The term ‘ugly’ can be a tricky one to apply to something as subjective as personal taste (beauty is in the eye of the beholder etc.), but currently we are having a bit of a love affair with footwear that most would deem ‘ugly’.
You know the type of sneaker we mean, the ones that defy the usual convention of ‘good’ design and do away with what we think is the considered approach. From the Big Red Boots of MSCHF, to the re-emergence of UGGs into the zeitgeist, shoes that turn heads not for their clean branding and minimal design are all the rage.
Looking at the past few years of sneaker trends, you can begin to see the trajectory that ugly shoes have been consistently moving up and to the right of the graph. With the introduction of Raf Simons’ adidas Ozweego 10 years ago, those inside the luxury fashion space were exposed to a design approach that went against the grain of the parade of minimal low top sneakers spearheaded by brands like Common Projects with their Achilles model. Bulky and bold replaced sleek and simple, and the ugly sneaker train was away.
After a couple of years of brands releasing their own bulbous and chunky sneakers — including the return of the New Balance 990, arguably the originator of the style — we hit 2016, and Balenciaga unleashed the Triple S sneaker. A shoe that was so audacious in its design that it was instantly an object of desire and mockery. You either got it or you didn’t, and seemingly every luxury brand definitely got it. Gucci released their Rhyton sneaker, Prada had the Cloudbust and Fendi with the FF Trainer — all of them trying to take the spotlight of the ugly sneaker stage.
The domino effect of these luxury brands embracing the shift away from minimal sneakers was quickly felt, with easily affordable options flooding the market, such as the Nike Air Monarch and Fila Disruptor making the style more widespread and accessible. Old silhouettes like the New Balance 2002R also saw rereleases as brands dipped back into their archives to find styles that suited the wave of ‘ugly’ sneakers.
What we see now is a move on from just sneakers getting the ugly moniker. Kanye West’s Yeezy released the Foam Runner in 2020, a single piece shoe made from an eco-friendly EVA foam that featured a unique, organic design. Perhaps a nod to the algae based material the shoe is made from. The release of the Foam Runner, coinciding with the global lockdowns due to the pandemic, saw a resurgence of previously shunned shoes that had the comfort credentials we were all looking for while working and spending all our time in our homes. Enter Crocs.
Despite being the subject of ridicule for the better part of 20 years, it seems that Crocs are releasing collaborations with some of the most admired brands in the industry. From popular brands like JJJJound, Aries, Vivienne Westwood and Palace to artist collaborations with the likes of Post Malone and Diplo, along with a similarly organic style thanks to a partnership with artist Salehe Bembury, Crocs have found themselves firmly in the cool section of the ugly-cool venn diagram.
The last few years have also seen a functionality focused trend bubble up — Gorpcore. Waterproof materials, pockets a plenty and shoes needed for long hikes (or the appearance of going on one) are all hallmarks of this aesthetic, and that functionality often comes at the price of ‘good’ design. Sneakers like the Salomon XT-6 and Nike Terra Humara QS have seen huge popularity from 2021 to now, while distinguished luxury houses like Maison Margiela joined the list of partnerships lending their hand to collaborations on gorpy styles.
So, ugly shoes are everywhere and everyone from your friends to influencers to megastars are wearing them, but why do we like them? The answer lies in that old faithful pendulum swing of the trend cycle.
For a long time the go-to pair of sneakers were the aforementioned low-top white and minimal styles popular in the late 2000s/early 2010s, so when a brand like Balenciaga bucks the trend and shows us the opposite of what we’ve become used to, those who exist in the fashion space and are first to pay attention to brands catwalk shows and new releases flock to the ‘new’, and become early adopters of what will eventually become the new norm. It’s partly a form of counterculture, which has been the hotbed for changes in the fashion industry for as long as it’s existed. From teddy boys in the 1950s, punks in the ‘70s and the explosion of terrace style with the emergence of Britpop in the ‘90s, the people who push what their peers consider to be normal end up leading the conversation in regard to what is ‘cool’, and once they’ve convinced everyone, inevitably someone else comes along to push a new approach and new style.
There’s also an element of nostalgia involved in the ugly sneaker trend. A lot of these styles were popular in the 1980s and ‘90s, which are the decades in which a lot of the designers in luxury houses (including Balenciaga’s Denma Gvasalia) grew up in, and will be mining for inspiration when it comes to where they want to push their brands and followers. Couple that with an audience who weren’t necessarily around the first-time styles like the New Balance 990 were popular and you’ve got a combination of newness and retro that is often a winner.
It’s clear the impact of lockdowns also had a huge influence on the popularity of ugly shoes. While sneakers like the Triple S were trending prior to the pandemic, having everyone unable to leave their homes for social events drastically increased the shift toward comfort. Slip-on styles like Crocs, Birkenstock’s Boston mule and UGGs took the place of Nike and adidas in daily rotations simply due to the fact everyone had gone into a cosier frame of mind, which we seem to have brought with us three years on. UGGs are now selling out on a regular basis thanks to the capitalisation on comfort and the release of their Tasman Slipper which were quickly seen on the likes of Gigi and Bella Hadid.
Could there already be a slight shift away from ugly and back to minimal? Looking at the wild popularity of the decidedly non-chunky adidas Samba over the last two years makes for a good argument in the ‘yes’ camp, but we’re still seeing bold and brash styles also have huge success, even on the minimalistic Samba silhouette, such as the silver styles from Grace Wales Bonner’s ongoing collaboration or the recent link up of Nike and Drake for the Nike Glide x Nocta collaboration.
The likelihood is we’re about to see a swing back toward something more refined and lower impact than 2016’s output. Or perhaps we’ve moved beyond one style dominating everything, and there is space for both a low-top pair of sneakers and a statement chunky pair in your rotation? We’re hoping for the latter.