The secret of Birkenstock’s enduring success

17 Birkenstock fashion history RESTRICTED
CNN  — 

Pandemic restrictions have meant one thing for most wardrobes: comfort. As many of us continue to work from home – and staying safe with a trip to the park remains the height of summer’s social calendar – sensible flat sandals are now more pervasive than ever.

And, it seems, the ultimate expression of this phenomenon is a pair of Birkenstocks.

Last month British Vogue declared Birkenstocks the official sandal of 2020, while fashion search engine Lyst reported that they had become the platform’s most searched-for shoe. Meanwhile models Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid and Kaia Gerber have all stepped out in theirs – with and without socks. Not bad for a shoe that claims to have always put its orthopedic prowess above its fashion appeal.

Kendall Jenner wearing Birkenstocks with socks in SoHo, New York City

Before Ugg, Crocs, Hasbeens and Fitflop, there was Birkenstock. With its tagline “often copied, never equaled,” the storied brand’s lineage goes back over two centuries. Now, in these times of uncertainty, there is something reassuringly reliable about this durable sandal.

With its boat-like natural cork, jute and latex sole and chunky buckled straps, Birkenstocks make an anti-fashion statement that transcends trends – yet somehow keeps managing to set them.

Origins of comfort

The earliest records of the family shoe business date back to Johann Adam Birkenstock, who worked as a cobbler in Langen-Bergheim, Germany in 1774. By 1896 his grandson, Frankfurt-based shoemaker Konrad, had opened two stores and launched the fussbett (footbed), anatomically shaped insoles that support and form to your foot. By 1925 they were being sold across Europe.

The company expanded into week-long educational courses for medical professionals on the musculoskeletal and circulation benefits of its specialist footwear. Then in 1947 Konrad’s son Carl published the book “Podiatry – The Carl Birkenstock System,” expounding his approach to supporting one’s “natural gait” to achieve healthy feet. This was the first of several Birkenstock textbooks and manuals filled with bracing ideas – such as walking barefoot in nature and soaking feet in spruce needle salts and cold water.

Attendees at a Birkenstock training course, 1935

The 1960s proved to be the making of Birkenstock as we know it today. In 1963 Carl’s son Karl launched the first sandal, the single-strap Madrid, initially marketed as a gymnastics shoe and still a key style today. Three years later, Margot Fraser, a German dressmaker living in California, was holidaying back home – drawn as many were to the country’s no-nonsense sanatoriums (austere precursors to the modern spa) – and was recommended a pair of Madrids as therapy for her aching feet.

Birkenstock ad from 1968

Immediately smitten, she approached the family to become the brand’s first US distributor. Fraser initially struggled to drum up interest from shoe sellers, and ended up finding a spot for the sandals at health food stores instead.

Here hippies discovered them snuggled next to vitamins and dried lentils, and as the Summer of Love unfolded, Birkenstocks became the shoe of choice for beatniks from San Francisco to Vermont. This new-found cool didn’t stop the brand’s catalogs from promoting the shoes to everyone – housewives, golfers, doctors and chefs come all.

The two-strap Arizona sandal arrived in 1973, which became – and remains – the brand’s bestselling style.

Birkenstock wearers at a German foowear fair, 1972

Counterculture couture

Over the years many subcultures have embraced Birkenstocks as part of a uniform, from surfers and skaters to Deadheads, but it took until 1990 for high fashion to fully take notice. The trend (like many from that decade) originated with Kate Moss. The teenager posed for photographer Corinne Day’s July cover shoot for The Face magazine wearing Birkenstocks on the beach. This youthquake moment led to Marc Jacobs choosing the sandal for his Spring-Summer 1993 grunge collection show for Perry Ellis, and soon the shoe was duly adopted by college students and musicians to complement their plaid shirts and baby doll dresses.

A model wears the classic two-strap Arizona sandal for a Birkenstock poster, 1991

A decade later Birkenstock saw another spike in status thanks to West London A-listers including Jude Law and Jade Jagger, then Gwyneth Paltrow, who made headlines for foregoing heels in favor of these flats during her time in Britain’s capital in 2002.

Two years later Heidi Klum launched her own limited-edition sandals, featuring biker studded leather and distressed denim. (In tandem with these celebrity endorsements, the noughties were also a time when the pejorative term “Birkenstock liberal” was used by conservatives to invoke the stereotype of a granola-eating, Volvo-driving do-gooder.)

Gigi Hadid in double denim and Birkenstocks

These seemingly incongruous fanbases are what makes Birkenstocks so bulletproof. The still family-owned, still German-made brand (it has four factories across the country) has historically put little emphasis on marketing or endorsements.

That didn’t stop planet fashion calling again in 2012 when Phoebe Philo invented the Furkenstock – a black Arizona lined in mink fur – for Céline’s Spring-Summer 2013 collection. This instantly sparked a tsunami of demand and other brands, namely Givenchy, Giambattista Valli and Acne, to follow suit with other luxurious versions. By the time normcore landed in 2014 – a trend wedded to fugly, non-descript footwear – Birkenstock found itself riding yet another sartorial wave.

Proenza Schouler Spring-Summer 2020 show at New York Fashion Week

Since then, under the watchful gaze of current CEOs Oliver Reichert and Markus Bensberg – who helm on behalf of Karl’s sons – the business has grown exponentially. It is now distributing to over 100 countries and offers around 800 styles – including the tried and trusted Gizeh thong sandal, and Boston clog – all of which stay unwaveringly true to the footbed. Its popular vegan range has won awards, and the brand has also moved into other categories including (actual) beds and natural cosmetics.

Future style

The company’s newest initiatives are 1774, its Paris studio that manages premium collaborations, and Birkenstock Box, a “mobile, spatial retail concept” that pops up around the world in partnership with concept stores such as Andreas Murkudis in Berlin. One of 1774’s relationships is with Rick Owens, whose gender fluid aesthetic offers an obvious synergy. The designer first put his uncompromising spin on Birkenstock for the Spring-Summer 2019 season. Current designs include the Rotterhiker boot and Rotterdam sandal with sturdy rubber straps. “Basically Birkenstocks are like jeans, functional and sexy. Maybe Birkenstock are even the sexiest shoes ever,” Owens told GQ Germany.

An attendee at the Pitti Uomo 94 fashion trade show in Florence.

Valentino has joined 1774 too, which has resulted in a clean, tonal Arizona in red and black. The brand’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli also developed an acid-yellow pair for Frances McDormand to wear with her Valentino haute couture gown to the 2019 Oscars. “I have worn Arizona sandals for most of my adult life. They have literally formed me physically and philosophically… The spark caught fire and there’s no going back,” said the actor in a press statement.

A model in Birkenstocks at the Rick Owens show, Paris Fashion Week  Spring-Summer 2019

Meanwhile Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez have reinvented both the Arizona and the ankle-strapped Milano with Velcro fastenings and contrast top stitching.

But that’s not to say the brand has finally succumbed to jumping on every fashionable bandwagon. It’s widely reported that it has turned down street style giants Supreme and cult brand Vetements because a collaboration would have resulted in little more than logo placement.

Central Saint Martins student Alex Wolfe's "Moto" Birkenstock sandal design

A cannier partnership is Birkenstock’s educational project with London’s Central Saint Martins. First the BA fashion history and theory students were invited to research the brand’s prolific archives, then the MA fashion students came up with innovative designs. Four graduates’ styles were shown at the 2020 MA show and they are now due to go on sale next February. One of which, the Moto sandal by Alex Wolfe, takes its cues from motocross boots and covers the lower leg in multi-colored, wing-like shin braces.

“Investing in and connecting with future talents is working with free spirits. A priority for a democratic brand that embraces all like Birkenstock. The students showed a genuine understanding of design and delivered a convincing end result,” said Reichert. Perhaps an old dog can learn new tricks after all.