‘Ugly’ Footwear Market Surges And Becomes A Fashion Statement



Comfort-first footwear brands such as Birkenstock, Hoka, Crocs and On Running reported record-breaking first-quarter sales, as a shift in consumer preferences and strategic marketing tactics have transformed these once “ugly” shoes into fashion statements.

Key Facts

Birkenstock reported $524 million (€481 million) in revenue for the quarter ending March 31—up 22% year-over-year—and raised its full-year sales growth guidance to 20% from the previous 17-18%.

The German sandal maker “achieved the highest revenue level” for the first quarter in the company’s history, driven by “growing demand for products across all segments, all channels and categories,” said CEO Oliver Reichert during last week’s earnings call.

Hoka, a running shoe brand of Ugg-owner Deckers Brands, reported a 34% increase in first-quarter net sales to $533 million, topping half a billion for the first time—fueled by “increased brand awareness,” especially in the US and even among non-runners, according to Deckers Brands CEO David Powers.

Once considered chunky and ugly, Hoka has significantly grown its share of total net sales among all Deckers brands, from 11% in the fiscal year 2019 to 42% in 2024.

Crocs, a Colorado-based shoemaker popular for its distinctive ventilated clogs, saw a 6% annual gain in first-quarter sales to a record $939 million as revenues of its namesake brand were up 14.7%, “driven by robust consumer demand.”

Switzerland-based On Running—known for thick soles and performance-oriented looks—delivered record first-quarter net sales of $570 million (508.2 million Swiss Francs), up 21% from the previous year and surpassing 500 million Swiss Francs for the first time in company history, thanks to “exceptionally strong demand and momentum” in its direct-to-consumer channel.

Net sales of Japanese sneaker brand Asics—known for its classic dad sneakers with robust yet clunky design—were up 14.3% year-over-year in the first quarter, leading to a more than 100% increase in stock price over the past year.

New Balance, the dad shoe-turned-trendy brand, is set to launch a new product called the 1906L—referred to as “snoafer” due to its hybrid feature of a sneaker and a loafer—which “fits squarely into the ugly shoe space and is arguably a response to the trend,” according to Neil Saunders, managing director and retail analyst at GlobalData.

Crucial Quotes

“The [comfort-first or ugly shoe] trend was initially driven by the desire for comfort over style. This came to the fore during the pandemic when everyone was dressing comfortably and some of that trend has been carried over,” Saunders told Forbes. “However, as time has gone on, many of these shoes have become a kind of statement and so are, arguably, something of a fashion and cultural trend. They’re a kind of anti-fashion that people buy into to show they don’t take themselves or following trends too seriously.”

Key Background

The surge in comfortable and functional footwear started prior to the pandemic, but “was definitely accelerated” by it—and continued afterward—as people’s priorities changed and preferences shifted to convenience amid a more hybrid lifestyle, according to Beth Goldstein, a footwear and accessories analyst at Circana. “Sacrificing comfort for style now seems somewhat silly. This has morphed into this idea of ‘ugly’ becoming fashionable,” she said. The trend particularly resonates with younger generations. Since 2020, comfort-first brands, including Ugg and Birkenstock, saw almost a 200% increase in media impact value—a metric that measures the monetary value earned by media exposure—driven by rising demand from Gen Z, who prioritize comfort, according to a recent report from data analytics firm Launchmetrics. In Deckers Brands’ latest earnings call, Powers said Hoka’s growth is “strongest among 18 to 34-year-olds globally, with brand awareness among this influential age group nearly doubling year-over-year.” From fall 2022 to 2023, New Balance, Crocs, On Running and Hoka have all gained consumer awareness and popularity among Gen Z as their favorite footwear brands, while Nike—although still holding the top spot—has lost some ground to these brands, according to recent research by Piper Sandler, a financial services firm.

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While the rising popularity of ugly shoes mainly stems from their functional and comfortable design, some brands have effectively leveraged marketing tactics—such as celebrity endorsements and media exposure—to enhance their appeal. After Margot Robbie wore a pair of pink Birkenstock Arizona sandals in the Barbie movie, searches for the German shoemaker surged and the brand garnered $34.1 million in media impact value in July 2023, up 28% from the previous month, according to Launchmetrics. Moreover, products that weren’t necessarily comfortable still managed to capitalize on their “ugliness” by generating social buzz. Crocs’ partnership with Pringles in April led to an immediate sellout of its footwear collection, which was more quirky and Instagrammable than comfortable. Last year, the company’s viral red and yellow giant boots, in collaboration with Brooklyn-based art collective MSCHF, were endorsed by many celebrities, including Lil Wayne, Ciara, Paris Hilton and even the renowned stiletto-lover Victoria Beckham. Despite their $350-$450 price range and impractical design, the oversized boots sold out quickly upon release, with the hashtag #bigredboots garnering over 257 million views on TikTok.


Not all brands owned by the classic “ugly” shoemakers are outperforming the market: HeyDude, the casual footwear brand purchased by Crocs in 2022, reported a 17.2% year-over-year loss in first-quarter sales, and the company slashed its full-year outlook to an 8% to 10% decline in sales. Some online critics have called it out as “egregious” or even “the greatest threat to a relationship or marriage”—suggesting the brand fails to strike the right balance between style and comfort. The main problem with HeyDude shoes is that they’re not all that comfortable and are also on the wrong side of being ugly, and therefore have ended up missing the mark, Saunders told Forbes. “Ugly doesn’t actually mean chucking out any old product. There is a subtle art and sophistication to it, which HeyDude does not seem to get.”

Further Reading

Asics Stock Catches Fire Along With Its Dad Sneakers (The Wall Street Journal)

Are ‘snoafers’ the new It-shoe? (Vogue Business)

The Ugly Shoes Now Worth Billions of Dollars (The Wall Street Journal)


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