Ugg boots made on Australia’s Gold Coast have gone upmarket to become a fashion accessory for well-heeled Chinese consumers, including starlets and models.
However, the manufacturer, Burlee Australia, has a battle in its overseas expansion because of a prohibition on the use of the word “ugg”, which has been trademarked by the giant US-based Decker Corp for its similar style of footwear, made in China.
Burlee Australia MD Richard Friedrichs says ugg is a generic name for an Australian sheepskin boot that has been the footwear of choice for generations of surfies and skiers. On its website, it takes care to point out the origins of the term.
“The trademark issue is why we have developed the Burlee brand overseas,” he says. While manufacturing in Australia was more expensive, moving production to China would affect quality.
“We are a bespoke, quality product,” he says. “We can’t compete against the mass manufacturers selling boots for AU$25, but we can compete on quality.”
He says he was attracted to the 42-year-old business because of its focus on quality and craftsmanship. A grandson of company founder Arthur Springthorpe, Todd Watts works as production manager at the Burlee factory.
While up to 50,000 boots a year are produced, Watts says much of the cutting, gluing and sewing is still done by hand. Production is expected to double when the Chinese market starts to take off, which means the factory will have to expand its staff numbers from its present 70 people.
Friedrichs has signed a deal with a Chinese partner to open standalone Burlee boutiques on the mainland and sell its range through online platforms like JD.com and TMall.com.
Decorated with Swarovski crystals, vintage fabrics or even snakeskin, Burlee uggs are largely handmade, with some costing up to AU$20,000. Most are in the $400 to $800 range, which puts them at the top end of a market flooded with imports selling for $40 and less.
Burlee has five retail stores in Australia and has long targeted the premium end of the tourist market. But when Friedrichs bought the business two years ago, he immediately saw international potential, especially in Asia.
“China has a burgeoning middle class that is expected to reach 850 million,” he says. “They like Australian products and are prepared to pay for quality.”
Friedrichs says Burlee was given a huge boost in China when Harper’s Bazaar China publisher Su Mang started promoting its ugg boots.
“We had a big Harper’s Bazaar launch in Beijing in April, and there were movie stars and rock stars,” says Friedrich. “They are saying we are like the Louis Vuitton of ugg boots.”