How Birkenstocks went from frumpy to fashionistas’ favourites: They started out as ugly orthopaedic sandals but are this summer’s surprise hit, says ex-Vogue editor and long-time devotee Alexandra Shulman. But would you spend £840 on the designer version?
There aren’t many brands of German orthopaedic shoes that can claim to have become the toast of the fashion world — or had a recent valuation of more than £4 billion. Yet that’s the case with this summer’s most-desired footwear: Birkenstocks.
Whether it’s on the feet of Gwyneth Paltrow in Los Angeles, Sienna Miller in New York or The Crown’s Claire Foy in London, the chunky, cork-soled sensible shoes are everywhere, having firmly shaken off their ‘dowdy’ reputation.
Outside London stores, queues of shoppers are eager to snap up their popular two-strap Arizona and one-strap Madrid styles.
Not to boast, but this newfound zeal comes as no surprise to me, since I’ve been a dedicated Birkie follower for years.
Despite being one of life’s high-heel wearers, I’m rarely without a new pair — I love their ease and versatility. I wear them with dresses and trousers, and for a variety of occasions (although I do draw the line at Birkenstocks for partywear).
Sienna Miller walks on the wild side in animal-print leggings and a pair of Gizeh Birkenstocks
Model Kelly Brook is jumping for joy in her tan Birkies
Actress Julianne Moore teams her black pair with a pretty dress
Gwyneth Paltrow in monotone Arizonas
Yesterday, my boyfriend looked admiringly at my beautiful cobalt-blue suede versions, bought for £125 a few months back, and said: ‘I had no idea they were Birkenstocks.’ As a man who has a fondness for a bit of heel, he couldn’t imagine ever liking a pair of these relentlessly unsexy shoes.
He’s the perfect illustration of how Birkenstocks have cleverly overcome their ‘frumpy’ reputation while staying true to their core, propelling them to A-list status.
Amid a revival for all manner of nostalgic footwear — clogs, Crocs and jelly styles are all on offer — Birkenstocks are in a different league. They are the Manolos of sandals (in fact, the heel king himself has collaborated with Birkenstock: the Manolo Blahnik polka-dot cowhide sandals, £350, are pure style); not a type of footwear, but a brand.
No other sandals have the cachet of Birkenstocks, an allure that has seen them become a Hollywood staple loved by actresses including Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon and countless others.
This despite the fact that for decades no one would ever have thought of Birkenstocks as glamorous. Indeed, the Birkenstock gait is more duck-billed platypus than flamingo.
So what’s changed?
The brand was founded in eastern Germany in 1774 by Johann Adam Birkenstock, and for centuries it remained a family business focusing on producing orthopaedic sandals with a gently moulded sole that promotes a healthy stride and posture.
But last year the company went into partnership with L Catterton — a private equity group part-owned by Bernard Arnault, who as head of LVMH is the most powerful man in the luxury fashion world.
The somewhat downbeat sandal may not have been the obvious candidate to pique the interest of a man in charge of a fashion stable that includes Dior, Louis Vuitton and Celine. But Arnault didn’t get where he is without having the shrewdest nose in the business for that lucrative turning point where the fickleness of changing trends translates into long-term success.
And, once again, his timing is on the money (quite literally, given the brand saw an 11 per cent increase in sales to £607.2 million in the financial year ending 2019).
Previously, Birkenstocks were popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s among followers of the earth-mother, alfalfa and muesli-eating scene. It was only in the early 1990s, when grunge fashion replaced power dressing and the iconic image of the time was a young Kate Moss in a scrap of a slip dress, that their potential fashion cred emerged.
Yet until recently, Birkenstocks had remained chiefly under-the-radar. Alexandra Shulman in her cobalt blue Kyotos, pictured
The waif models of the age, such as Kate, Rosemary Ferguson and Amber Valletta, loved their earthy, dress-down aura. Yet until recently, Birkenstocks had remained chiefly under-the-radar.
When I bought my first pair about 15 years ago, it was still a relatively insider choice, beloved of off-duty fashion editors.
Some years and several pairs later, I became a convert to the shearling-lined version that combines comfort with indulgence.
Then along came Covid. Across the world, stilettos were swapped for trainers and slippers. With nowhere to go and no one to see, comfort became the compelling driver of footwear — and Birkenstock, which boasts a huge range (in a sign of demand, there are currently 656 items on their website), was in pole position to take advantage of this.
Their current popularity is also part of a movement towards a less constrained way of dressing, evidenced by the casualisation of workwear, along with more gender-neutral styles (Birkenstocks are equally popular with men). And with the launch of their upmarket 1774 range, which includes a bolder colour palette, the brand has increased its lustre.
The child’s version of the Blue Kyotos, pictured
Now, such is the power of Birkenstock, that the most unlikely of designers have enthusiastically collaborated on limited-edition styles. Dior Men’s Kim Jones has created a grey felt shoe, embroidered with flowers that are inspired by Dior’s 1957 couture.
American fashion house Stussy, meanwhile, has teamed up on a range of covered-toe versions. And the aforementioned Manolo Blahnik has contributed a polka-dot design and one featuring diamante buckles.
Although these luxury limited editions will not prove as much of a cash cow compared with the main ranges, they’ll ensure that Birkenstocks maintain a distinctive cachet that means they won’t be devoured by their own ubiquity.
And there is another element driving the Birkenstock movement. For fashion trends are rarely just about clothes. The rise of wild swimming and the likes of ‘Ice Man’ guru Wim Hof, which have seen the wealthy and influential flocking to Austrian and German retreats to pay a fortune to undergo austere fasting regimes and cold-water treatments, all tap into a desire for rigour, purity and rejection of ostentation that aligns perfectly with the Birkenstock ethos.
Though I have no intention of going for an ice bath, I am seriously considering a pair of Birkenstocks’ khaki Sylt quilted slides. And possibly even a pair of Birkenstock socks to wear with them come the autumn.
THE BANK-BREAKING BIRKIE HYBRIDS
Manolo Blahnik pink velvet embellished Boston shoe, £510
Jil Sander cream leather Arizona, £392
Valentino Garavani x Birkenstock VLTN slides, £409
Dior by Birkenstock Milano in grey felted wool and nubuck calfskin, £840
Rick Owens x Birkenstock navy and silver sandal, £392 reduced to £195 in sale
Picture research: Claire Cisotti
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