Crocs. The injection-molded foam clogs are equal parts design punch line and design icon, a symbol of ceasing to care about how you look for the sake of comfort. For years, I’ve looked at people wearing Crocs as many do: with a sort of jealous horror. And I’m not the only one.
“Love us or hate us, I think we relish in the polarization of our designs,” says Michael Sarantakos, the company’s head of global design.
But now, Crocs is releasing a clog that even hypebeasts can love. Designed by Salehe Bembury—a renowned sneaker designer who has created shoes for Yeezy, Versace, Anta, and New Balance—the new clog features an expressive, undulating texture, along with a full heel and a subtly tailored front toe.
The Salehe Bembury X Crocs Pollex Clog, priced at $85, will be out December 14, and it marks the first time that Crocs has allowed a designer to reshape its classic clog. The company admits that the move is an open play for relevance and attracting the sneaker-buying market.
“They’ve established an iconic silhouette. I’d argue there are only about 10 iconic silhouettes [in all of shoes],” Bembury said in an interview. “You can’t depart from that. But the question was how am I going to make this polarizing? How am I going to push the boundaries?”
Following a decade of stagnant sales, Crocs has come back to life, with double-digit revenue growth in 2019 and 2020. Thus far, 2021 is poised to be a breakout year, as Crocs projects between 62% and 65% growth this year alone.
Michelle Poole, the president of Crocs who joined the company seven years ago, has considerable experience in dusting off footwear icons, viewing them as blank canvases for cultural expression. “I worked at Timberland with the yellow boot, Sperry with the boat shoe, and Converse with Chuck Taylors,” Poole says. “One of the first things we did when I came into the brand was we needed to make our iconic classic clog relevant. That was the very heart of the brand turnaround. We didn’t have an awareness problem. If you drew an outline of our clog, I’d say it’s as recognizable as a Coke bottle. But we had a relevance issue, where people said, ‘I know the brand, but the brand isn’t for me.'”
Under Poole’s leadership, the company cut back its product line, focusing mostly on clogs and sandals. In 2017, it launched a “Come as You Are” marketing campaign, repositioning the quirky clog as an expression of comfort, self-acceptance, and individuality. Crocs dipped its toe into collabs with celebrities like Post Malone and brands like KFC. But there’s little doubt that the Crocs style has been boosted by wider industry adoption of injection molded shoes by companies including Birkenstock and even Yeezy. (When Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, announced his injection molded Foam Runners onstage at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in 2019, the public immediately likened them to Crocs with an endless stream of memes.) Couple that trend with a pandemic, in which the world began dressing for comfort first and fashion second, and the stage was set for a Crocs comeback.
With Bembury, Crocs saw an opportunity to widen its own market appeal by tapping into his passionate, sneaker-loving fan base. But like most collaborations across industries these days, Crocs collabs to date have been superficial. Crocs clogs were recolored and reskinned, sure, but they never broke the mold. Literally.
The company first reached out to Bembury to send him some shoes, à la any influencer. He responded that he’d prefer to design his own. Poking around Google images, he found a model that inspired him. But it wasn’t a stock Crocs clog; it was actually a Crocs children’s shoe with a different shape. As it turned out, Crocs liked that Bembury was already thinking about breaking the mold, so they penned a deal to work with him, offering a level of creative freedom that was unprecedented for the company.
Bembury began by focusing on that core Crocs silhouette, and how he could maintain its comforting familiarity while pushing the design language into new territory.
“One thing I learned from working with [Ye] was the importance of shape, so I really execute that with a lot of products,” Bembury says.
Bembury made only one significant update to the Crocs clog silhouette. He shaved down the front toe—which has a borderline anachronistic slope that resembles a historic, Danish wooden shoe—to read ever-so-slightly like a sleeker sneaker. This change required a tweak to the Crocs last (the proprietary foot mold upon which Crocs shapes its shoes), but the minimal update ensures that the new Crocs will still feel like the old Crocs.
Bembury did work on the shoe’s stability, giving it a bona fide heel, and updated it with a tough nylon strap that’s removable when you want to wear the shoe more casually. For the outsole, he reinforced the product with rubber on the forefoot and heel. Known for taking daily hikes himself, Bembury wanted to build a Crocs shoe that he’d actually be able to wear for everyday adventures.
Of course, the most noticeable difference is the new texture, a wavy skin that looks more biological than industrial. Those waves are actually Bembury’s own fingerprint, pressed onto three spots—the toe, the ball, and the heel. (And yes, Bembury has already heard the joke about using his shoe to frame him for a crime.) But this form hides function: Note that Bembury incorporated four large holes on the side of the shoes, similar in size and position to the original Crocs, to ensure they will breathe like Crocs.
The final product is priced at $85—which is about $30 more than a typical Crocs clog, but still inexpensive compared to the price of many of Bembury’s collaborations, especially on resale sites like StockX. In this sense, Sarantakos believes the partnership is a true example of democratic design. It’s not just a designer shoe sold on the cheap; it’s a comfortable shoe sold in the body of a designer shoe.
But with the collectible sneaker market as it is today, does Crocs really anticipate the new shoe to be widely available? Or will it be yet another exclusive sneaker drop that you can’t cop? “It’s that balance,” Poole says. “We want to try to satisfy as many consumers as possible, but not leave anything on the shelf gathering dust.”