Saturday, January 15, 2011


Ugg is in.
Around London during this wintry weather, everyone is wearing boots, and a goodly number of them are Ugh - or possibly Ugg - boots. This unique Australian export has been embraced wholeheartedly by people who want warm and cosy feet, even though I could tell them that Ugh boots and rain really do not mix well.

In the Guardian the other day was a letter to the advice column:
'In the winter, no matter how good my intentions are in the morning, I always end up wearing my Ugg boots. How can I break this cycle?'
'You can't...Ugg boots are modern-day versions of...the Red Shoes - footwear that are like vices around one's lower extremities, rendering escape impossible...I don't think anyone has the willpower to use them properly. One minute you're just being sensible and keeping your feet warm, and the next you're wearing them in the rain in full knowledge that sheepskin does not mix well with water, but you just can't go one day without them.'
 As you may know, the Ugh boot has had a meteoric rise from ugly 1970's hippie footwear, roughly made and basically impractical, to fashion footwear of the stars. In Australia, small operations have been hand-making the things ever since the hippies needed something for their feet once summer passed and going barefoot lost its attractiveness. However, despite the name 'ugh' or 'ugg' being commonly used to describe the boots, one hopeful entrepreneur in fact registered the term as a trade mark back in the 1970s. He sold a few boots in the USA, but it wasn't a big business, and the word slipped into, or remained in, generic use in Australia.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and an enterprising company from the land of real entrepreneurs, the good 'ole US of A, bought the registration, adopted the mark, registered it in other countries and produced a damn fine quality example of the genre. They spent a lot of money on product development, advertising and - in a stroke of marketing genius - 'product placement' with the stars, managing to get Hollywood starlets to wear the things in public. Instant overnight success, and boots you could buy for $25 in Australia from a road-side sheepskin handcraft joint now cost $250.

The American company - being well advised by their trade mark lawyers - knew that they could never monopolise the name in Australia, where it was in general generic use. In other countries, however, they claimed ownership of 'Ugg' as a trade mark. From the hue-and-cry that broke out in Australia - of the 'multi-national steals Aussie icon' variety - you would have thought the US company was the devil incarnate. But the mark they use - on the boots of the London girls as well as everywhere else - is 'Ugg Australia', and I think that most if not all their sheepskin is sourced from Australia. The mums-and-dads running the roadside handcraft places also promptly put up their prices, riding off the back of the massive publicity generated by the despised 'multinational' - including selling on the internet into markets where the US company held trade mark rights. And they started spelling 'Ugh' as 'Ugg'. Thus began a trade mark dispute which produced a number of silly decisions and wasted a lot of money. The upshot is that 'Ugg' and it's variations are considered generic in Australia; but a Californian court has ruled that the word has only trade mark significance in the USA.

This is the official site for 'Ugg Australia' boots. They have sure come a long way from my hippie days. Here's how the company describes it's acquisition of the name:

A look back at 25 years of Sheepskin
The UGG® Australia story began in 1978, when Brian Smith, a young surfer from Australia, took a trip to the United States with a bag full of sheepskin boots. After finding a new home amongst California surfers, the UGG® Australia brand began to take shape.
Deckers Outdoor Corporation acquired UGG® Australia in 1995. By 1998, the product line had grown to include two boots, four slippers, and a few casuals. It was in 1998 that UGG®Australia brand first stepped up alongside the world's finest luxury footwear brands. UGG®Australia was positioned as a high-end luxury brand, made evident by a premium distribution strategy and high-end fashion marketing and communications.
The luxury and comfort of UGG® Australia proved to be a perfect fit for the high-end footwear world and soon Nordstrom had become the destination for UGG® Australia. The media reach expanded into more and more high-end magazine titles. The business continued to grow steadily as UGG® Australia reached beyond the beaches of California to New York City - and beyond.
In 2003, UGG® was named Footwear News' "Brand of the Year" and was responsible for the creation of an entirely new category of footwear. UGG® has also been featured on "Oprah's Favorite Things" five times since 2000, most recently in the Fall of 2010. Sheepskin footwear is seen on the runways in Milan, Paris and New York; and it all began on the beach in Australia.

Here's an example of an Australian site claiming to sell 'the original' boots. You'll note the spelling 'Ugg', the use of a font similar to that of Deckers' logo, and the placement of the logo on the exterior back of the heel, just like Deckers. The bedazzling array of variations on a theme also owes its existence to the fashion trends started by Deckers, to say nothing of the price (in this case A$169 for the 'classic' boot). Good luck to these entrepreneurs, but don't start whinging about the big, bad American stealing the little Aussie icon, eh?

I might  also mention that it is very easy to find lots of sites selling sheepskin boots and calling them 'ugg boots' in a generic way (an example) -- lots of work there for Decker's trade marks attorneys! 'Ugg Australia Logo' is a registered trade mark of Decker in the UK.

To end on a slightly ridiculous note - even more ridiculous than Ugh boots on the fashion runways - Pamela Anderson was one of the celebrities commissioned by Decker to flaunt Ugg boots. It is said that she later renounced the boots when she realised they were made from animal skin. I wonder what she first thought they were made of? She wrote on her website: "I thought they were shaved kindly?"  Oh dear.

You thought I was kidding about 'my hippie days', didn't you?
Proof from 1974

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