The Ugg inventor who gave £500m the boot: He sold the idea for £10,000 and three free pairs a year

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By Jenny Stocks
Last updated at 10:15 AM on 14th February 2011

They’re the boots that no self-respecting supermodel or Hollywood actress would be without. Having been spotted on  the feet of Kate Moss, Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, to name but a few, they have invaded high streets across Britain — and the world.

The store selling them in London’s Covent Garden regularly has queues snaking down the street, full of women desperate to pay more than £120 for a coveted pair. There has even been a collaboration with luxury brand Jimmy Choo.

Yes, it may be the most surprising — and, frankly, unattractive — footwear trend of the past decade, but there’s no denying the success of the humble Ugg Boot. It has demonstrated that sometimes comfort can trump style, even among the most fashion conscious.

Surfer dude: Shane Stedman slaves away for 12 hours a day making 500 hand-made surfboards a year from his small workshop, without a pile of cash or shiny sports car in sight

Surfer dude: Shane Stedman slaves away for 12 hours a day making 500 hand-made surfboards a year from his small workshop, without a pile of cash or shiny sports car in sight

The furry sheepskin boot brand now brings in a whopping £500 million a year. So, you’d think, its inventor is now a multi-millionaire, living in a palatial mansion and sipping Champagne for breakfast? Well, you’d be wrong.

For Shane Stedman, 69, the man who created the cult footwear, can still be found in the simple three-bedroom bungalow in Australian surf town Mona Vale, north of Sydney, where he has lived for almost 50 years.

And, rather than retiring with a fortune, he’s still slaving away for 12 hours a day. But he’s not stitching Uggs. Instead, he’s making 500 hand-made surfboards a year from his small workshop, without a pile of cash or shiny sports car in sight.

So, what happened to his millions? It seems he never even got a glimpse  of them.

After just ten years of selling his cheap, sturdy boots locally to keep surfers’ feet warm, he sold his rights to the name to U.S. footwear brand Deckers in 1983 in return for a mere £10,000 — and three pairs of Ugg boots a year for the rest of his life.

Ugg'ed out: The furry sheepskin boot brand now brings in a whopping £500 million a year

Ugg'ed out: The furry sheepskin boot brand now brings in a whopping £500 million a year

Since then, he has seen his creation become a global phenomenon. Surely it must be painful to think of what could have been? Not a bit of it.

Incredibly, Stedman seems to feel no resentment about missing out on a £500 million fortune.

‘My kids love the story about how I came up with the idea, and it’s great to see the likes of Victoria Beckham and Paris Hilton wearing them,’ he says. ‘I’m proud to have played a role in making them as big around the world. It’s great for Australia.

‘Plus, I got paid enough to put my kids through school.’

He finds the success of his boots — originally named ‘Ugh’ to reflect the usual reaction to the ugly footwear — flattering, rather than a cause for regret.

So how did a surf dude come to create a global fashion brand, albeit by accident?

It turns out that the idea came about when a friend and fellow surfer, Nat Young, turned up in Stedman’s surfboard workshop and asked for something to keep his feet warm. This was in 1973.

‘The sea is bloody cold in the Aussie winter, which is June time,’ says Stedman. ‘I used to wear football jerseys to keep warm.

‘People ask me how I can wear them when they make your feet sweat. So I tell them: “You never see a sheep with sweaty feet”

‘Trouble was, they nearly drowned you. You couldn’t wear wetsuits back then because they were big, thick, rubber things for professionals only. Your feet used to freeze, so I thought boots for surfers was a brilliant idea.

‘People in the outback have been wrapping their feet in sheepskin for years.’ But there was a problem. Stedman knew that simply wrapping feet in sheepskin wouldn’t work on sandy beaches and roads, so he had to come up with something more practical.

The answer came at a surfing competition, when he bumped into a Mr Spencer, who offered to attach soles to his sheepskin creations. The Ugg was born. ‘After that, I never looked back,’ says Stedman. ‘He made them in his garden shed.’

As well as the rather unstarry production process, those early models were not quite the Ugg boots you find on sale today.

The sheepskin often had sinew — and even meat — still attached. The smell was so pungent if they got wet that they had to be kept away from dogs, who would chew on them.  

Thankfully, the quality of the sheepskin got better. And as the design improved, Mr Spencer found himself struggling to keep up with the orders. Stedman moved to a manufacturer in Botany Bay. Production shot up from 20 or 30 a week to 300.

Boot to the stars: Ugg boots have become the must have fashion accessory for celebrities such as Sarah Jessica-Parker, left, and Jennifer Lopez, right

But it was only when they became a symbol of youth rebellion that business really took off — his super-casual ‘Ugh’ boots were banned from Sydney cinemas along with ripped jeans, thus instantly making them appeal to the youth market.

Stedman says: ‘The kids just wanted them even more. It was the best thing that could have happened. They became cool, something that divided opinion, and that has been the way they have been perceived ever since.’

However, the popularity of the boots hadn’t gone unnoticed. Although the name was protected by trademark, Australian supermarket chain Coles started to sell its own version under a completely different name, so Stedman couldn’t protect his invention.

The Coles boot started to take over the market, so when U.S. brand Deckers offered to pay Stedman £10,000 for his trademark so it could sell boots under the name ‘Ugg’ internationally, he jumped at the chance.

‘If I had wanted to make my Uggs the number one brand, I’d have had to move to the U.S. and work my a*** off in a suit and that’s just not me’

‘It was a lot of money at the time — enough to put my kids through five years of private school, so I thought: “Why not?” ’

As well as the modest sum, he negotiated the right to receive three free pairs of Uggs a year — a perk he continues to enjoy.

What does he do with all those boots?  Stedman keeps one pair and gives the other pairs to son Luke, 33, a pro-surfer who helps run his surfboard business, and daughter Bonnie, 30, who lives in St Helens, Merseyside, with her boyfriend. He still enjoys wearing the boots. ‘I’ve got Uggs all over my house. I couldn’t live without them. I wear them all the time. Even in summer.

‘People say to me: “How can you wear them? They’ll make your feet sweat.” I tell them: “You never see a sheep with sweaty feet.” The fleece keeps my feet cool. They are perfect and I’m proud to have come up with them.’

As for the fortune he potentially missed out on, Stedman’s not bitter.

‘If I had wanted to make my Uggs the number one brand, I’d have had to move to the U.S. and work my a*** off in a suit and that’s just not me.’  That much seems obvious — it’s hard to imagine a man who is most comfortable in his board shorts running board meetings. ‘I’ll never give up Sydney and surfing. It’s my life,’ he says. ‘So I was happy to let it go.

‘Me and my company had taken it as far as we could. We had ten years of fun with it — and having fun was the main thing.’

 

 

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