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Crocs are the face of ugly shoes. Still, alongside their close cousins, Birkenstock and Vibram FiveFingers, the rubber clog has only grown in popularity over the years. The chunky footwear, sometimes affectionately called “dad shoes,” more recently appeared to have exchanged comfort for chic — but did they really?
Between 2020 and 2021, Crocs was one of the fastest-growing fashion brands, seeing an increase of 430% in sales. Given the pandemic and extended quarantine, this pattern of consumption makes sense: People simply didn’t need to dress up as much. “They don’t have as much social responsibility about dressing. Just like sweatpants, Crocs benefited from that,” said Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
But Crocs is not simply a Cinderella under a pandemic spell. It’s an understatement to credit all of their success to the pandemic and comfort-seeking consumers. Indeed, Crocs didn’t become the “it” shoes overnight. Instead, the transformation of the iconic clog is two decades in the making, fueled by the overall rise of ugly fashion, celebrity and designer collaborations, and even changing gender narratives.
Founded in 2002, Crocs started out as boating shoes, capitalizing on their porous, light, and low-maintenance qualities as a sporting good. While the rise of Crocs started as early as the beginning of the century in tandem with the rest of “ugly” fashion, it has been accelerated by a surge of interest among Gen Z in recent years. Today, the shoes are loved by a wider audience, including celebrities and fashion creatives. Inaugurated at a boat show, Crocs now graze runways, red carpets, and TikTok feeds alike.
The brand’s star-studded collaborations include Post Malone’s tattoo-inspired Jibbitz in 2018, Bad Bunny’s glow-in-the-dark clog in 2020, and Justin Bieber’s cartoon-themed design in 2021, among others. “The idea of a celebrity wearing Crocs in particular situations, like on the red carpet, for example, really makes a statement: It’s ironic, it’s fun, people will certainly be talking about it,” said Colleen Hill, curator of costume and accessories at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Whether you hate them or love them, Crocs bring a lot of attention.”
In the world of higher fashion, Crocs have captured the imagination of Christopher Kane, Demna Gvasalia, and most recently, Salehe Bembury. These collaborations do more than draw clout: They provide stylistic breakthroughs to Crocs’ simple, original form that further catapult their status in the fashion world. In his recent release with Crocs, Bembury reconfigured the traditionally porous clog with a flowy, line-based design — a radical step for the brand. “Salehe is the first designer to literally ‘break’ the mold. Now, we’re also able to see new shoe architecture coming out of crocs. They’re showing in this collaboration with Salehe a willingness to be even more experimental,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, the creative director and senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Canada.
It turns out, Crocs are an optimal canvas for designers to work with as well. According to Salehe Bembury, “Traditional footwear production is restrained by the capabilities or obstacles of leather, thread, or production time. The production of a Croc is not only revolutionary for footwear production but allows for an exploration of form that has never been seen in the space.” The flexibility of Crocs as a design medium leaves room for constant growth and embellishment. “I saw an opportunity to evolve an already established brand and signature design language,” said the shoe designer.
The culture of collaborations that made Crocs so successful may have been borrowed from its next-door neighbor, traditional sneakers. “They rival sneakers in an interesting way,” said Semmelhack. “There was this opportunity for Crocs to begin to model itself after what was so successful within the sneaker culture, which is to offer collaborations. Taking the idea of shoe collaboration and applying it to Crocs just at the right time also helped propel the brand forward.”
A leading argument for Crocs is also their emphasis on individuality. According to Hill, “It’s partly about this idea that maybe this younger generation, Gen Z, doesn’t feel the need to express transformation through fancy shoes, but through something that is accessible, recognizable, and at the same time, customizable.” From choosing Jibbitz that represent their identities to showing allegiance to particular celebrities, Crocs are a ready tool to display and distinguish oneself. “They’re not so much status shoes, but they’re certainly about self-expression and irony. I think in a way, that is the new means of transformation, showcasing that you’re confident and you want to wear this thing that’s not the most aesthetically perfect but has its own set of attributes like comfort and customization,” said Hill.
“Crocs with socks is definitely the move,” Justin Bieber said in a press statement on behalf of his 2021 collaboration with Crocs. “They’re comfortable, they’re fashionable, and most importantly it’s fun to bring your own style to how you wear them.” Under the banner of ugly fashion, any so-called style sins are absolvable, even trendy, making Crocs a liberating channel of self-expression. Celebrities like Bieber spearhead and validate the use of Crocs as a canvas of individuality.
An important feature of Crocs’ customizability is its gender neutrality. As society moves toward a more fluid and spectral perspective on gender, non-gendered footwear is increasingly embraced by consumers. Democratic in form, color, and customizability, Crocs are a compelling platform for self-expression in all dimensions. “If we continue to use the footwear we choose to assert our ideas of ourselves, Crocs just allows for a greater vocabulary in the statements we’re trying to make,” said Semmelhack.
Probing the reason behind the popularity of Crocs also calls for a broader understanding of the social meaning of shoes. “People seem to believe that shoes can actually change their lives. It’s like all these fairytale stories: ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Puss in Boots,’ or ‘Seven-league boots,’” said Steele. “Of all kinds of clothing and dress that people can wear, shoes are especially heavily endowed both as signs of identity and as kind of magical emblems.”
Shoes often serve as an incarnation of an individual’s aspirations, and Crocs could be an appealing vessel for this reason. “I think that Crocs are very strongly associated with children and play quality,” added Steele. “Maybe it’s that people feel that life will be more fun if they wear crocs. That would be a good magical thing to wish your shoes — to give you a more fun, playful life.”
Upon examining the changing ideas about fashion, individuality, and social contexts, maybe the ascension of Crocs isn’t so unusual after all. Crocs clogs aren’t just ugly — they are innovative, individualistic, and democratic. Certainly, they are more than a one-hit-wonder and here to stay for good.
— Staff writer Bella Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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