When three US sailors, meandering their way around the Caribbean, developed an idea for a deck shoe that wouldn’t slip around on the boat.
An ugly-looking thing, but lightweight and practical, with holes to let the water drain out, easy to slip on and off, and it would even float if it fell overboard – they could hardly have predicted what a worldwide phenomenon it would become. Taking their design to a Florida boat sale thinking they might shift a few pairs, they sold 1,000 and realised they might be on to something. The shoes are now available in 90 countries, and their newest standalone store has just opened in Glasgow.
Say what you want about Crocs, but people seem to like them. They’re what you might call anti-fashion. Like big knickers and the elasticated waist, they are a triumph of comfort over style. And while celebrities including Al Pacino, Brooke Shields, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jack Nicholson, Teri Hatcher, Brad Pitt and Halle Berry have all been photographed wearing them, Scot Vince Gunn still has his work cut out convincing us the brand that brought us DayGlo ventilated foam clogs is finding its feet in the world of fashion.
Forty-six-year-old Gunn sharpened his business teeth in the family’s greengrocer’s in the west end of Glasgow, learning the ropes in the shop then, as he got older, rising before dawn to get the pick of the crop at the fruit market.
“But it’s good being in the food business because it’s a perishable product,” he says, “and the decisions you make to buy – you have to get them right.
“Also, dealing with the Glasgow public, you have to learn to get on with people.”
In the 1980s he left the apples and pears behind and joined Marks & Spencer, where he spent “five great years”, then moved on to the Body Shop in its 1990s heyday. “I was there for ten years, when Anita [Roddick] was in full flow,” he says. “I ran different regions then became area manager, then spent three years running the international business in 45 countries.”
But when Crocs called just over a year ago, asking him to become managing director for its European operation – responsible for more than 200 stores in 51 countries, as well as the wholesale and internet operation – he was more than up for the challenge. But did he have any reservations about joining what many considered to be a one-shoe company? Let’s face it: Crocs are like Marmite. You either love them or hate them.
“When I was approached by Crocs I thought, ‘My kids have them’. But, hands up, I had no idea of the scale and breadth of the range. I went in there, had a look at the business and saw it with fresh eyes. We’re evolving and we’re changing, but at the same time we’re really proud of the clogs. Yes, you’re right, they’re like Marmite, there are a lot of people who don’t like them. But the business has sold probably somewhere in the region of 200 million pairs of shoes, so you’ve got to say a lot of people like them.”
Last year the business celebrated its tenth anniversary, and its seventh year in Europe. “I’ve got a little girl who’s seven and a little boy who’s ten,” says Gunn. “The seven-year-old – sometimes it’s just the biggest joy and sometimes it’s challenging.”
The latest challenge is to convince the public that there is more to Crocs than those lightweight clogs so beloved of nurses, doctors and toddlers too young to know better. Its design portfolio is extensive, and now includes flip-flops and sandals, ballet pumps, cool sneakers, wedges, wellies, fur-lined snow boots and equestrian-style suede boots. All are made using the patented Croslite material, which gives them their lightweight, über-comfy, odour-resistant qualities. But that, happily, is where the similarities with the clogs ends.
Gunn now owns about ten pairs and counting. “I asked my wife, ‘Why do women love shoes so much? What is it all about?’ I think I’m beginning to understand now.”
The company has factories all over the world – one of the biggest is in Italy – while Gunn himself is based in Holland. “I’m a typical Scot,” he says. “I haven’t lived here since the mid-1980s but I know we’re not backward in coming forward, which is great, because the customers tell us what they want.
“If you look at a city like Glasgow, it’s very fashionable, so I think we’ll learn very quickly what they love and what they hate, and why.”
My own personal choice? Black suede, fleecy-lined boots that are like wearing a pair of slippers even in the depths of an icy cold winter. Well, if they’re good enough for Halle, they’re good enough for me.
Crocs are available at John Lewis, Schuh, Next and the standalone store at Buchanan Galleries, Glasgow
tel: 0141-353 3573, www.crocs.co.uk