How Birkenstock Played the Fashion World
"People who buy shoes for comfort are cops," writer Jon Caramanica jokingly wrote in the New York Times at the beginning of the year. Tell that to the millions of people who seek out Birkenstocks; the “unattractive” sandals that have adorned the feet of political rebels, German tourists, queer icons, and now, those who look to the fashion industry for sartorial dictation. In recent weeks, Birkenstock’s associations have reached new heights: Rick Owens debuted his second collaboration with the brand while Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli—who dressed his FW19 men in socks and sandals—labeled Birkenstock “the definition of inclusivity.”
In 2018, the footwear company expected to sell 25 million pairs of shoes, reports The Business of Fashion. That figure has risen to 30 million for 2019. And since 2012, sales are said to have tripled to $800 million, according to The Cut. I say "said to" because the brand's figures tend to remain secretive, making Birkenstock a rare unicorn in the business sphere.
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You see, comfort, not profit, is the soul of Birkenstock; it runs through every strand of its German-born DNA. The first detection of the Birkenstock family dates back to 1774 church records when Johann Adam Birkenstock was listed as a "subject and cobbler.” The profession ran in the family as, in 1896, Johann's great-great-grandson Konrad Birkenstock revolutionized the insole. The conventionally flat footbed was Birkenstocked into a contoured surface with the ability to mold to the wearer's foot over time. Konrad began selling these insoles in Germany and, by 1925, had purchased a factory to produce his designs.
In the 1930s, Konrad's son, Carl, began the Birkenstock training courses to emphasize the company's focus on podiatry and healthy footwear. Carl's son, Karl, too joined the family business, finally launching Birkenstock's first sandal, the Madrid, in 1963. In doing so, he had refined his grandfather's work, infusing the arch support into a latex and cork base.
Europe was beginning to cotton on to Birkenstock’s practicality, but, for one reason or another, the brand hadn't ventured to the US. An American designer named Margot Fraser turned out to be the missing link. On a mid-60s German jaunt, she fell in love with the sandals and persuaded Birkenstock to let her sell its shoes in California. Traditional retailers weren't too keen but health food shops lapped the look up.
Hippie culture soon began to adopt Birkenstocks into their everyday wardrobe. Believing the shoes fit the values of the freedom movement, their political protests were littered with the chunky sandals. In later decades, the man-repelling shoes found a place in lesbian lives and the overall queer movement.
This liberalism reared its head again in the 90s when an equally rebellious younger generation turned to fashion to express themselves. In 1990, Kate Moss, cigarette in hand, appeared in an editorial for The Face wearing a pair of white double-strapped sandals. Marc Jacobs—ever the agitator in 1992—teamed his grungy Perry Ellis dresses with Dr. Martens, Converse and Birkenstocks. (He was subsequently fired.)
For the next 20 years, Birkenstock vanished from the fashion scene. But in 2012, Phoebe Philo took the tourist-friendly silhouette and lined it with mink to create the Céline ‘Furkenstock’. Rejecting the male gaze, Philo’s sandals were archetypal old Céline. They even prompted the ugly shoe era; an age that continues to prize the orthopedic more than the ankle-breaking.
So what is it that makes Birkenstocks so hideous? Is it because the archaic line, “beauty is pain,” doesn’t fit with the brand’s ethos of comfort? Or is it because Birkenstocks have a tender link to activism? Something which, until recently, was viewed in a negative light by the mainstream population. Either way, it’s ironic that soon after Philo’s collection, the likes of Givenchy were adopting the Birkenstock look and adding an extra zero to the price tag.
No matter how far Birkenstock ran from fashion, it couldn’t escape being lumped into a rather long-lasting trend. Still, it remained quietly shelling its own products: sandals (Madrid, Arizona, Gizeh), clogs, sneakers, and even boots. “We don’t chase trends — fashion is coming to us,” David Kahan, the CEO of Birkenstock America, told Inc. And fashion did indeed flock. First, there was Rick Owens (although the designer said that Birkenstock first approached him). So far, two collections—one focusing on furry sandals, the other on technical boots—have been released. Then the German magazine-turned-brand 032c reworked the brand’s A 630 clogs. Then Opening Ceremony injected Birkenstock with animal print and glitter. Then Valentino stuck a logo on a pair of Arizona's. The Cut’s Cathy Horyn alluded to Birkenstock’s collaboration reign, revealing that the brand had turned down requests from two seriously hyped labels: Supreme and Vetements. The Business of Fashion added a Marc Jacobs rejection to the list.
Careful selection is the Birkenstock modus operandi. CEO Oliver Reichert proved this when he likened an overload of partnerships to “prostitution”. And a spokesperson for the brand confirms this view, telling Heroine: “Birkenstock is working on collaborations with a long-term view. [Any collab] has to add newness and innovation beyond the product. We want to achieve a unique context [and] client experience and genuine creativity. Just throwing logos together for short-term buzz is not relevant to us.”
Its pride in its mainline product is incomparable. As the New York Times points out, walk into the brand’s US flagship store and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any sign of a designer team-up. Traditional models are placed front and center while luxury collaborations are tucked away on the second floor. It’s not to say that Birkenstock is embarrassed of the names it has worked with. Far from it. But the brand isn’t flashy. It doesn’t care about fashion. It doesn’t care about big names. It cares about function; about shoes that will be treasured for years to come. Because when the winds of fast fashion have blown over, when luxury brands are still struggling to find a product that sticks, and when the entire world is in chaos, good old dependable Birkenstock will still be there. And that is what you call a success story.