Crocs And Birkenstocks: How Such "Ugly" Shoes Became So Trendy
Crocs or Birkenstock: for a long time, they were just ugly slippers. Now, they're the eternal embodiment of summer cool. Les Echos unravels a fashion mystery.
PARIS — For the past 15 years, fashionistas have been sourcing the most cutting-edge products from Merci. Since June 15, the Merci boutique, a Parisian temple of good taste, has invited the Crocs brand to take possession of its dome, which has been converted into a customization lab.
Jibbitz (personalized pins that adorn the thirteen holes of the Crocs clogs) are the emblem of the concept-store, pieces adorned live with original prints by Cameroonian artist-painter Francis Essoua, also known as Enfant Précoce. The new collaboration allows the plastic clogs, launched in the early 2000s, to flirt with the world of contemporary art.
Does fashion have no memory? Able to make a "must-have" out of a product once mocked for its dubious aesthetics, a clever blend of ethylene vinyl acetate foam, memory foam and massaging studs. Just take a look at toes, recently uncovered as temperatures rise: sandals will be cool again this summer, from the Birkenstock clog, flirting between mainstream and luxury, to the Crocs, often seen in kindergartens and fashion show front rows.
The sole niche
Historically, Birkenstock's rise in popularity was not without hitches. Long before it conquered the silhouettes of fashion magazines, the German brand Birkenstock launched the anatomical sole niche in 1774. Two centuries later, in 1963, it created its own sandal, which enjoyed a small following among the American "baba cool" audience, seduced by its comfort and non-conformist appeal.
Mocked and judged, the incarnation of the "German sandal" began to make an impression on designers some 40 years later, in a furry version at Céline in 2013, or re-imagined by Alexander Wang. Endorsed by celebrities and designers alike, the German brand, acquired in 2021 by an investment fund owned by LVMH (which owns Les Echos), launched the 1774 collection. Birks classics, as they're familiarly known, come in luxurious materials, backed by a sophisticated campaign featuring the faces and toes of celebrities such as Terry and Tricia Jones, founding couple of "i-D" fashion magazine, or Sarah Andelman, founder of Parisian concept store Colette.
Our era idolizes comfort.
As with the cork of the Birk, the plastic of the Crocs has acquired its letters of nobility by leaving the poolside to climb the catwalk. In 2017, Scottish designer Christopher Kane presented a puffed-up, strassed version. The following year, it was Demna Gvasilia, Balenciaga's artistic director, who turned the clog into a wedge platform shoe covered in badges.
More recently, in 2022, Parisian label Egonlab imagined five NFT version Crocs clogs adorned with Swarovski crystals. "Our collaborations come very naturally, sometimes by just slipping into the Instagram messages of artists like Justin Bieber or rapper Bad Bunny," explains Crocs vice-president of marketing Yann Le Bozec. "We adapted our marketing strategy and it paid off: offering a simple formula around a polarizing product that met our customers' need for expressiveness (with a wide range of colors and customizable charms), while reminding them of the unique comfort attributes of a democratic product."
The family that crocs together, rocks together.
@abigail.rowe via Crocs
Practical and democratic
By becoming to the summer sandal what the sneaker is to the dress shoe, these practical, easy-to-slip-on mules are part of the quest for comfort at all costs. No tight straps, stiff leather or traumatizing arch. Freed from all constraints, they are gradually abandoning the spheres that were reserved for them — hospital staff for the Crocs, or sole-wearers wanting to show off their toes for the Birk — to show off their off-road style in the office, during the day, in the evening, for anyone who wants to feel good in their shoes.
"Our era idolizes comfort," says semiotician Luca Marchetti, co-founder of brand consultancy The Prospectivists. "Fashion is a trend-setter, but it's particularly powerful when it's in tune with emerging social and cultural values. Today, there's a whole galaxy of values around simplicity, a more sober and accessible aesthetic imaginary. Which, in the case of Crocs and Birkenstock, are also ennobled by couture." The pandemic only accelerated this quest for comfort, enabling the clogs brand to "generate its highest income ever," according to Andrew Rees, CEO of Crocs, whose shares soared during lockdown.
Enough to satisfy health professionals in charge of relieving our arches? "From a comfort point of view, Birkenstocks are better for posture than a pair of flip-flops, for example, explains chiropodist Alice Bellette. "We can sometimes recommend them for specific needs, but it's important to remember that they don't represent a health benefit for everyone. They are sometimes unsuitable. For children, sandals are much more physiological than flip-flops, if they have a strap at the back." Unlike Crocs, which, according to the specialist, would only be acceptable for carelessly dragging from the pool to the bottom of the garden.
A person wearing black Birkenstocks.
No Revisions via Unsplash
The end of beauty privilege?
That's what's so striking about these new fashion obsessions. Regardless of gender, they are not the most flattering for the silhouette, at least if we refer to what has long been projected as the height of elegance. The new summer silhouettes, all flat and wide, certainly say as much about the times as the obsession with stilettos did in the 1990s. By offering an alternative to caricatured femininity, the chunky cork sandal and plastic clog break with a certain obsession with beauty privilege. As journalist Alice Pfeiffer shows in her essay "Le Goût du moche" ("The taste of the ugly"), the ugly and the unattractive have become objects of claim, but also of deconstruction of norms.
"It's a changing interpretation of beauty that goes hand-in-hand with a certain form of feminine liberation," observes Nathalie Elharrar, fashion designer and teacher at the French Fashion Institute. "A woman can finally feel comfortable without being taken out of the desirability game, just because she's not standing on 12-inch heels. This is what we call aspirational class: buying and wearing a product because it affirms a social position. And with a pair of Birkenstocks on your feet, you come to show a form of detachment: my comfort and well-being come first, and if they meet fashion, so much the better."
More comfortable, but also more affordable when not signed by designers (around €50 for Crocs clogs, €110 for Birkenstock's Arizona model). "These products are less divisive in terms of social competition," explains Luca Marchetti. "The approach is less ostentatious, even when a Crocs can be worth double or triple because it's signed by a designer, for the aesthetics don't say so." This gives the slightly biased impression that we're all wearing the same shoes.
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