There’s no need to explain that we’re fans of luxury around here. We like our suits bespoke, our sweaters cashmere, our pocket squares silk. They can take our lives, but they will never take our tailors.
So you may be wondering why you just read the word ‘Birkenstocks’ up there. Is it a typo? Is it a joke? Birkenstocks are, at best, comfortable. At worst, they’re old-fashioned or just downright ugly. Maybe even the entire unsavoury trifecta.
Well, sorry to burst your Birkenstock-free bubble, but the clunky buckle-strapped sandal has recently transcended frumpiness to become fashion world-approved footwear. Are you ready for the renaissance?
The Birkenstock family of Germany has a long history in the shoemaking trade, beginning with cobbler Johann Adam Birkenstock born in 1754. By the end of the 19th century, a descendant named Konrad Birkenstock owned two shoe stores that formed the foundation of the modern Birkenstock businesses. At the time shoes were made with flat soles, but Konrad realised that a sole curved to complement the shape of the foot would be more comfortable for wearers. He designed the first contoured shoe last in 1897, followed by flexible orthopaedic inserts in 1902.
With the rise of mass-produced shoes, the Birkenstock family business moved away from custom-designed shoes to concentrate on the production of shoe inserts and the development of rubber as a material for foot supports. Through the difficult times of two world wars, the Birkenstock business thrived. Birkenstocks were worn by soldiers and promoted by doctors in military hospitals, and the company expanded its product line.
In 1950, Konrad Birkenstock died at the age of 77 and the business underwent a number of changes. A fresh generation of Birkenstocks joined the family firm, new products were developed, and the company boldly re-entered the shoe business. The new Birkenstock shoe was based on the shape and function of the human foot, and the classic cumbersome-but-comfortable Birkenstock sandal was born.
One year later, the sandals came to the attention of Margot Fraser, a German-born dress designer who brought them to the United States. Although they were a hard sell initially, Fraser eventually found her target market. Over the next few decades sales grew dramatically, new styles and colours were introduced, the production process was modernised, and the popularity of Birkenstock sandals reached a peak in the 1990s.
In Popular Culture
Fast-forward through the 90s and noughties to now. The Birkenstock had been left behind, considered too uncool for anyone but the most crunchy, hippie, tree-hugging types. The world seemed satisfied to leave Birkenstocks as the butt of a joke or a forgotten relic of a time gone by. And then something happened.
Style bloggers started wearing them. Celebrities were seen sporting them. Designers sent them down the runway. Major retailers like J.Crew and Topshop jumped on the trend. The underground shoe was suddenly overground again, much to the surprise of…well…everybody. You probably won’t see us giving up our Oxfords any time soon, but if you’re looking for a boundary to push, a new pair of Birkenstocks could be just the thing.