Awareness wasn’t Crocs’s problem when Michelle Poole joined the company seven years ago, in 2014. “Crocs was actually one of the best-known [brands] considering how young it was,” Poole, now the company’s president, tells me. But being well-known wasn’t exactly a good thing: Crocs had something closer to infamy than fame, better known as a punchline than a pair of shoes. “The challenge was that, and I’ll say it politely, people said, ‘Hey, Crocs isn’t for me,” Poole says. Even Mr. Rogers might find that description too kind.
Crocs, founded in 2002 by three friends who landed on the idea while sailing through the Caribbean, wasn’t designed to satisfy mainstream tastes. Instead, the shoes were originally marketed to boaters, with the very first porous clogs sold at the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show The Crocs booth attracted so many interested customers the fire marshal on site found it hazardous. But the shoe that garnered adoration at a boating show in Florida had a very different effect on the fashion world.
The absolute most generous take among fashion-conscious types seemed to be that Crocs’s signature clogs were uncool, clunky, evidence even of a slovenly person. The Cut once joked Crocs were “100 percent effective birth control.” In short, they were considered ugly.
This did not deter the Crocs corporation. Poole and the rest of the team soldiered on, certain that the clog, she says, was and is an “icon.” Everyone knew about the shoe, even if they didn’t like it very much. So instead of changing the shoe, the brand decided on a riskier gambit: it set out to completely change our taste in footwear. Shockingly, it worked.
Crocs has gone from laughing stock to, well, a really good stock. In 2020, revenues grew nearly 13% to $1.4 billion, an all-time high for the company. That’s good. But what’s really astounding is what happened over the first half of 2021, when Crocs has brought in $1.1 billion in revenue. That’s a massive 80% increase compared to the first half of 2020. Consider this: in the first half of this year, Crocs has made almost as much as it did during the entirety of its record-breaking 2020.
Crocs’s comeback, like a fondue fork, is two-pronged. Changing tastes in footwear is part of it, but nothing has helped change the idea of the Crocs clog quite like its ambitious slate of collaborations. In the past several years, Justin Bieber, Post Malone, fast-food joint KFC, Anwar Carrots, Alife, and others have made their own Crocs. These interested partners seem to have materialized from out of nowhere.
But it seems likely that all of Crocs’ new pals were responding to a subtler change. Initially, Poole says, Crocs were positioned as antiestablishment footwear: “We didn’t care if people hated us, we were going to take on the haters. People were wearing the brand to make an anti-fashion statement.” It turns out that when you tell customers your shoe isn’t fashionable, they listen. Paradoxically, cementing the shoe’s “normal” image required the help of the fashion world. “Ultimately, we believed that the silhouette was way more powerful and more democratic than Crocs had been positioning it,” she says. This philosophy—that there’s nothing more ordinary than Crocs—is at the heart of the brand’s comeback.
Eventually, Crocs began trying to fight its perception as anti-fashion footwear, to little effect. Its fortunes changed with a single phone call. In 2016, the British designer Christopher Kane called with a favor: he needed enough Crocs to outfit many of the models in his upcoming runway show and it had to be done quickly. The turnaround would be tough, but Poole recognized this as a critical moment. “We will move heaven and earth [to make it happen],” she remembers thinking.
The London Fashion Week runway, she realized, could help accomplish the pivot Crocs had so far been unable to make. “You have to have people in the organization who understand the moment and what it can mean to the brand,” Poole says. Crocs worked quickly to get Kane clogs that were ornamented with gems set into the holes typically reserved for the brand’s unicorn, dinosaur, or donut-shaped Jibbitz. “We were watching the show live,” Poole says, “and we saw the audience looking at the models, and then suddenly everyone’s gaze dropped to the floor.”
Poole credits Kane with kickstarting the turnaround. “He talks about making the ordinary extraordinary,” she says. “And I think it was the really pedestrian positioning of Crocs at the time that actually created that tension,” she says. (Fashion designers live for flipping our notion of what’s cool or uncool. Think of the Birkenstock sandal, which saw its fortunes reversed when Phoebe Philo sent fur-lined versions of the shoe down the Céline runway in the early 2010s. That shoe’s success was also reliant on the tension created by elevating a non-fashion shoe onto the runway and embellishing it with mink.)
Kane was early to tap into our new interest in ugly fashion. After he put Crocs down the runway, Balenciaga wanted to work with the brand, too. The floodgates fully opened after that.
Mel Peralta is the head of Foot Locker’s Greenhouse program, which links established labels with up-and-coming designers. When he first started working with Crocs, the company wasn’t picky: they said yes to the first three partnerships he suggested. And so Anwar Carrots, designer Nicole McLaughlin, and the brand Daily Paper all made Crocs. These days, Peralta says, “It’s rare that I have to pitch somebody [on Crocs]. My texts are kind of going off the hook.”
Because of those collaborations, Crocs are now selling like Yeezys on the resale market—a nearly unimaginable development. StockX reports that it saw the amount of sales involving Crocs on its platform grow a massive 430% between the first half of 2020 and the first half of 2021. These shoes demand limited-edition-Nike-level money, too. A pair of Crocs made with Post Malone that originally retailed for $60 are now selling for an average of $419 on the platform. “Due to their massive increase in trade volume over the past two years, Crocs now ranks among the top-10 most-popular footwear brands on our platform, and among these 10 brands, they boast the highest average price premium [sale price above retail]—a testament to their unfailing hype,” says Jesse Einhorn, StockX’s senior economist.
While Crocs worked hard to shed its anti-fashion reputation, it’s winning by leaning once again into weirdness. Crocs is no longer the proud outcast—it’s more like the weird kid who everyone is happy to see at parties. All of the rules and red tape collaborators run up against when working with traditional sneaker companies are stripped away at Crocs HQ. A Crocs collaboration with KFC doesn’t just look like a bucket of chicken—it includes Jibbitz that actually smell like chicken. To her Crocs, Nicole McLaughlin was able to attach a bundle of rope, a small working light, a pouch, and stand-up nylon sacks to stick your feet into. “We think that’s been our formula for success,” Poole explains. “We don’t tend to play it safe.”
That freedom is what attracted Salehe Bembury, the white-hot former Yeezy and Versace designer now churning out his own coveted collabs, to Crocs. While most sneaker brands ask collaborators to rework existing models, Bembury was able to design a completely new version of Crocs’s clog from the ground up. “It’s really cool that they introduced a product into the market that for the first maybe 10 years was kind of laughed at and seen as this joke of a shoe,” Bembury says. “Now it’s taken as seriously as the Chuck Taylor. It’s that iconic.”
Part of what attracted Bembury to Crocs was a chance to be part of what he considers the latest wave of footwear. The pandemic seems to have permanently helped people appreciate the more comfortable things in life. Sales of dress shoes have fallen off a cliff while slippers and clogs are up in the same category 70% and 22%, according to NPD data. Bembury sees a whole suite of shoes leading a movement of rubber slip-on footwear: the Yeezy Wave Runner, the Bottega Veneta puddle sandals, Alyx’s slip on, and Merrell’s Hydro Moc. What do all those shoes have in common? They’re heavily indebted to Crocs. Bembury hopes when we look back at this era of footwear, we’ll remember his Crocs design alongside these other pandemic-friendly shoes.
This movement towards comfort is what Poole falls back on when I ask her if she’s ready to declare the Crocs makeover complete.
Is the Crocs clog cool now? I ask her.
Poole pauses before answering. “I think I think I’d go back to what I said, which is that effortlessness and ease and comfort is cool.”
She’s reluctant to call them cool, she explains, because it’s not really her place to say. “I sort of personally cringe when….I think if you describe yourself as cool, you’re clearly not.” So while Crocs may no longer be the oddball outcast, it understands that there is still appeal in weirdness.