How Birkenstocks went from frumpy to fashionista favorites

There aren’t many German orthopedic shoe brands that can claim to have become the toast of the fashion world – or have a recent valuation of over £4 billion. This is however the case of the most coveted shoes of this summer: the Birkenstocks.

Whether on the feet of Gwyneth Paltrow in Los Angeles, Sienna Miller in New York or Claire Foy of The Crown in London, big, sensible cork-soled shoes are everywhere, having firmly shaken off their “dull” reputation.

Outside stores in London, queues of shoppers are eager to pick up their popular Arizona two-strap and Madrid one-strap styles.

Not to brag, but this newfound zeal doesn’t surprise me, since I’ve been a devoted Birkie follower for years.

Despite being one of life’s high heel wearers, I’m rarely without a new pair – I love their ease and versatility. I wear them with dresses and pants, and for a variety of occasions (although I draw the line at Birkenstocks for evening wear).

Sienna Miller walks on the wild side in animal print leggings and a pair of Gizeh Birkenstocks

Model Kelly Brook jumps for joy in her Birkies tan

Model Kelly Brook jumps for joy in her Birkies tan

Actress Julianne Moore pairs her black pair with a cute dress

Actress Julianne Moore pairs her black pair with a cute dress

Gwyneth Paltrow in Monotonous Arizonas

Gwyneth Paltrow in Monotonous Arizonas

Yesterday my boyfriend looked in awe at my gorgeous cobalt blue suede versions, bought for £125 a few months ago, and said: ‘I didn’t know they were Birkenstocks.’ As a man with a penchant for a bit of a heel, he couldn’t imagine liking a pair of these relentlessly unsexy shoes.

He’s the perfect illustration of how the Birkenstocks deftly overcame their “frumpy” reputation while staying true to their hearts, propelling them to A-list status.

Amid a revival for all manner of nostalgic footwear – clogs, Crocs and jelly styles are all on offer – Birkenstocks are in a different league. These are the Manolos of sandals (in fact, the heel king himself has collaborated with Birkenstock: the £350 Manolo Blahnik polka dot calfskin sandals are pure style); not a type of shoe, but a brand.

No other sandal has the cachet of Birkenstocks, a look that has made them a Hollywood staple adored by actresses like Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon and countless others.

This despite the fact that for decades no one would have thought Birkenstocks were glamorous. Indeed, the Birkenstock gait is more platypus than flamingo.

Reality TV star Kendall Jenner in shearling and socks

Reality TV star Kendall Jenner in shearling and socks

Scarlett Johansson opts for comfortable sandals lined with sheepskin

Scarlett Johansson opts for comfortable sandals lined with sheepskin

Crown actress Claire Foy steps out in a tan studded pair

Crown actress Claire Foy steps out in a tan studded pair

So what has changed?

The brand was founded in eastern Germany in 1774 by Johann Adam Birkenstock, and for centuries has remained a family business focused on producing orthopedic sandals with a lightly molded sole that promotes a smooth stride and posture. healthy.

But last year the company teamed up with L Catterton, a private equity group partly owned by Bernard Arnault, who at the helm of LVMH is the most powerful man in the world of fashion. luxury.

The somewhat pessimistic sandal might not have been the obvious candidate to pique the interest of a man at the helm of a fashion stable that includes Dior, Louis Vuitton and Celine. But Arnault didn’t get where he is without having the sharpest nose in the business for that lucrative turn where the fickleness of shifting trends translates into long-term success.

And, again, its timing is right (literally, considering the brand saw sales rise 11% to £607.2m in the financial year ending 2019).

Previously, Birkenstocks were popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s among followers of the mother earth, alfalfa and muesli scene. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when grunge fashion replaced power dressing and the era’s iconic image was of a young Kate Moss in a piece of strappy dress, that their credibility fashion potential has emerged.

Yet, until recently, Birkenstocks had remained mostly under the radar.  Alexandra Shulman in her cobalt blue Kyotos, pictured

Yet, until recently, Birkenstocks had remained mostly under the radar. Alexandra Shulman in her cobalt blue Kyotos, pictured

Waif models of the time, such as Kate, Rosemary Ferguson and Amber Valletta, loved their earthy, disguised aura. Yet, until recently, Birkenstocks had remained mostly under the radar.

When I bought my first pair about 15 years ago, it was still a relatively initiated choice, popular with off-duty fashion editors.

A few years and several pairs later, I converted to the version lined with shearling which combines comfort and greed.

Then came Covid. All over the world, stilettos have been swapped for sneakers and slippers. With nowhere to go and no one to see, comfort became the go-to driver for footwear – and Birkenstock, which offers a huge range (in a sign of demand, there are currently 656 items on their website), was in pole position. to take advantage of this.

Their current popularity is also part of a movement towards a less constrained way of dressing, as evidenced by the casualization of work clothes, as well as more neutral styles (Birkenstocks are also popular with men). And with the launch of their premium 1774 range, which includes a bolder color palette, the brand has increased its luster.

The child version of the Blue Kyotos, illustrated

The child version of the Blue Kyotos, illustrated

Now, Birkenstock’s power is such that the most unlikely designers have enthusiastically collaborated on limited-edition styles. Dior Men’s Kim Jones created a gray felt shoe, embroidered with flowers that was inspired by Dior couture from 1957.

American fashion house Stussy, meanwhile, has teamed up with a range of covered-toe versions. And the aforementioned Manolo Blahnik contributed a polka dot design and another with diamond curls.

While these luxury limited editions won’t prove as cash cows as the mainline ranges, they will ensure that Birkenstocks retain a distinctive cachet that means they won’t be devoured by their own ubiquity.

And there is another element that drives the Birkenstock movement. Because fashion trends are rarely about clothes. The rise of wild swimming and the likes of “Ice Man” guru Wim Hof, which saw the wealthy and influential flock to Austrian and German retreats to pay a fortune to undergo austere fasting diets and treatment with cold water, all draw on a desire for rigor, purity and a refusal of ostentation that align perfectly with the Birkenstock spirit.

Although I have no intention of going for an ice bath, I am seriously considering a pair of Sylt Khaki Quilted Slides from Birkenstocks. And maybe even a pair of Birkenstock socks to wear with them in the fall.

BIRKIE BRANCHING HYBRIDS

Manolo Blahnik Pink Velvet Embellished Boston Shoe, £510

Manolo Blahnik Pink Velvet Embellished Boston Shoe, £510

Jil Sander in Cream Arizona Leather, £392

Jil Sander in Cream Arizona Leather, £392

Valentino Garavani x Birkenstock VLTN Slides, £409

Valentino Garavani x Birkenstock VLTN Slides, £409

Dior by Birkenstock Milano in gray felted wool and nubuck calfskin, £840

Dior by Birkenstock Milano in gray felted wool and nubuck calfskin, £840

Rick Owens x Birkenstock navy and silver sandal, £392 reduced to £195 on sale

Rick Owens x Birkenstock navy and silver sandal, £392 reduced to £195 on sale

Image search: Claire Cisotti

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