Crocs: The ugly footling

The garish clogs that feel as if you're walking on a sponge, inspire either love or loathing.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

They are as ubiquitous as umbrellas on a rainy day. Or ants at a picnic. But they appear in a far more eye-catching array of crayon-box colors. You've seen them on everyone from celebrities to toddlers. They are sold in 90 countries worldwide, at a rate of 60 million pairs a year. If you don't own them yourself, you undoubtedly know someone who does.

They are Crocs – the ultra trendy footwear reminiscent of an accidental mating between Swiss cheese and a gardening shoe. As their popularity has skyrocketed, Crocs have become the shoe that people either love, or love to hate.

"There's no in between," says Jackie Nelson, a Boulder, Colo., yoga instructor who has three pairs in her closet. "I'm a true Crocs fan, because I wear them despite their ugliness. You can't beat them for comfort." Today, she's paired her stoplight-red Crocs with black capri pants and a fitted white top. Not exactly high-fashion, but still with a nod to style.

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For the Nelsons, who moved to Boulder from Austin, Texas, two years ago, Crocs loyalty is a family affair: Her husband wears them, as does her father and her in-laws. Her 14-year-old daughter has three pairs (pink, blue, and purple), and has worn them "everywhere" in the past couple of years, says Ms. Nelson. "To school, to the mall, out to dinner. She's even worn them to church. This is Boulder," she says with a shrug.

Ugly shoes have long held a certain cachet. Think Birkenstocks, Uggs, Earth shoes. But few things are as fickle as fashion. As fads go, surely Crocs should be past their expiration date.

Oscar Wilde once observed: "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months." Crocs, however, seem to have cracked the code.

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The company, founded in 2002 in bohemian Boulder by three fishing buddies, exploded into footwear fame around the time that Crocs went public in February 2006, with the largest footwear initial public offering (IPO) in history. A year and a half later, Crocs sales are stronger than ever: In the past year, they've jumped from $108 million to $364 million. And the company's shares have more than quadrupled.

What was originally conceived as a boating shoe – waterproof, with a nonskid sole and ventilation holes – has become, in defiance of all reason, a worldwide sensation. Now available in 30 colors, the $30 clog-style shoe is made of a proprietary resin the company calls "Croslite." The light yet dense material yields a feel that Crocs fans liken to walking on marshmallows.

Foot comfort, apparently, appeals to a broad demographic. Fans include celebrity chef Mario Batali, actor Jack Nicholson, and country-music stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Recently, President Bush was photographed sporting black Crocs, which he paired with black socks and shorts. In nations as diverse as Israel and Iceland, 1 in 4 people own a pair of the shoes.

The Crocs phenomenon is not purely a love-fest, however. Detractors abound, and they aren't diplomatic with their diatribes. On Manolo's Shoe Blog (http://shoeblogs.com/), Crocs are termed "the hot trend in footwear for the lazy person." And on ihatecrocs.com, Vincenzo Ravina and Kate Leth devote an entire website "to the elimination of Crocs and those who think their excuses for wearing them are viable."

Ask Mr. Ravina why he finds Crocs so objectionable, and then take a breath. "They are exceedingly ugly. They are chunky, luridly colored, perforated, and overall, an eyesore," he replies. "They are to your eyes what second-hand smoke is to your lungs."

Ravina, a college student from Halifax, Nova Scotia, scoffs at testaments to the comfort of Crocs. "My bathrobe is comfortable," he says. "But I don't wear it to the supermarket. You have to respect other people's aesthetic."

He and fellow blogger Ms. Leth have clearly struck a chord with their website, which they created a year ago on a whim and now gets at least 1,000 visitors a day. "I didn't expect it to take off the way it did," he says. They also do a brisk business selling T-shirts and buttons, with logos like "Friends don't let friends wear Crocs," and more simply, "I hate Crocs."

Even in Boulder, where you can buy Crocs at the grocery store along with celery and soy milk, there's something of a backlash. "I don't have any friends who wear Crocs," says Rachel Losowski, a style-conscious senior at the University of Colorado. "They're just really bad. Really weird." As for claims to their comfort, she winces. "When I go out, I want to look nice, not comfortable," she says.

Once, she was out with friends and saw an attractive male heading her way. Then she spotted Crocs on his feet. "I said to him, 'I thought you were cute, but then I saw your shoes!' " she says, laughing.

But at the Pedestrian Shops – the largest Crocs dealer in Colorado – sales of the garish shoes remain brisk. "We sell a couple of thousand pairs every month," says Richard Polk, at his sprawling store on Boulder's postcard-pretty Pearl Street Mall. "We sell more Crocs on a summer day by noon than we do other brands all year long."

Four years ago, Mr. Polk was the first shoe retailer to sell Crocs. Almost immediately, they were a hot item. In 2005, he built an addition to the store to neatly display 5,000 pairs along the walls, gleaming like jelly beans in jars. Polk, who's been in the shoe business since 1969, also walks the talk: Today, he's wearing a worn pair of navy blue Crocs, along with khaki shorts and a black polo shirt. "I wear them most days. I wear them everywhere. I even have some black ones that I call my 'dress Crocs,' " he says.

Boulder, a laid-back city of 100,000, is not exactly known for Parisian chic. Its last significant contribution to pop culture may have been "Mork & Mindy." As far as fashion goes, it's the kind of place where people wear – well, their Crocs ... everywhere. An outsider might think Boulder was home to a clown college.

Yet it's that element of whimsy that accounts for much of Crocs' appeal. "The idea that I can do grown-up serious stuff and wear these silly shoes, that's fun," says Polk. "It's kind of like going to a candy store, but you don't eat it; you wear it."

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While candy-colored feet may not be for everyone, Lyndon "Duke" Hanson, Crocs vice president and cofounder, has a ready reply for naysayers: Just try them on. "We know there are Crocs bashers out there, but we can convert most haters," he says. "We say, 'We know they're ugly, but once you try them on, they're a thing of beauty.' "

In fact, the company's first ad campaign was, "Ugly can be beautiful." But even at Crocs, the iconic success of the shoe has been surprising. "In just five years it went from just the three of us with a startup, to having 5,000 employees worldwide and a $5 billion company," says Mr. Hanson. "It's certainly not something we expected."

Crocs is expanding its line. The company now sells more than 30 models – all variations on the basic cloglike shoe. While cheaper imitations of it now abound, they don't seem to have hurt sales. Come fall, a more stylish brand called YOU by Crocs will arrive in stores, featuring leather shoes and boots that incorporate Crocs resin.

Still, the bright slip-ons remain the company's mainstay. As long as their popularity persists, devoted Crocs haters say they'll continue with their venom, too. Ravina thinks the fad will soon fade – "look at the Macarena," he says.

But Hanson is paying no heed to predictions of doom. "Sure, we had a one-hit wonder of a shoe, and we know that. But once you get to $5 billion, you're not a fad anymore; you've defined an industry," he says. "We're probably the most popular shoe in history."

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