The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
When Vincenzo Ravina was a teenager, he created a website so powerful and polarizing that it got international media attention: ihatecrocs.com. This was around 2005, 2006. Ravina recalls: “The first time I saw them, I was with my friend, Matt, and we turned to each other and we were like, ‘What are those? They’re hideous.’ ”
Crocs—those colorful plastic clogs with lots of holes in them. Vincenzo watched in horror as his high school scaled up from one Crocs fan to many. Within a couple of weeks, everyone was wearing them. It was then that Vincenzo bought the URL ihatecrocs.com, a website “dedicated to the elimination of Crocs and those who think that their excuses for wearing them are viable.”
He got a ton of traffic, but despite his efforts, he couldn’t seem to halt the shoe’s spread. This was the height of Crocs mania. The shoe was born in 2002, and by 2006, the company had gone public with the most successful IPO in footwear history. In 2007, President George W. Bush was photographed wearing a pair—Crocs had made it to the White House. But Crocs’ fortunes soon turned. In 2008, the company posted a loss. In 2009, the stock nose-dived. Indeed, the company teetered on the verge of total ruin.
It seemed that its meteoric rise might end with a fiery crash back to earth. Crocs barely survived this upheaval, but after a long, bumpy journey, Crocs are now back. Believe it or not, Crocs might even be kind of cool these days. They’re showing up on fashion runways and on celebrity feet. What’s amazing is that the love-it-or-hate-it nature of a Crocs clog, the very thing that drove the brand to the edge of oblivion, might be the same thing that’s brought it back from the abyss.
Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize–winning fashion critic for the Washington Post, has been documenting the Crocs phenomenon for more than a decade—ever since she wrote a column about Bush wearing Crocs. She thought his decision to pair them with black socks was particularly ill-considered. Givhan thinks Crocs don’t even deserve to be called shoes. She prefers to call them footwear: “To me shoes implies a certain amount of style and aesthetic pleasure derived from them. Footwear is much more just sort of practical and functional.”
Despite her personal distaste, Givhan wasn’t shocked when Crocs began to show up on haute couture runways a few years ago. Crocs’ clunky look, the thing that almost killed the brand when the cultural tide turned against it, was the very thing that eventually made Crocs tempting as a reclamation project for high-fashion types. The designer Christopher Kane was first: He had models walk in Crocs at his London Fashion Week show in 2016. Then, in 2017, a designer for the fashion house Balenciaga reimagined Crocs as an insane platform shoe with soles so thick they were like loaves of bread.
“I was not all that surprised because the Balenciaga designer has always been really fascinated by the idea of these things that are out there in the marketplace that are in fact really practical and also comfortable, but are not perceived as valuable,” Givhan says. “I think for Crocs, it just further injected them into a contemporary conversation as something that was more than just a $30 pair of shoes that you pick up at a hardware store or something.”
Now, it’s important to keep in mind that if Crocs weren’t extremely comfy, they’d make no sense at all. They’d look weird and be useless. But Crocs’ functionality justifies their absurd form. And sometimes I feel like we almost want comfy things to look bad, like we want strong medicine to taste bad so we know it’s doing something.
Givhan says, “I too have come to appreciate the fact that they are ugly and that they just sort of sit and revel in that. And I think one of the reasons why fashion has kind of glommed onto them, and one of the reasons why my opinion has evolved a little bit, is that I do think we as a culture look at these ugly yet comfortable pieces of footwear … and we attach a kind of authenticity to that, and we respect it and admire it.”
After showing up on fashion runways, Crocs was able to parlay its newfound cachet into partnerships with celebrities, like the tattoo-faced rapper Post Malone, who’s now done multiple collaborations with the brand. The emergence of Crocs as a shoe fit to be worn by famous feet then sparked a resurgence of the brand among teens, who’ve increasingly decided that Crocs are cool.
Erinn Murphy, an analyst at Piper Sandler, has tracked Crocs’ popularity spike among the high school set: “We do a biannual survey where we’re speaking with teens, spring and fall, asking them, unaided, what are their favorite brands. … [Crocs] used to hit in the top 40. It was like No. 37. … Today it’s No. 12, and this is over a period of three years where we’ve seen this trajectory.”
Winning over young people is vital to a brand’s success, since kids are trendsetters. That’s one reason Murphy has a “buy” rating on Crocs stock. She thinks it’s a good investment right now. Another thing she likes is the company’s margins. It costs about $4 to manufacture a pair of Crocs in Asia, and these days those clogs will sell for about $45.
For a lot of teens, a big part of Crocs’ appeal is still their core functionality. They’re a shoe you can slip on when you peel off your soccer cleats or your high-tops. “They’ve become in high schools the go-to shoe for team sports,” Murphy says.
But if Crocs were merely comfortable with a totally nondescript look, then they’d have no hold on the teen imagination. For teens as for fashion designers, embracing a shoe that was once dismissed as too heinous to wear has become a kind of statement of independence. “There has become this cool factor of just being authentic and ‘don’t just do things because everybody else does it,’ ” Murphy says. “I think that has actually created some of the hype as well.”
Of course, there will be a tipping point. When too many teens are wearing Crocs, the cool factor will start to recede again. That’s when another backlash will begin and the cycle will renew.