Croc of Ages: The Strange Staying Power of a Cheap, Ugly Clog.

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S1: When Vincenzo Ravina was a teenager, he created a website so powerful and polarizing that it got international media attention.

S2: We did Washington Post, New York Times, CBC Radio, Christian Science Monitor. We did slate back in the day. And here we are again.

S3: It all started one day between classes. This was around 2005, 2006.

S2: I remember I was in high school and there was one guy in the entire school who was wearing crocs. And the first time I saw them, I was with my friend Matt. And we turned to each other and we were like, what? What are those?

S3: 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. But there was one betrayal that stung the most. My friend Matt ended up getting a pair. Oh, no.

S2: And that’s when I was like, Oh, OK. This is like a zombie movie. What is happening here? It was then that Vincenzo bought the you are l I hate Crocs Dotcom on the website, I think it said dedicated to the destruction of crocs and those who think their excuses for wearing them are viable.

S4: I mean, I think we’re going to have some fireworks.

S5: Vincenzo and his friend Kate made videos where they cut up crocs with scissors or blew them up with fireworks. The lighters we have are either crappy or very low on lighter fluid. So we came ill prepared. Do not try this at home. So he sold a T-shirt that said for those about to rock, we refute you. You got a ton of traffic.

S1: But despite his efforts, he couldn’t seem to halt the shoe spread. This was the height of Crock’s mania. The shoe was born in 2002, and by 2006, the company had gone public with the most successful IPO in footwear history. Good morning. In 2007, President George W. Bush was photographed wearing a pair. Crocs had made it to the White House and even into a presidential address.

S6: A company called Crocs Crocs produces a hugely popular line of lightweight shoes, and over the past three years, they’ve expanded dramatically. Three years ago, Crocs had just 11 employees. Today, Crocs provides jobs for hundreds of Americans and its shoes are sold all over the world.

S1: But Crock’s fortunes soon turned. In 2008, the company posted a loss, in 2009, the stock nosedived.

S7: There was a brief period where I think KRUX was almost going bankrupt.

S1: 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 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.

S8: I’m Seth Stevenson. Welcome to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.

S5: Today on the show, The Rock of Ages, The Strange Staying Power of a cheap, ugly clock.

S3: Scott Seamans was on a business trip to Quebec when he came across a weird pair of shoes, he liked to sail and he thought these Canadian made slip ons might be great for boating. They were waterproof and they had grippy soles that were good for walking on docks and holes that would let water drain out. He brought a pair of these clogs back home and modified them by adding a heel strap. And then he showed his prototype to a couple of old friends. They were intrigued. The shoes were made from a foamy resin that was durable, cushiony on your feet and could be made in vibrant colors. The three friends pooled their money and licensed the shoe from its Canadian manufacturer to sell it in the United States. With the added strap, they chose the name Crock’s because the shoe seemed amphibious and because its holes gave it a toothy grin. Crocs debuted in 2002 at a boat show in Florida, where nautical types snapped up a thousand pairs, but Crocs soon moved inland.

S9: They are affordable, fashionable, even celebrities wear them crocs. The everyday footwear are almost everywhere these days.

S3: Doctors and nurses discovered how comfortable they were for long shifts at the hospital. E.R. nurse drives look at his own six pairs. I think because they’re very comfortable, they’re lightweight. We’re on our feet for eight, 12, 16 hours a day. Some time. Kids love the bright colors, and parents liked how easy it was to slip crocs on and off of little feet.

S10: And with a price around thirty dollars, they’re hard to resist with their kooky look and thirty dollars price tag. Crocs seemed affordable and fun. In 2003, working out of an office in Boulder, Colorado, Crocs small corporate team managed to sell 76000 pairs for years later, they’d sold fifty million and bought out their Canadian manufacturer, Crocs iPod in 2006 on the Nasdaq exchange, raising 200 million dollars, the biggest IPO ever for a footwear brand. In 2007, the company recorded an eight hundred and forty million dollar profit. It seemed like a juggernaut. And then something surprising happened. Crocs hit a wall.

S11: We’ve all heard that urban legend, a pet alligator gets too big, too fast and winds up flushed down the toilet. Well, turns out the story’s true, but it’s not about gators. It’s about crocs.

S1: Now, The Washington Post, in 2008, the company posted a one hundred eighty five million dollar loss and was forced to close factories and cut 2000 jobs. By 2009, the stock was down 76 percent from its high. And people like CBS News anchor Katie Couric were leaving crocs for dead.

S11: It seemed for a while you couldn’t cross the street without catching a glimpse of those plastic clogs like a rainbow army of Muppet feed all around you. More than one hundred million of them were sold and the company borrowed millions of dollars to produce more. Trouble is, the shoe that was flying off the shelves two years ago became, well, very two years ago.

S1: A couple of things had gone wrong. First, the shoes distinctive look, which made it so recognizable and helped fuel the Crocs fad turned out to be a double edged sword. A lot of people thought crocs were ugly, not just everyday ugly, but like offensively ugly.

S5: No, stop wearing plastic shoe.

S8: This is Bill Maher in 2007.

S12: Only a year ago, when only preschoolers and mental patients were. But now grown ups all over America have gone krunk crazy once, the worst fashion trend you’ve ever seen. I mean, today, the era of the KROK, it looks like a plastic Hoft Hughes fashion maven Tim Gunn in 2008. How can you take that seriously as fashion? The comfort trap is part of what’s contributed to the decline of fashion in America. I call it the slow bifurcation of America.

S1: The backlash became intense. Cross descended so quickly, but the descent was maybe even faster. And with all this negative buzz around, the look of the shoe wearing crocs became a statement, one that a lot of people weren’t willing to make. Still, the company kept ramping up production even as demand was about to fall off a cliff.

S13: It was the simple analogy of your eyes bigger than your stomach. The growth was on an incredible trajectory and there wasn’t a lot of discipline around that growth.

S1: Erin Murphy is a research analyst at the investment bank, Piper Sandler. She’s been following Crock’s ups and downs since it went public. She says the company made two big strategic mistakes. First, Crocs just made way too many shoes, so it had tons of inventory sitting around unsold when the Crocs craze finally sputtered. And second, the company helped cause that sputtering for a while. Crocs were kind of cool, but then the company started selling them everywhere in too many places and that cool got diluted.

S13: And so at its peak, one of its top accounts was Nordstrom, which at the time was very much viewed as the go to place for fashion forward, you know, items or brands. But yet they were selling and Seven-Eleven, they were selling in Hallmark. I mean, that is not a way to maintain that brand cachet.

S14: In the wake of Crock’s near collapse, there were lawsuits from shareholders alleging mismanagement. The three founders got sidelined and a turnaround team came in. Crock’s experimented with new styles like boots and wedges, searching for something that could recapture the magic of its original, now deeply uncool clog. Crocs kept closing stores and factories and laying off workers, and it kind of just bumped along for several years until in 2016, a glimmer of hope appeared in a venue that even Crocs biggest believers could not have expected.

S15: I was pretty gobsmacked when I saw them on a runway for the first time.

S14: More about that when we come back.

S1: If you were to see someone you love wearing a pair of crocs, what might you say to them?

S15: What on earth are you doing? I mean, I said I wouldn’t disown them or anything, but I would say what what possessed you to wear those?

S5: I want a full accounting. Robin Givhan is the Pulitzer Prize-Winning fashion critic for The Washington Post. She’s been documenting the Crocs phenomenon for more than a decade, ever since she wrote a column about President Bush wearing crocs. She thought his decision to pair them with black socks was particularly ill considered. Robin thinks crocs don’t even deserve to be called shoes. She prefers to call them footwear.

S15: 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.

S1: Despite her personal distaste, Robyn 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 Cane, was first. He had models walking crocs at the London Fashion Show in 2016. Then in 2017, a designer for the fashion house, Balenciaga reimagined Crocs as an unseen platform shoe with soles so thick they were like loaves of bread.

S15: When I saw them on the Balenciaga runway, 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. I think for Crocs, it’s just further injected them into a contemporary conversation, something that was more than just a thirty dollar pair of shoes that you pick up at a hardware store or something.

S1: 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.

S15: I think that 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 on to them and one of the reasons why my opinion has evolved a little bit is that I do think we as a culture sort of look at these sort of just ugly yet comfortable pieces of clothing or footwear in this case. And we attach a kind of authenticity to that and we respect it and admire it.

S3: After showing up on fashion runways, Crocs was able to parlay its newfound cachet into partnerships with celebrities like the tattoo faced repurposed Malone, who’s now done multiple collaborations with the brand. Stephen Colbert remarked upon that odd pairing last year alone.

S9: Second line of Crocs was released last month and sold out in 10 minutes, which is the fastest anyone in Crocs has ever done anything.

S1: The emergence of Crock’s has 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. Erin Murphy, the investment bank analyst, has tracked Crocs popularity spike among the high school set.

S13: So we at Piper Sandler do a bi annual survey where we’re speaking with teens spring and fall, asking them unaided what are their favorite brands and what’s been really impactful, even with how we view the stock is seeing the brand where it used to hit in the top 40. It was it was like number thirty seven in terms of what is your favorite footwear brand and teens with, say, Nike, they would say that they would go through and you would hit all the way down and you’re like, oh, there’s crocs sitting at number thirty seven today. It’s number 12 and this is over a period of three years where we’ve seen this trajectory.

S5: Winning over young people is vital to a brand success since kids are trendsetters. That’s one reason Aaron has a buy rating on Crocs stock. She thinks it’s a good investment right now. By the way, another thing she likes is the company’s margins. It costs about four dollars to manufacture a pair of crocs in Asia. And these days, those crocs will sell for about 45 bucks. For a lot of teens, a big part of Crocs appeal is still their core functionality. Their shoe you can slip on when you peel off. Your soccer players are your high tops.

S9: What we’ve seen is they seeded kind of some kind of interest with our younger generation to be the comfort shoe that’s on and off, let’s say, the basketball court of your or the cheerleading squad. So they’ve become in high schools like the go to sue for teen sport.

S1: But the thing is, if crocs were merely comfortable with a totally nondescript look, then they’d have no hold on the teen imagination for teens.

S5: As for fashion designers, embracing a shoe that was once dismissed as too heinous to wear has become a kind of statement of independence.

S9: There has become this like cool factor of, you know, being authentic and don’t just do things because everybody else does. And I think that has actually kind of created some of the hype as well.

S1: 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.

S5: Not long ago, a cross executive said, we are the brand that people love to hate, we value the tension because it keeps us relevant. That’s always been Crocs secret weapon. Back during the first wave of Crocs mania, when Vincenzo Raveena was running the I Hate Crocs website, he got a ton of traffic and an astounding amount of interview requests because Crocs elicited so much passion on both sides. The only people Vincenzo didn’t hear from were the people who created the thing he hated. Did you ever hear from Crocs HQ?

S2: Never, never heard from Crocs themselves, which was funny because there was kind of a opposite website to us called Crocs Fans Dotcom, and they got slammed with like a cease and desist and their website got taken down, but they never came after us.

S5: That’s so interesting. I wonder if they realised that negative attention was, in fact, great marketing for them. Very possible. This past April, when the covid pandemic was really gearing up, sales of almost every shoe brand tanked. But Crocs posted year on year growth numbers. I think I know exactly why this happened. Everybody was housebound, looking for company stuff to lounge in. Crocs were the perfect slip on shoe for walking out to the mailbox. But crocs were also the perfect fashion risk. If you were kind of bored and wanted to shake up your pandemic wardrobe, crocs are just a bit outré since so many people continue to hate them as a concept, but still a safe choice if you’re staying home all the time because not many people will see you anyway. I’m pretty confident this dynamic is what drove Crocs sales because it’s what drove me to want to buy a pair against the advice of my wife, who thinks crocs are a ridiculous choice for me and look ridiculous on me. I kept threatening to order crocs. She kept telling me it would be a mistake. And then one morning a package arrived at our door and I opened it in front of her.

S16: Stop you yellow. This is Lemon, like literally the most obnoxious color you could have chosen. No, there were more obnoxious colors, I promise you. You know, it looks like a highlighter. It’s bold. I still don’t know where you’re going to wear them.

S3: Well, I’m going to wear them. Like when we walk around this quiet neighborhood, I’m going to wear them in the house.

S16: If there’s broken glass on the floor, I guess your new pair of shoes.

S1: Listener I have not yet won my wife over, but I will say every time I slide on my lemon crocs, I get a tiny, defiant thrill from the ugly sight of them. I like to think there are many more like me out there living the crocs life.

S17: That’s our show for today.

S5: This episode was produced by Jesse Miller with help from Madeline Ducharme, Hannah Klein and Atias Lujah Technical Direction from Merritt. Jacob Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate’s June. Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate Podcast Network. If you’d like to support our show, consider signing up for Slate plus it’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and it helps us bring you all the great podcasts you get from Slate. Sign up now at Slate, dotcom grilling plus. Next week on the show, can a CEO get away with antagonizing his own clientele? Is the cost always right? No customer is nearly always wrong, but that’s enough. That’s next week on Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism.