The Highbrow

The Croc Epidemic

How a heinous synthetic shoe conquered the world.

In the demi-monde of footwear, the term croc was once synonymous with elegance—the reptile skin covering a pair of stiletto sling-backs. Today, it’s synonymous with an entirely different—and altogether vegetarian—phenomenon. In just a few years, the exquisitely ugly shoes known as “Crocs” have spread around the world like a Paris Hilton sex tape, giving rise to an epidemic of croc babies and their more egregious counterparts, croc parents. The shoe looks adorable on sun-kissed toddlers, but, alas, the fad did not stop there. For such a modest item (a typical edition sells for $29.99), the Croc has traveled in high places, disgracing the extremities of such celebrities as Mario Batali (who prefers the bright orange variety) and George W. Bush (who paired them with shorts and dark socks).

As fans will tell you, Crocs aren’t just footwear; they’re the closest thing to religion that the foot has experienced. The company’s stock has skyrocketed in value over the past year, and Crocs is now poised to launch a new product line this fall. Yet Crocs are heinous in appearance. A Croc is not a shoe; it is a Tinkertoy on steroids. How did this peculiar shoe-manqué achieve ubiquity—and can it possibly stick around?

In the interest of science and as a defender of fashion, I went to Paragon Sports in New York to buy my first pair of Crocs—the shoes were a bright patch in a sea of sportswear. A woman with petite feet may discover that the smallest size in a popular edition, such as “Cayman” (the Crocs aesthetic is eco-beach), will not fit her; instead, she will have to head to the kids’ section—piling ignominy upon ignominy. The Crocs palette tends toward the bold: orange, primary green, bright blue, periwinkle. Having selected a periwinkle pair, I was approached by a young salesclerk, who had noticed my skeptical look. “These styles are very popular,” he said reassuringly. “Can I help you with anything?” Yes. Would he be kind enough to reveal if he would ever wear a shoe like this? “Me?” he said, stepping backward. “Nah, they’re too ugly. The flip-flop, maybe—but these go too far for me.”

A first-time Crocs wearer will indeed find that the shoes are springy and light, as their fans aver, and cushion the feet with what some have called a “marshmallow fluffiness.” On a muggy New York day, the holes punched in the toe box allow for a soothing breeze to cool the sweating foot. Even so, the ratio of shame to comfort was extreme. When everyone else on the avenue is garbed in proper footwear—even something as unpretentious as flat sandals or ballet flats—an adult, it seemed to me, must blush at the sight of her bulbous feet. But those who wear Crocs all day long swear that the springy material holds up like nothing else; one painter reported that his chronic shin splints disappeared after he began wearing Crocs. Thus was born what one blogger has labeled the “Croc conundrum“: Crocs make you look absurd, but they can change your life.

Comfort and function were always the main Crocs pitch. The shoes’ original home was Boulder, Colo. The early Crocs customer was probably a Pacific Northwesterner who liked to boat or garden—this was a niche shoe, after all. He or she was drawn in by the “no slip” grip on the sole, by the aerating holes, and by the featherweight heft of the thing (a pair weighs a mere 6 ounces). The clunky look was not a drawback (this is the region, after all, that brought us grunge), and many customers were pleased that the shoe was made of a proprietary nonplastic resin formula (known as Croslite)—it was, as one testified, “vegan.” Because the material is soft, bacteria-resistant, and has a strangely “natural” feel, the Croc fits in with the Northwest’s typically green and mildly counterculture ethos. Soon nurses, doctors, cooks, painters, and other workers who stand on their feet all day had discovered Crocs and found them to be life-changing. The company is careful to play up its shoes’ supposed orthotic benefits, to the distress of some skeptical podiatrists; a new line for diabetics is in the works.

In the meantime, the company cleverly positioned itself as an eco-conscious no-frills-attached corporation. Crocs was conceived by three friends—Scott Seamans, George Boedecker, and Lyndon Hanson—on a trip in the Caribbean, when Seaman showed his friends the extraordinary slip-resistant clog he was wearing; learning that it was made by a Canadian company called “Foam Creations,” the friends spotted an opportunity. Soon they had licensed and were trying to “develop” the shoe (by adding a strap to the back); the name was the first thing that had to go. They realized the tops looked like crocodile snouts from the side. Presto! Crocs was born. In 2002, the company earned a gross profit of $1,000 from sales in America. By 2006, following a series of strategic licensing deals (you can now get NASCAR and Disney Crocs, for example), it was earning more than $200 million a year from sales in 40 countries. (I even spotted knockoffs called Rockies in Jerusalem’s Muslim quarter.) Nor have consumers’ appetite yet been whetted: During the first quarter of 2007, the company’s sales had increased 217 percent from the same period the previous year.

In moving from a niche shoe to widespread wear, Crocs capitalized on its several strengths. The first is that the shoes are ideal for kids, who like their brightness, their lightness, their squishiness, and the strange holes in the front, in which charms can be placed. (Perhaps the only thing uglier than a Cayman Croc is a Croc adorned with “Jibbitz,” as the charms are called.) Meanwhile, their parents like that they are dishwasher-safe, waterproof, and odor-free. Their amorphous shape may be an aesthetic crime, but it lends the shoes a jovial quality that appeals to the knee-high and the anti-bourgeois everywhere. (One Slate contributor and early Croc-adopter reports that when she went to her daughter’s school dressed in Crocs, the kids all wanted to know why she wore “clown shoes.”) And the Croc fad, like the Ugg fad, benefits from the shoe’s appropriation of an ethnic look (in this case, the Dutch clog) that one could deem “authentic.” Ugly is OK, it would seem, as long as it’s imported; then it’s considered “practical” and earthy.  In a classic cultural inversion, Ugly becomes Good: It represents an authentic critique of the marketing and branding that surround us every day. (Think of Ugly Dolls.) And so Crocs even ran ads in Rolling Stone proclaiming “Ugly can be beautiful.” Finally, whereas Uggs were embraced by the fashion world, and became a status symbol, Crocs are a bottom-up brand, embraced by ordinary Americans everywhere. It is a democratic purchase. It looks painful to wear—like something you might find in the rock-bottom bins at Kmart—but is actually soft and high-tech, defeating class-based assumptions.

Footwear has always been particularly susceptible to fads, as the fashion authority Colin McDowell observes in Shoes: Fashion and Fantasy. Shoe fashion tends to swing dramatically on the pendulum from practical to beautiful, largely because shoes are even more utilitarian than clothes—and stylish clothes are rarely as uncomfortable as stylish shoes. Since everyone needs shoes, they are particularly susceptible to the tipping point phenomenon: When enough people are wearing ugly but comfortable shoes, others jump eagerly on the bandwagon, thrilled to be released from the bondage of straps and buckles. And so Crocs represent a kind of rebellion—a vanguard of the comfort movement. As footwear retailers reported this spring, shoe sales are unpredictable this year, with one exception: what retailers call “fashion comfort” styles—including ballet flats, shoes like Geox (which are popular among businessmen), and, of course, Crocs. One retailer called them “a category of their own.”

The popularity of Crocs has also led to the inevitable backlash. Croc-mocking is rampant. The Web site chronicles its proprietors’ attempts to destroy Crocs (using fireworks, scissors, and lighter fluid). According to Maclean’s, some hospitals have decided to ban Crocs, citing the fact that they do not protect against infection (the toe box has open holes). Meanwhile, there are reports of mysterious “Crocs shocks” shorting out crucial medical equipment; allegedly, the resin formula doesn’t just keep out bacteria, it stores electricity. This sounds like urban legend, but one nurse who was skeptical of such accounts did tell Maclean’s that when she started wearing Crocs she began giving her patients small electric shocks. Tales have come in from Crocs-haters in Sweden about children whose Crocs melt on escalators or get otherwise stuck in the cracks between steps; the most horrific of these involves a little boy whose toe got “pulled off” when his Crocs got stuck. A crock? Probably.

What is more certain is that some podiatrists are alarmed by their patients’ fanatical embrace of Crocs; most Crocs, doctors point out, provide only moderate support. “I’ll get people with strained arches because they’ve been running around in Crocs for five days,” said Arnold Ravick, a doctor of podiatric medicine in Washington, D.C., and a spokesman for the American Podiatric Medical Association. “When it comes to shoes, people mistake comfort for support. Comfort is fool’s gold—a soft gushy shoe that makes your arches collapse,” he told me. “Crocs are popular because they’re inexpensive and interchangeable. For people with certain problems, they can be a good shoe. Are they good for your foot, in general? No.”

Crocs may be popular, but it’s the rare Croc lover who considers them fashionable. As Kim France, the editor in chief of Lucky, the shopping magazine, told me, “Uggs I can make an argument for. Jellies also had their moment of being cute and cool. Crocs are just a pox.” The first time she saw a male friend in them, she recalls, she asked him, “Are you really going to make me walk down the street with you?” And so today, the company is at a crossroads. The public’s affection for shoe styles is notoriously fickle. (Remember earth shoes?) In June, 50 percent of Croc’s shares were sold short by short-seller investors who think that the company’s stock will plummet soon. Though the company has made a series of strategic licensing deals and partnerships with subsidiaries, it is still largely dependent on its signature clogs and now flip-flops. Striving to position itself for a fall-off in demand, Crocs plans to launch new clothing and shoe lines this fall that will depart from its signature resin formula and will feature pieces costing between $70 and $100. Who knows whether this strategy will succeed, but at Paragon, one employee was waiting eagerly for the shipment of new flip-flop styles. “I hate the way the old Crocs look,” he said. “But they are comfortable.”

History suggests that Crocs are more likely to be a passing fad, like Dr. Scholl’s, than a true innovation, like the sneaker. The very thing that has made them such a huge hit, after all—their ugly duckling distinctiveness—is also likely to make it hard for the company to go mainstream in any enduring sense. On the other hand, the trademarked Croslite material is an ace in the hole: If the traditional Croc clogs I tried on felt too confining on a summer day, the Croc flip-flops were delightfully springy. The company’s sporty Sassari wedge suggests that when it comes to summerwear its designers may be developing at least some aesthetic sense.* But for now, my old platform flip-flops will do.

*Correction, July 13, 2007: This piece originally misspelled the Croc model Sassari.