Taking over China: Ugly footwear collabs

    Footwear brands Ugg and Crocs reported booming financial results, thanks largely to carefully selected collaborations driving growth in China.
    Collina Strada's Uggs for Spring 2024. Photo: Ugg
      Published   in Fashion

    Just like world-famous pop stars Nicki Minaj or Taylor Swift, US footwear brand Crocs has a Chinese nickname.

    Known as the “holey shoe” (洞洞鞋) in the mainland, the maker of wonderfully hideous clogs has a collaboration strategy that has propelled it to becoming a household name in China, from Feng Chen Wang’s deconstruction to Clot’s east-to-west touch.

    “Collaborations allow us to broaden the aperture of creativity, provide an emotional connection to our consumers, and drive relevancy with a cultural zeitgeist,” Crocs’ Global Vice President of Global Trend and Design Lucy Thornley tells Jing Daily

    The results show that its approach is working. Just this week, Crocs announced its Q1 2024 financial results. Revenue increased 6% over last year to a record $939 million.

    Feng Chen Wang x Crocs exemplifies how brands can elevate their offering through designers. Photo: Crocs
    Feng Chen Wang x Crocs exemplifies how brands can elevate their offering through designers. Photo: Crocs

    Fueling this robust performance is the brand’s ability to connect with various subcultures and consumer bases through co-branded collections.

    Following a similar trajectory, Ugg has also leveraged the appeal of collaborative capsules and projects to carve out a durable business model. The brand has drilled down on the China market in recent years, having worked with leading Shanghai talent Feng Chen Wang consistently since 2021, as well as having launched limited edition capsules with local designers Staffonly, Attempt, 13DeMarzo, Shuting Qiu, Randomevent, and jewelry brand Yvmin over the past year alone.

    For Yvmin's May 2024 collaboration, it was a creative project rather than a public release: "This cooperation is our attempt, as a jewelry brand to combine innovation with other categories of products. We hope to bring more creativity and in the future offer products for purchase," explains Yvmin founders Xiaoyu Zhang and Min Li.

    Ugg, an established and frequent collaborator on a global scale, is set to drop Collina Strada, Chopova Lowena, Ashley Williams, Wales Bonner, and Magliano collections this year, which were unveiled at the Fall 2024 fashion weeks.

    The brand’s owner Deckers Outdoor Corporation (DECK) reported record performance: for Q3 fiscal 2024 financial review, the company stated that Ugg brand net sales increased 15.2% to $1.072 billion compared to $930.4 million the previous year.

    Indepdent Chinese label Shuting Qiu is one of Ugg's 2024 collaborators. Photo: Ugg
    Indepdent Chinese label Shuting Qiu is one of Ugg's 2024 collaborators. Photo: Ugg

    New horizons#

    Both Ugg and Crocs have transformed their once-restrictive brand reputations: The former a cheesy classic made famous predominantly by American A-to-Z-listers, who accessorized velour tracksuits in the noughties, while the latter became known for its notoriously ugly, gardening shoe that was labeled socially unacceptable just a decade ago.

    Yet, today, both brands have produced effective identity revamps through collaboration.

    Ugg’s 2023 Palace Skateboards collaboration showed that the footwear brand had attained a solid level of social prestige in fashion and youth culture – the Tasman Slipper by Palace is now listed on StockX at a 58% price premium. It is likely that a skater-focused collection would not have been achieved if it were not for the Telfar, Y/Project, Molly Goddard or Eckhaus Latta collections that came before it.

    Despite debuting its high fashion versatility with Balenciaga back in 2018, Crocs has not infiltrated fashion as frequently, but it is less of a surprise to see the shoes hit the catwalk

    Cult streetwear collaborations with the likes of Salehe Bembury and Palace Skateboards have amped up its Gen Z following, making the brand hot property for luxury brands wanting “cool” mainstream attention. This year saw Crocs’ first Simone Rocha collection, which offered a maximalist embellishment of clogs that are far from the famously unattractive slip-ons the brand is known for.

    Simone Rocha dazzled consumers with the Crocs collection for Spring 2024. Photo: Simone Rocha
    Simone Rocha dazzled consumers with the Crocs collection for Spring 2024. Photo: Simone Rocha

    As well as high-end collections, Crocs went viral in China for its global McDonald’s collection in 2023, with the “McDonald’s x Crocs Collab” hashtag raking in 10.5 million views on Weibo within three days

    On having such a diverse range of partners, Thornley says, “We’ve earned our right to play in the space and we’ll continue doing so because there is a consumer seeking it. We want to keep connecting with the right partners in a way that feels intentional and authentically Crocs.”

    Back in 2021, the footwear brand teamed up with popular Chinese actress and singer Yang Mi, in a partnership with creative production company MediaMonks. Together, they created an interactive installation for consumers to play with in selfie-booths and take photos at Shanghai’s Taikoo Hui mall to promote a collaborative collection. The result? Major online and brick-and-mortar traffic, with Crocs reporting a high social traffic conversion rate of 32%.

    “The frequency and variety of our collaborations represent our global tapestry of consumers. It’s broad, it’s varied, and it’s rich,” says Thornley. “As a democratic and broad-reaching brand, we’re deliberately targeting different consumers with every collaboration.”

    Therefore, every collection is presented as a project that is unique, a tactic that has engaged various pockets of consumers in the China market. Crocs are the ultimate blank slate for creatives, making their basic appearance a huge advantage.

    Chinese jewelry brand Yvmin redesigned Uggs for 2024. Photo: Ugg
    Chinese jewelry brand Yvmin redesigned Uggs for 2024. Photo: Ugg

    Blank slate advantage#

    In the past, the brand has said in interviews that it is targeting affluent Gen Zers in China. Alone, it could not reach this category of shoppers, after all it is known as a maker of affordable comfort footwear. Yet, with the assistance of designers like Simone Rocha, it can achieve a higher-end price point.

    Similarly, Ugg has developed an innovative, fashion-forward reputation as a streetwear staple. The sheepskin-lined boots have been embellished with gems by Gallery Dept., given a cut-out T for Telfar, and printed with lightning bolts by Palace. The shoes have been put on a platform with ribbons by Collina Strada, transforming them from their original initial.

    Through reinvention, these brands are asserting the timelessness of their trademark classic silhouettes, while maintaining relevance.

    As Thornley says, for Crocs, “Partnering with fashion creatives is an opportunity to continue pushing the brand forward. It’s a creative meeting of the minds that allows us to couple our DNA with our partners’ unique perspectives to create something truly one-of-a-kind.”

    Business is booming, so brands like Crocs and Uggs can not only reach new subcultures and target consumers through diverse collaborative collections, they are in a good position to support the fashion industry. As Chinese designers strive to gain higher levels of prestige on the world stage, collaborations with blossoming footwear household names provide immense support and exposure.

    As Uggs and Crocs demonstrate, having an ultra-distinct reputation does not restrict brands, it can be used as a blank slate for external creativity when you know where to find the most effective partners.

    • Thanks to their collaboration strategies, both Ugg and Crocs have transitioned from being known as a stereotypical, ugly classic, to becoming a streetwear staple.
    • Tapping multiple Chinese designers, household footwear brands are supporting the fashion industry while simultaneously borrowing their exposure and subcultures.
    • Brands that are only famous for one product design can find innovation through inviting external partners to reimagine it, transforming a tired signature into a timeless classic.
    • When approached authentically, collaborations offer brands a chance to connect with new subcultures and target consumers, as demonstrated by past viral collaborations.
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