In late October, Crocs, the Colorado-based brand known for its lightweight and bulbous clogs, reported its quarterly earnings. It was a stark contrast to other fashion brands hobbled by the ongoing pandemic — think J. Crew and Brooks Brothers, two gentlemen's clothiers from another era that both filed for bankruptcy protection this year.
This time, Crocs had a reason to celebrate: Revenue was $361.7 million, an increase of 15.7% over the last year, blowing past Wall Street predictions. And the brand was riding high on a string of well-publicized collaborations with well-known food brands and musicians including Justin Bieber and Bad Bunny.
It goes without saying that 2020 has been an immensely strange year, but few could predict that Crocs, once looked down upon by the fashion cognoscenti, would experience such a high-profile ascent. "We can't believe it either," read a headline from GQ magazine. "Crocs are cool now." That sentiment — of surprise, of slack-jawed wonder — has been echoed widely by the media in outlets ranging from Slate and the Wall Street Journal to the streetwear website Highsnobiety.
However, if you take a step back, there is perhaps no better item than Crocs to encapsulate the transitionary period the fashion industry finds itself in right now. Crocs, cumbersome and unwieldy, sit at the overlap of a few cresting movements: the pandemic-inspired emphasis on comfort, the obsession with making unattractive things covetable, and the way the internet has made style less about looking good and more about irony and humor.
"2020 was the perfect storm for Crocs," said Ben Jacobs, brand director of the shoe resale site Stadium Goods. "The brand capitalized on the playful characteristics of the foam clog with high-profile collaborators including Alife, Chinatown Market and Post Malone, which helped gain respect from more serious sneaker enthusiasts. That coupled with the pandemic that has kept everybody inside, Crocs turned the unusual into a comfortable stuck-at-home staple."
For what it's worth, Crocs is seeing the fruitful bloom of seeds it planted years ago. As far back as 2017, Crocs was making inroads into the high-fashion universe thanks to a collaboration with British designer Christopher Kane that produced Crocs in a marble print and covered in rough stones as well as one with avant-garde label Balenciaga, which made Pepto Bismol-pink platform versions of Crocs (yes, really).
More recently, Crocs has savvily leveraged celebrity, a fact that became especially clear this year with the inclusion of collaborative shoes from musicians of different genres: Bieber (pop), Bad Bunny (rap/reggaeton), Luke Combs (country) and Post Malone (hip-hop/R&B). Footwear from these limited-edition collections quickly sell and often reemerge on resale sites at inflated prices, an indication of their cultural cachet.
StockX, the popular resale site, released its end-of-year wrap-up that saw a 750% increase in the sales of Crocs, which, on average, sold for $132 — a 125% increase over their retail price.
"I think Crocs is actually in a pretty unique position for an influencer- and collaboration-heavy brand," said Amy Rogoff Dunn, a partner at the consulting agency Kelton. "While other brands develop these partnerships to create aspiration, Crocs seems to have developed them to grant permission — permission for people to go ahead and wear the shoe they want. They're not saying, 'Wear these shoes, and you'll be like Bad Bunny,' and instead [are] saying, 'If you were worried about wearing these shoes, don't worry because Bad Bunny wears them.'"
While leveraging the hype surrounding celebrities is commonplace these days, Crocs was shrewd to look beyond traditional partners. It's a shoe that is, to many, unconventional, and so were some of its most buzzed-about partnerships. It collaborated on fried chicken-print-covered clogs with Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Peeps version that featured "jibbitz" (Crocs speak for charms you put in the shoe's many holes) of the edible marshmallow chicks.
Crocs footwear has long been criticized for being ugly. Fallen celebrity chef Mario Batali was once one of Croc's biggest celebrity supporters. The shoe, due to its featherlight construction, is a favorite of on-their-feet-all-day laborers including chefs and hospital workers.
Today their inelegant looks are seen as a benefit.
What changed? The paradigm of what is cool shifted, and Crocs are emblematic of the way young people no longer respond to traditional notions of beauty and glamour (do TikTok teens want to wear frilly frocks or dapper suits?). Instead, younger generations are turning to a social media-led look that is casual and oftentimes silly. In other words, it's fashion as memes.
"The most polarizing footwear style proves to be one of the world's most-wanted products this year," reported Lyst, the global fashion search platform. "Average monthly searches for Crocs total 135,000, and the brand hit its peak in the spring."
All of which is to say that Crocs offers a product that is right for the moment, marketing initiatives that have proved to be unexpected and messaging that resonates with a digital-savvy generation. To its credit, the brand also leaned into the madness of 2020 and offered a counterpoint to the dismal news cycle. Crocs are functional and lighthearted, so all the brand had to do was be in on the joke, to embrace its strange reputation, which it did and then some.
"People want moments of levity, and they want simple pleasures in this emotionally and financially challenging time," Dunn said. "Who better to deliver that than a brand that offers a product that really authentically meets the moment via cheerful colors, relatively low price points and total comfort?"
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