Birkenstocks, the ultimate anti-fashion shoes are officially in vogue

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Photo: Tony Alter

Vettelschoss is essentially made up of a few buildings surrounded by fields near Linz am Rhein (6,000 inhabitants) in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The company and its 500 employees have just moved into a three-storey glass and metal building. The conference rooms here are, like various models of shoes that the company produces, named Florida, Arizona or Madrid. The big world, made in Germany.

I’m told the hype around Birkenstocks in Florida right now is something else. Marc Jacobs contacted the company to work together. Yes, it’s true, he called their. And luxury online store Net-a-porter is suddenly selling the classic hippie shoe.

Business is growing “considerably”. Indeed, it practically doubled last year in the United States. The brand, which is after all 240 years old, has been “in” several times before, but is now enjoying the most successful year in its history. And the best thing about it is that Birkenstock didn’t lift a finger to make it happen – no expensive advertising campaign, no free shoes being sent to Hollywood, no rebranding as a label” vintage”. In fact, the company has done everything to avoid such hype.

Until last year, there was not even a marketing department. There was no field force or specific line. Birkenstock’s image differed depending on where you were – sort of cool in the US, suddenly hip in Italy, a health shoe with a weird charm in Germany. It was a marketing case study of how not to do things. The German business magazine Wirtschaftswoche recently called and asked to speak to the company’s lead designer. Designate? Until recently, there was no designer. At Birkenstock, things have always been about functionality and the famous “sole” offered by their shoes. Everything else just wasn’t a priority.

Imitation is the most sincere of flattery

But fashion operates by its own rules, and one of them says that Phoebe Philo is always right. When designer Céline launched flat sandals with two wide straps and fur inserts with the summer 2013 collection, fashion critics were half furious, half enchanted by these “Furkenstocks”, and there was no doubt that the shoes were going to set a trend – especially when Givenchy’s Giambattista Valli and Riccardo Tisci presented similar shoes. After all those high heels, so flamboyant and expensive as handbags, the comfortable flat sandals were meant to be a demonstrative expression of relaxation.

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Photo: Maria Morris

The paradigm shift was staged this way: take your archetypal sandal, totally uncool but with orthopedic value, and instead of associating them with a predictable “eco” look, wear them with flowing silk pants and expensive satin dresses. Even so, it took a while for women to come to terms with so much traction in a shoe, and it took a year before wacky shoes hit the ground running.

And now, suddenly with the approach of summer, they are everywhere. Virtually every brand, from Isabel Marant to Marni to Zara, offers their version of the Birkenstock. Customers often ask for Marant Birkenstocks, even though it doesn’t exist. Birkenstock doesn’t care. People refer to these Birkenstock inspired shoes as simply Birkenstocks, which does wonders for their brand recognition. Also, in glossy fashion magazines, the original “Arizona” – the classic unisex model from Birkenstock – is almost always presented.

Arizona could also be described as asexual. It certainly doesn’t make anyone more attractive, like the American vogue the article suggests (“Pretty Ugly – Why Vogue Girls Have Fallen for Birkenstocks.”) And Oliver Reichert, one of the company’s two chief executives, doesn’t claim otherwise. Reichert ran German sports channel DSF, drives a Harley-Davidson and says his wife “hates” Birkenstocks.

He nevertheless began to wear them at some point “because their functionality is indisputable”. Plus, he’s friends with Christian Birkenstock, one of the heirs to the family business whose name hit the headlines when his ex-wife Susanne launched her own brand of comfort shoes. “Sandal wars,” the headlines said. It wasn’t a great story and led to the three Birkenstock brothers leaving the business.

just the beginning

Reichert likes to characterize the brand as a “sleeping giant” because although it is hugely successful – currently selling some 12 million shoes a year – its potential is far from being realized. Ever since the 1960s, when Carl Birkenstock, scion of an ancient shoemaking dynasty, baked his first milk latex and cork insoles in his mother’s oven, the brand’s focal point has been the insole. It’s a word Birkenstock coined, and its first ad showed a foot on down bedding.

Even today, the shoes are completely made in Germany, all from natural materials. In fact, the standards are so high that the shoes are literally edible. “The product is fully integrated, it doesn’t need anything new,” says Reichert, adding that on the other hand, there’s no reason the styling can’t be changed.

That’s why Reichert is now standing in the marina of the seaside resort of Sitges, near Barcelona, ​​to oversee the brand’s first major fashion shoot. They opt for an advertising campaign, after all, a veritable Lookbook for the media. Trendy male models with thick beards were booked, as well as a girl who was on Germany The next model reality TV-show. Besides the classic Birkenstocks, the models are wearing brightly colored studded versions. In line with this arty trend, the 40-year-old Reicher wears a pair with color spots. They look like something Jackson Pollock might have worn to paint.

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Photo: Gritty Film

Keep the hippies, win the kids

Bend a bit to fashion, be a bit crazy, but don’t go overboard, that’s the new motto. Birkenstock doesn’t want to scare away its solid following of loyal sandal wearers, but wants to expand its customer base. He also wants to rejuvenate. In fact, the children’s market is huge. The conquest of new markets in Asia and Eastern Europe is also planned. By 2020, the company wants to double its revenue, and exactly what that means will become apparent in October when it releases numbers for the first time.

Marc Jacobs, by the way, got a no from Vettelschoss. “He wanted to change the sole,” Reichert said, making it sound like it was somehow indecent. They preferred to go with Yoji Yamamoto because the Japanese have a better understanding of cutting things down to their essence. Yamamoto’s version of a Birkenstock has been in his Y’s stores since March, with more designs on the way. Meanwhile, Marc Jacobs wasn’t taking no for an answer, and the company is negotiating with him again.

Things could be worse.

“We take everything into account,” Reichert said during the photo shoot. He means Marc Jacobs, the vogues world, all the hype, plus the knowledge that the current trend won’t last forever, that Birkenstock sandals will have to do their part again one day soon. Currently, the company is developing an eco-friendly ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) model – the lightest and cheapest Birkenstock ever, perfect for developing countries. “A sole for everyone!” said Reichert.

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