The ugly sandal beloved everywhere by hippies and the comfort footwear set is so hot this season that even Marc Jacobs wants in on the action. Paint those toes, baby.
VETTELSCHOSS — It’s not often that Vogue editors dial the German area code 02645. But since last fall they've been on the phone to Vettelschoss — wherever that is — all the time. And so are their colleagues from the Chinese edition of Elle and the independent Dutch magazine Rika.
It's because they want to photograph the Shoe of the Season. And we’re not talking about stilettos. Instead, we’re talking flat cork soles and sandal straps — Birkenstocks, the perennial earth shoe.
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Photo: Tony Alter
Vettelschoss is basically a few buildings surrounded by fields near Linz am Rhein (population 6,000) in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The company and its 500 employees just moved into a three-story glass and metal building. Conference rooms here are, like various models of the shoes the company produces, named Florida, Arizona or Madrid. The big wide world, made in Germany.
I’m told that the hype about Birkenstocks in Florida right now is something else. Marc Jacobs has contacted the company about working together. Yes, that's right, he called them. And luxury online boutique Net-a-porter is suddenly selling the classic hippie shoe.
Business is growing "dramatically." Indeed, it practically doubled last year in the United States. The brand, which is after all 240 years old, has been "in" a couple of times before, but it is now experiencing 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 ad campaign, no sending free shoes to Hollywood, no rebranding as a "vintage" label. In fact, the company has done just about everything to avoid such hoopla.
Until last year it didn’t even have a marketing department. There was no field force, and no specific line. The Birkenstock image differed depending on where you were — sort of cool in the United States, suddenly hip in Italy, a health shoe with a weird kind of charm in Germany. It was a marketing case study in how not to do things. The German economy magazine Wirtschaftswoche recently called and asked to speak to the company's head designer. Designer? Until recently, there was no designer. At Birkenstock things had always been about function and the famous "footbed" their shoes offered. Anything else was simply not a priority.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
But fashion operates according to its own rules, and one of them says that Phoebe Philo is always right. When the Céline designer launched flat sandals with two wide straps and furry insets with the Summer 2013 collection, fashion critics were half incensed, half enchanted with these "Furkenstocks," and there was no doubt the shoes would set a trend — particularly when Giambattista Valli and Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy presented similar footwear. After all those high heels, so flamboyant and as expensive as handbags, flat comfy sandals were meant to be a demonstrative expression of taking it easy.
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Photo: Maria Morri
The paradigm change was staged this way: Take your archetypal sandal, totally uncool but with orthopedic value, and instead of pairing them with a predictable "eco" look, wear them with flowing silk pants and expensive satin dresses. Even so, it took women a while to come to terms with so much traction in a shoe, and it was a year before the wacky footgear broke through.
And now, suddenly in the run-up to summer, they're everywhere. Practically all brands, from Isabel Marant to Marni and Zara, are offering their take on the Birkenstock. Customers often ask for Marant Birkenstocks, even though there is no such thing. Birkenstock doesn't care. People refer to these Birkenstock-inspired shoes as simply Birkenstocks, which does wonders for their brand recognition. Besides, in the glossy magazine fashion spreads, the original "Arizona" — the classic Birkenstock unisex model — is virtually always featured.
The Arizona could also be described as asexual. It certainly doesn't make anyone more attractive, as the American Vogue article suggests ("Pretty Ugly — Why Vogue Girls Have Fallen for Birkenstocks.") And Oliver Reichert, one of the company's two managing directors, doesn't claim otherwise. Reichert used to head German sports channel DSF, rides a Harley-Davidson and says his wife "hates" Birkenstocks.
He nevertheless started to wear them at some point "because their functionality is unquestioned." What's more, he's friends with Christian Birkenstock, one of the heirs to the family company whose name made the news when his ex-wife Susanne launched her own brand of comfort shoe. "War of the Sandals," the headlines read. It was not a pretty tale and resulted in all three Birkenstock brothers leaving the company.
Just the beginning
Reichert likes to characterize the brand the "sleeping giant" because though it's very successful — currently selling some 12 million shoes per year — its potential has been nowhere near tapped. Since the 1960s, when Carl Birkenstock, the progeny of an old shoemaking dynasty, baked his first soles made of latex milk and cork in his mom's oven, the focal point of the brand has been the footbed. That’s a word Birkenstock made up, and his first ad showed a foot on down bedding.
Even today, the shoes are manufactured entirely in Germany, all from natural materials. In fact, the standards are so high that the shoes are literally edible. "The product is totally together, it doesn't need anything new," Reichert says, adding that on the other hand there's no reason why styling can't be varied.
Which is why Reichert is now standing in the yacht harbor at the Sitges resort near Barcelona overseeing the brand's first major fashion shoot. They're going for an ad campaign, after all, a proper Lookbook for the media. Hip male models with thick beards have been booked, as well as a girl who was on Germany's Next Top Model reality TV show. Besides the classic Birkenstocks, the models are wearing studded versions in bright colors. In line with this arty trend, the fortysomething Reicher is wearing a pair with color spatters. They look like something Jackson Pollock might have been wearing to paint in.
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Photo: Gritty Film
Keep the hippies, gain the kids
Bowing just a little bit to fashion, being just a little bit crazy, but not going too far — that’s the new motto. Birkenstock doesn't want to frighten its solid customer base of loyal sandal wearers, but it does want to broaden its constituency. It also wants to go younger. In fact, the kids' market is huge. Conquering new markets in Asia and Eastern Europe is also planned. By 2020 the company wants to double its turnover, and what that means exactly will become apparent this October when it publically releases figures for the first time.
Marc Jacobs, by the way, got a no from Vettelschoss. "He wanted to change the sole," says Reichert, making it sound as if that were somehow indecent. They preferred to go with Yoji Yamamoto because the Japanese have a better understanding of reducing things to their essence. Yamamoto's version of a Birkenstock has been in his Y's stores since March, and more models are on their way. Meanwhile, Marc Jacobs wasn't taking no for an answer, and the company is once again negotiating with him.
Things could be worse.
"We're taking everything into account," Reichert says at the photo shoot. He means Marc Jacobs, the Vogues of the world, all the hype, as well as the fact that he knows the present trend won't last forever, that Birkenstock sandals will have to pull their own weight again some day soon. Right now the company is developing a model made of environmentall friendly ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) — the lightest, least expensive Birkenstock ever, perfect for developing countries. "A footbed for everybody!" Reichert says.