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The Ugly State of Shoe Collaborations

Two truths: Fashion has long been enamored by the “ugly shoe.” Balenciaga made chunky dad sneakers; Gucci offered fur-lined loafers; and Schiaparelli introduced anatomical boots that look more like they belong in a surrealism exhibition than on someone’s feet.

But fashion is also obsessed with collaborations. In recent years, casual shoe brands like Birkenstock and Converse have teamed with fashion houses like Manolo Blahnik and Rick Owens on ambitious high-low collaborations.

So what happens when there is crossover, and both of those boxes are ticked? Just ask the British designer Simone Rocha, who released a bejeweled collaboration with Crocs on April 10 that was priced between $175 and $275, depending on the style. It very quickly sold out.

Just five days earlier, the New York label Collina Strada released a collection with Ugg. The collaboration included platform clogs adorned with dog paw illustrations and Mary Janes affixed with silver spikes on the toe and heel.

With even more collaborations on the horizon, and a new viral shoe meme basically every week — hello, nightmarish Pringles boot — the Styles desk convened to discuss the state of fashion footwear, ugly or otherwise.

Vanessa Friedman Are we in a golden age of counterintuitive shoe collaborations?

Guy Trebay Mutant shoe era. What is everyone’s so-bad-it’s-good?

Jessica Testa I was never tempted to buy into the Crocs trend until the Simone Rocha collaboration, which looks like a pair of Crocs has developed a glamorous contagious pox. Instead of sprouting pustules, it’s sprouting pearls.

Elizabeth Paton The idea of bedazzled rubber clogs for adults is, of course, ridiculous. And yet, the pearls, the chunky heel, the comfort factor … I’m in.

Callie Holtermann And it gives a bit of a higher-end sheen to Crocs, which already made high-heeled clogs with Balenciaga in 2021. Their chief marketing officer told me last year that the company doesn’t think it’s that risky to experiment because so many people find their core product so ugly to begin with.

GT Ugly is the point. Fashion has a long history of showing genuine affection for the downright ugly.

EP It’s becoming a game of fashion chicken.

VF And yet the Crocs collabs also scream “fashion victim” to me. Even if they are meant as a celebration of irony. How do you feel about the Collina Uggs?

CH They wink at a savvy viewer: I’m chic enough to know about Collina Strada but chill enough to wear Uggs in 2024.

VF It’s a flag of personality as much as a shoe.

JT There’s another ugly shoe going viral right now: the silver New Balance loafer.

CH Perfect for when I need to run a marathon with a business-casual dress code. I think the twisted minds over at New Balance know they’ve made a meme first and a viable footwear option second. It’s paying dividends in terms of how much I’m seeing the shoe discussed on social media. I’m interested to see if it will translate to sales.

VF That’s definitely taking a page from the Balenciaga approach. First shock and horror, then sales.

GT Meme-first worked great for Yeezy’s Foam Runners, which were … ugh. Nominees for an Ugly Shoe Hall of Fame? Balenciaga Minnie Mouse pumps? Miguel Adrover shoes with fingers instead of toes? The Comme des Garçons shoes with the sole split so there were two shoes on each foot?

VF One person’s ugly shoe is another person’s footwear treasure. Junya Watanabe did sneakers hung with jewels long before the Simone Rocha Crocs, by the way.

JT The ugly shoe conversation reminds me of the stylist Allison Bornstein’s “wrong shoe” theory: the idea that you can really make an outfit sing — or make a boring outfit interesting — with a shoe that contradicts the rest of the look.

EP Are you someone with a well-trained eye, capable of spotting the beauty in something unusual? Spice up your look with something provocative below the ankle.

GT Wrong Shoe Theory is a great title for a memoir.

JT I think there’s also concern around being a “fashion victim” not just by wearing an ugly shoe, but by wearing a shoe that will be everywhere. I like the non-ugly Bode Nike Astro Grabbers, for example — especially the cream style with colorful shoelace charms. But even if I’m able to nab a pair when they’re released on May 1, do I want to be wearing the same sneaker as every other joker on Orchard Street?

CH These strike me as Nike’s answer to the Wales Bonner Adidas Sambas, which I have clocked on the feet of multiple Styles desk members. (I won’t be naming names.)

GT Maybe all footwear roads lead to Dimes Square.

VF On the other hand, I may be taking inspiration from Bode and adding charms to shoes of my own.

Guy Trebay, Jessica Testa, Elizabeth Paton, Callie Holtermann and Vanessa Friedman contributed reporting.

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