg Australia has a Facebook page instructing consumers on how to avoid dealers selling faux footwear. The parent company says it has located more than 3,000 websites offering counterfeit goods.

Earlier this month, a columnist at the Anchorage Daily News wrote about her experience in looking online and ordering what turned out to be fakes. After her initial order, several days passed with no boots and no communication:

"I went back to the Web site, where I noticed a tiny 'About us' link at the bottom of the page and found this: ' "UGG" is not a brand name but an age old generic term for this style of Australian-made sheepskin boot.'

"I was starting to understand what I was dealing with. It was age-old and generic. A scam. High-priced, counterfeit Uggs."

After Julia O'Malley ordered the real thing (delivered three days later), she received a pink slip to pick up the other package at the post office:

"They were a dead-on match for the real ones, right down to the pattern on the soles and the little metal tag on the heel. But inside them, there was no fog-colored sheepskin. Instead, it was cream-colored fur of indeterminate origin. One of the guys I worked with picked them up and stroked the inside.

" 'It's probably endangered species,' he said."

Success also inspires competitors. Ugg Australia's upscale rivals include Koolaburra, whose products are worn by Miley Cyrus, Lauren Conrad and Vanessa Hudgens and whose prices are higher than those for Ugg Australia items. Companies such as Skechers and Old Navy are producing boots that offer a more affordable option for folks who can't splurge on a pair of the real sheepskin stuff that falls in the 100-plus dollar range. They're creating products that are similar in style but may be either faux-suede or lined in wool and cost around $50-plus.

Bottom line

Rachel Matthews of New York City sums up her version of boot love: "It's like getting to know a guy. At first he might not be that attractive. But after a few dates and you get really comfortable, you just can't be without each other. Well, that's how I feel about my Ugg boots."

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