Economy

Birkenstocks, The Ultimate Anti-Fashion Footwear Is Officially Hot

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.

The classic Arizona unisex (and asexual) Birkenstock — Photo: Marco Bellucci
The classic Arizona unisex (and asexual) Birkenstock — Photo: Marco Bellucci
Silke Wichert

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.

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.

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.

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$57,789

A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


📣 VERBATIM

"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."


— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.

🕌 🔍 IN OTHER NEWS

Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com info@worldcrunch.com!

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ