Photographer: JB Reed/Bloomberg

The Billion-Dollar Race for the Ugliest Shoes

They ain’t pretty, but boy do they sell.

Americans are in love with ugly shoes.

Zara is selling weird, fur-striped sandals and stretchy laminated sneakers. Clunky black-and-white Adidas slippers are showing up on the feet of celebrities and fashion editors. Gucci designed some mystifying, ultra-shaggy slip-ons. Even Chanel tried to sell people on awkward, curvy cork wedges. It’s as if everyone’s racing to make the ugliest shoe. 

And on Friday, Ugg and Teva took the plunge into the widening sea of unpretty footwear. There is, apparently, a strategy afoot.

Teva x Ugg
Source: Teva x Ugg

The brands, both owned by Deckers, unveiled a crossbred sandal-boot horror deemed so universally grotesque that fashion publications proclaimed them the ugliest shoes of all time. One style looks like a sandal, but with an awkward hunk of fuzzy sheepskin sitting on top. The high-top version is perhaps odder, a chunky wool-lined boot with inexplicable openings at the bottom—you know, like the medical boots you wear when you break a foot. They’re being sold under the tag line “Suspend Your Disbelief.”

Some have been unable to comply. Racked called them “an abomination, for sure.” The Huffington Post dubbed them “the stuff of nightmares.” Glamour was left utterly perplexed: “We can’t even begin to imagine a scenario that these shoes are suited for.” Are they for the hot or cold months? If they’re supposed to keep feet warm, why are the toes exposed? Where could you possibly wear them?

Oddly enough, there may be something to this phenomenon. U.S. consumers seem to have a fascination with hideous shoes. They’ve helped build two bastions of practical yet absurd footwear: Ugg boots and Crocs clogs. Ugg hauls in more than $1.5 billion in annual revenue, while Crocs makes $1.1 billion. Although both have expanded into lots of other kinds of shoes, from wedges to loafers, their ugly classics remain best-sellers. 

Teva x Ugg
Source: Teva x Ugg

Fashion insiders are entranced, too. Editors at Vogue can’t seem to hide their affinity for cheap, bizarre lucite platforms from Yandy and contoured cork Birkenstock sandals. Designer Christopher Kane put rubbery Crocs on his runway at London Fashion Week. Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, another London label, collaborated with Ugg to make flats.

What’s going on? Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You, suggests shoppers might be more willing to try new, weird shoes because—she says—there’s now less social pressure focused on your feet. Wearers are less interested in trying to flatter, conceal, or make their feet look better. That’s distinct from the fear we feel about clothing because of the stigma surrounding body type and size, especially in an age where they’re bombarded with images online and on social media.

For their part, executives at the parent of Ugg and Teva contend their latest offerings are “unique and fashion-forward” and that they “celebrate the expression of freedom” and the “art of footwear design.”

Irony has muscled its way into fashion in recent years, with subversive, anti-establishment styles. Perhaps everyone just wants to laugh at their feet, which can relieve the anxiety we feel about our appearance.

“One of the ways to do that is poking fun of what we wear,” Baumgartner says. “Sure, it might burn our eyeballs out, but there’s something funny there, wearing these deliberately hideous shoes.”