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Davis, California

Monday, April 15, 2024

The cultural evolution of the Birkenstock

How a 200-year-old shoe became a modern icon 

Take a stroll through any major metropolitan area and you’ll see them. Walk across campus and you’ll notice them, often in hordes. Even a venture out to the countryside would yield a sighting of two. Usually in shades of brown or black, with two or three straps and invariable simplicity, the prominence of the Birkenstock cannot be ignored. The world of fashion is an ephemeral one, where trends blaze like wildfire and one’s eye must always be trained on the next big thing. Against all odds, Birkenstock has persisted — even flourished — in an industry that quite literally phases out its inventory twice a year. But how did a shoe that was most famously associated with health food stores suddenly burst onto the cultural forefront?

In 1774, Johann Birkenstock registered as a shoemaker in a small village in Hesse, Germany. He was quite skilled, and the family trade was established shortly after. Over 100 years later in 1896, Johann Birkenstock’s  great-great grandson, would go on to found the company that is now synonymous with the shoe itself. The contoured insole was invented by Konrad Birkenstock and became an instant hit with soldiers for its exemplary orthopedic support. The company’s shoes were first introduced to the United States in 1966, where they quickly spread across the West Coast and then the rest of the nation. 

The Birkenstock couldn’t have come to America at a better time: it nudged itself neatly in the Summer of Love and the ensuing hippie movements. It was at this time that Birkenstock gained its reputation as the official footwear of peace, love and everything organic. In fact, Birkenstocks were only sold at health food stores until 1986, when Nordstrom gained distribution rights. 

For 20 years, the only spot to pick up a pair was in the same place you got vitamins and Omega-3 oils. The atmosphere that surrounded Birkenstocks for so long — one of a do-good liberal who was probably a vegetarian — was not completely unfounded. 

Nicole Smith, a recent UC Davis sociology graduate, calls them “vegan Jesus sandals.” 

So when did the jump to the fashion world occur? 

Perhaps what put Birkenstock back into the nouvelle vogue was its inherent rejection of it to begin with. Visually, the shoes have been largely unchanged for decades, embracing simplicity over all else. There have been introductions of new models, of course, but the beauty of Birkenstock shoes is their resistance to change, or, as the fashion world likes to call them, trends. 

Their current CEO, Oliver Reichert, when pressed for comment in 2017 at one of their shows in Paris, said “Birkenstock does not want to be a part of the fashion industry,” adding that they “just wanted to host a nice party,” when pressed as to why they put on a presentation in the first place. This does not, however, mean that they aren’t open to new ideas. 

While embracing the simplicity of their shoes, Birkenstock has collaborated with many brands to nudge their footwear into unexpected corners of the fashion world. The collaboration that was one of the farthest from their stereotypical consumer was one with Rick Owens, a contemporary designer known for his dark, long drapey pieces that invoke a goth-in-apocalypse aesthetic. Owens’ clothes are popular for obscuring gender, their overly luxurious material and the fact that, when worn correctly, one looks like a mystic of the Medieval times. He brought the same energy to Birkenstock, infusing the Arizona, their classic two-strap sandals, with horsehair, velour and, of course, his signature black hue. 

The result is an artist’s twist on a long-established classic. The concept of using the Birkenstock’s silhouettes as a canvas is a powerful one. Owens’ fingerprints are all over the aforementioned shoe, but in the end, it’s still an Arizona sandal. Birkenstock’s collaboration with Opening Ceremony, another high-fashion powerhouse, evokes the same feeling. Instead of dark grunge, Opening Ceremony embraces camp and maximalism, brightly sequinning Birkenstock’s Boston silhouette — a strapped, well-fitting clog. The partnership that may have attracted the most attention was one planned with Supreme, the crown jewel of streetwear. Instead of playing ball, Birkenstock pulled out, citing a disrespect for their shoes. 

Klaus Baumann, Birkenstock’s chief of sales chimed in, “It was never about function for them, just logos.” 

A staunch line has been drawn in the sand when it comes to the morals of Birkenstock, something that can’t be said for much of the fashion industry. 

For many, what’s most important and what most strongly attracts them to the brand is the actual fit of the shoes themselves. Because of the nature of the sole, Birkenstocks conform to your feet over time, becoming almost like an extension of your body after enough wear. 

“I wear them because they mold to my feet and last forever,” said Ariel Mendlin, a fourth-year political science major. “I can walk miles in them and my feet never hurt.” 

There’s a reason people wear them so devotedly around campus and even around cities; they’re supremely comfortable and create a fit that is tailored to each individual owner. The shoe becomes personalized and, in an age of algorithms and manufactured authenticity, there is something beautiful about having an analog object that was perfected by the very person wearing it. 

Students on campus may not be aware of the cultural heights that their footwear has climbed, but for most of them, that’s fine. Fran Neil, a second-year sustainable agriculture and food systems major, saw her mother wear them growing up. 

“They’re comfortable, and they represent an aesthetic,” Neil said. “I eat granola, but like, I want a job.” 

While the fashion collaborations and rejection of industry norms may propel Birkenstock into big cities and runways around the globe, perhaps it is the beauty in the unambiguous that has kept them relevant for over 200 years. What you see with their shoes is exactly what you get. This embrace of simplicity keeps Birkenstocks popular, especially among students who can just slip them on and go, all while having a well-constructed, well-fitting shoe holding them up. For many, this is enough. And for the rest of us, we always have Rick Owens’ horsehair sandal in Vantablack to spice things up. 

Written By: Ilya Shrayber — arts@theaggie.org


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