The story of UGGS
People often confuse ugg boots with sheepskin boots, which have been in production in Australian since 1933. The ugg evolution birthed an entirely new genre of product that in the last 20 years has become a global phenomenon. A lesser known fact is that Charlie Spencer, a South Australian surgical boot-maker, designed the first rudimentary ugg boot for his daughter Sandra who just wanted to keep her feet warm. Charlie’s three surfer sons Graham, John and Brad (known by many in the surfing community as Speed) wore the same boot to warm their feet after getting out of South Australia’s cold surf.
At the time, Charlie made the boots using only three pieces of sheepskin and no sole. Essentially, it was a hand-sewn ugg sock. The sheepskin Charlie used was poorly tanned and riddled with seed marks and scars. The boot truly was ugly. But John Arnolds Surfboards (Est. 1958, at 142 Gawler Place, Adelaide) had so many customers asking for them, John Arnold’s himself approached Charlie to supply him. The boots were gaining notoriety among Adelaide’s small surfing community. Mr Arnolds came from a family of boot-makers, and they soon introduced a flat tread sole, using old car tyres, to Charlie’s ugly boot. Demand then soared.
From the late 60’s, John Arnolds Surfboards was a city hangout for young Adelaide surfers. The new line of boots was so well received that John Arnolds needed a name for his new product. It wasn’t until one of his customers, a young lady, came into his store and remarked, “they’re ugly” that John went and registered the name Ugg Boot. This happened in 1971.
It was around this time that John Arnolds entered into business with American company, Deckers Outdoor Corporation for the sale of Golden Breed shirts, a very popular surfing trend throughout the 1960s and 70s. This part of the story is important for what was to come.
John was the first to register the word ‘Ugg’ and it was in reference to Charlie Spencer’s 3 piece sheepskin sock with a used car tyre tread as a sole. The longstanding dispute over the origin of ugg boots has been a consequence of the word ugg being declared a term used to describe a sheepskin boot rather than a brand name. In 2006, Australian trademark regulators ruled that "ugg" is indeed a generic term and stated that the trademark "Ugh-boots" (and variations of it) should be removed from the trademark register. Sheepskin has been used in footwear since the 1930s, but not in products that resembled the ugg created by Charlie Spencer and later refined by sheepskin specialists.
During the early 70s, only two manufacturers (both in South Australia) and a handful of local boot-makers were producing Charlie’s ugg boot design, but could not sell using the Ugg name. South Australian manufacturer Kastoria Furs started its production of an ugg type boot in about 1973 and was the second manufacturer to specialise in the product. The owner of Kastoria Furs, Diamantis Siopoulos (Des) was a skilled furrier and pattern-maker from Kastoria, a town in northern Greece. He designed and produced more sophisticated versions of Charlie’s sheepskin product, but still kept true to the original ugg shape. Kastoria Furs introduced a type of EVA sole made specifically for the ugg boot. This change was a landmark moment in the evolution of the ugg boot and would forever change its place in history. Being the one of the most skilled furriers in Australia, Des refined the ugg patterns to make the boot more structurally viable and much, much prettier! Most of Des’s patterns are still in production today.
In fact, during the early 1980s, the ugg industry became so competitive, Des’s manufacturing facility was broken into several times and his patterns, blades and prototypes were stolen. Months later, similar boot designs appeared in stores on the eastern seaboard. Kastoria Furs truly was one of the most renowned manufacturers of quality ugg boots until at least the late 1980s. Des opened a tannery expanded his production facility in the early 1980s. The new factory was christened by the Hon Jack Wright on its opening day. This was the only factory in Australia to take raw sheepskin from the slaughterhouse and produce complete ugg boots, ready for retail.
The success of the ugg boot saw many other manufacturers such as Frank Mortel of Mortels Sheepskin Factory and Blue Mountains Ugg Boots start using the term ugg for commercial purposes. Mr Mortel and many others claim to have used the term to describe their company’s sheepskin boots prior to the 1970s. Actually, these claims stretch as far back as 1933. However the term does not feature in any advertisements or in any business names or trademarks until after it was registered by John Arnolds in South Australia in 1971. This is not to say that others did not contribute to the success of this iconic Australian product. In fact, it wasn’t until Victorian and New South Wales professional surfers donned the ugg boot that it became a global success.
Forward thinking entrepreneur Brian Smith saw the dramatic growth of the ugg trend in Australia and registered the business name Ugg Holdings, Inc in the US in 1979. This move would make him a fortune in years to come. Deckers Outdoor Corporation saw Charlie Spencer’s ratty ugg boot on the shelves of John Arnold’s Surfboards evolve into a highly commercial, highly profitable product sold all over Australia. They knew we were onto something. In 1995, they reportedly offered Brian Smith $32 million for his struggling US based company. They knew that with enough money, they could successfully commercialise the ugg boot in the US. They were very correct! In 2008, they reported a whopping US$689 million in ugg sales.