|A very old photo of my brothers pretending to be bogans in their ugg boots. Faces covered to protect the guilty.
This is a little bit different from what I usually write about, but I hope you all find it interesting. No pictures as yet, but I hope to add some tomorrow – if there are any Aussie readers who have older photographs of ugg boots I could use please get in touch as I haven’t yet been able to find any.
Ugg boots in one form or another have been worn since the early twentieth century in Australia and New Zealand. Like many Antipodean inventions, the two countries like to argue over who should take credit, but nonetheless a sheepskin boot has been worn in those countries for at least 90 years. No-one can be entirely sure who first started calling them ugg boots, but an article in the Wall Street Journal gives this overview:
“Described as ugs, uggs or ughs (all shorthand for “ugly”), the name goes back as far as World War I, when Australian pilots were said to have kept their legs from freezing in unpressurized cockpits with “flying uggs”—“fugs”—sheepskin boots that reached well above their knees. Shearers, who, according to legend, had been wearing scraps of sheepskin tied around their feet for warmth since the late 19th century, picked up the term during the 1920s, and, in 1933, a company called Blue Mountains Ugg Boots began producing uggs in a rural region just west of Sydney.”
From their beginnings with First World War aviators and farmers in 1920s rural Australia, uggs began to be pulled on by surfers in the 60s as they came out of the water, and by the 1980s when I was growing up almost every child and adult had a pair to wear as slippers around the house. Ugg boots had become an intrinsic part of our lifestyle.
The majority of Australians were thus bemused when ugg boots went from being a slipper worn at home to a desirable fashion item. Suddenly in the mid-90s uggs became globally popular as actors in LA started wearing them on set and being snapped by paparazzi. Rapidly, they transformed from being a slipper that Antipodeans wore only indoors (the shame if you were caught outside in your uggs!), to something that was worn with shorts or jeans out of doors. Today, the boot that was originally worn by pilots and farmers is perceived as being an effeminate item of clothing, and is rarely worn by men anywhere other than New Zealand or Australia.
The company now most associated with this popular style of sheepskin boot is known as Ugg Australia, registered as Deckers Outdoor Corporation. Now for a few facts.
- Deckers Outdoor Corporation is a US company based in California. Ugg Australia is NOT an Australian company.
-The majority of Ugg Australia footwear is manufactured in China, with a small portion taking place in New Zealand. This is clearly stated on page 6 of the company accounts which you can read through via their website here. (page 7,14, 15). “All of our third party manufacturers are in China and New Zealand with substantially all production performed by a limited number of manufacturers in China, with planned 2010 production in Vietnam as well.” Ugg Australia boots are NOT manufactured in Australia.
- The sheepskin itself is sourced from three tanneries in China, who buy their skins from Europe, the US, and Australia. Again, this is in the annual report of the company (page 7,14, 15). Ugg Australia sheepskin is only sourced IN PART from Australia.
- The name ‘ugg’ was first trademarked by Brian Smith in 1979 when he began importing the boots to the US, despite the fact that this style of boot had long been generically known as an ugg in Australia and New Zealand. Under trademark law, a generic name for an item CANNOT be registered as a trademark (so for instance, you cannot trademark the word ‘candle’ or ‘bread’). The company and trademark were sold to Decker Corporation in 1995, and the word ugg is now trademarked in over 100 countries. The exception is Australia and New Zealand who have successfully had it removed from the trademark register after a decade of nasty legal tussles. This means that any company selling sheepskin boots in those countries can legally call them uggs – reasonably enough since this is how they have always been known. The term ugg is a GENERIC name for any sheepskin boot, and should never have been trademarked.
- Amusingly, on page 8 of their accounts they state: “Due to the popularity of our UGG products, we face increasing competition from a significant number of competitors selling imitation products.” If I wasn’t clear before, let me restate the facts. Sheepskin boots have been made, worn, and called ugg boots in Australia since the 1920s. If anyone is guilty of imitation here, it is the Decker Corporation.
- “At December 31, 2009, we employed approximately one thousand employees in the US, Europe and Asia, none of whom were represented by a union.” (my own italics)
When Decker Corporation took over the ugg trademark in 1995, they proceeded to target any small business using the word ugg and serve them with ‘cease and desist’ orders, thereby crippling the local industry. Their bully boy tactics drew the attention of an outraged Australian public, and eventually the company was taken to court by the West Australian company Uggs-N-Rugs in 2005. Decker lost the case and the phrase ‘ugh-boots’ was removed from the Australian trademark register, allowing businesses once again to use the term which had been in existence since the 1920s.
However. Due to the powerful marketing produced by the Decker Corporation for Ugg Australia, most people in the rest of the world now believe that the word ugg is a brand name. Australian companies that call their boots uggs are seen as fakes, so sheepskin boot brands in Australia and New Zealand have found themselves unable to participate in the lucrative global industry. A trademark that should never have been awarded is still punishing manufacturers and traders in the original countries of invention. And due to the fact that most people perceive ugg to be a brand name rather than a generic term, it has proved impossible to remove the trademark from the register in other countries.
What can you do?
The correct name for a sheepskin boot is an ugg boot, so call them that – we should reclaim the name from a corporation who had no right to buy the trademark to a word in common usage. And buy your ugg boots from wherever you like, if it is a sheepskin boot then it is a genuine ugg.
Side note: In Australia and New Zealand ugg boots are usually only worn indoors as a house slipper – only bogans
wear them outside (what the British would call a chav or Americans a redneck). Ugg boots are not designed to withstand water and the suede can be difficult to clean, so they are generally unsuitable for outdoor use. In addition, the rubber sole does not have an adequate level of arch support; most podiatrists agree that it simply isn’t good for your feet to wear ugg boots as an outdoor shoe.