A Really Big Shoe

Colorado's Croc craze is conquering the world. But does it have legs?

It is not to be found. The company claims that the Cayman has "a sleek and more slender look" than the Beach, as well as more sizes, but they all seem to swim on the Shoe Goddess. (The Nile model does have a slightly narrower, ultra-suede footbed, but it's an open-toed slide.) One saleswoman tells us that the strap, which can be folded over the top of the shoe, takes away half a size; the secret is to heat it with vigorous rubbing and stretch your heel into it. But nothing works.

At the next emporium, the Shoe Goddess corners an employee and demands an answer to the Great Croc Mystery.

"To what do you attribute the success of this shoe?" she asks.

Walk, don't run: Podiatrist Thomas Shonka says 
Crocs can be a comfort, but they're not for everyone.
Anthony Camera
Walk, don't run: Podiatrist Thomas Shonka says Crocs can be a comfort, but they're not for everyone.

The woman shrugs. "It's just a fad," she says.

Well, duh. Yet here I am, shuffling through the mall like a kid wearing Gramps's galoshes. My toes desperately seek purchase in the formless void. My heel straps hang down like droopy gangstawear. Ridiculous doesn't begin to cover it; this is some kind of ritual humiliation, a penance for my sins.

I am dork incarnate in clown shoes, looking for my homies, Chuckles and Bozo.

Whatever else might be said about Crocs, their emergence as a major consumer trend is a triumph of marketing. "It's not easy to get fifty million people to think of Suzanne Somers as a beautiful young woman," George W.S. Trow once wrote. Similarly, it's not easy to get millions of people to think of bulbous, neon-hued, unisex clogs as supremely desirable footwear -- or, better yet, as "ultra-hip, Italian styling," one of the "10 reasons you gotta have 'em" listed in the Crocs promotional literature.

Crocs may be as close to an anti-fashion statement as you can make without wrapping your feet in cotton candy. But most devotees probably don't care about fashion one way or another; they're interested in comfort. Crocs came on the scene when the "active casual" segment of the shoe industry was booming -- and rapidly became the epitome of the entire comfy-shoe movement. Goofy-looking, yes, but who cares, as long as they're soft, light and oh-so-inexpensive? Face it: What we have here is the podiatric equivalent of the muumuu.

Yet at their inception, Crocs weren't about fashion or comfort, but utility. Three years ago, company founders George Boedecker Jr., Lyndon "Duke" Hanson and Scott Seamans, all Boulder entrepreneurs, came across an unusual boat clog manufactured in Canada. Made of a proprietary closed-cell resin, the shoe was lighter than rubber boat shoes and more pliant, molding to the shape of the foot, which made it less likely to slip off on a slippery deck. The shoe was also well ventilated and less sweaty than a rubber version, and the resin seemed to do a better job of not absorbing odors. The three had access to venture capital -- Boedecker is a major Quizno's franchisee -- and a few ideas about how to improve the design. They snapped up the rights to the manufacturing process and eventually bought the company, Foam Creations, that made the shoe. Seamans added a heel strap, transforming clog into Croc.

The new company, originally known as Western Brands, began marketing the shoe at boat shows in late 2002. By the next spring, the shoe was winning converts among landlubbers, too. People who spent long hours on their feet, such as restaurant workers and hospital employees, liked the softness and the loose fit. They were less expensive than, say, traditional surgical clogs, and they cleaned up nicely in the dishwasher, eliminating unsightly food splatters and body fluids.

Baby boomers with swollen feet and fallen arches grokked the way Crocs felt on hardwood floors. Middle-school trendsetters tripped on the bright colors. Gardeners dug the fact that you could hose them off.

Sales began to pick up. Until recently, the company has been close-mouthed about actual numbers, but the disclosures required for its planned stock offering reveal that the growth has been exponential. In 2003, its first full year of operation, Crocs sold 76,000 pairs of shoes. In 2004, the figure jumped almost tenfold, to 649,000. And in the first three months of 2005, the company unloaded almost as many shoes as it did in all of last year. Revenue rose from $1.2 million in 2003 to $13.5 million in 2004 to roughly $36 million in the first six months of this year.

Scrambling to keep up with the demand, Crocs has lined up additional manufacturing capacity in Mexico, Europe and Asia; it can now crank out 1.2 million pairs a month. (Fifty-one percent of its shoes are made in China.) It's added colors and additional models, including a resin rain boot and the Islander, a space-cadet deck shoe with a leather upper ($59.99, double the price of the basic Beach) set to debut this fall. It's come up with a line of accessories, including T-shirts, sunglasses, knee pads and "crocsbutter," a "specially formulated polish" guaranteed to restore that otherworldly luster. It even offers an after-market "powerstrap" that "provides an even more exceptional fit when added to any existing Crocs model."

And, just as pilot fish cozy up to sharks, customizers have joined in the craze. One Boulder online entrepreneur is now offering Jibbitz -- doodads you fit in the holes of your Crocs to achieve an even more flamboyant look, like lipstick on a pig. Croc "modification" services were even offered at the last Burning Man festival.

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