They are said to resemble the shoes worn by the early Christians, over the years they’ve been pilloried for being the chosen footwear of macrame knitting yurt dwellers, or their contemporaries, the devotees of the comfy-conscious Danish art of Hygge, but Birkenstock’s are simply the perfect summer shoes.
I have had at least three pairs over the years and love these iconic shoes.
The owner of the “Birkenstock” brand is Birkenstock Orthopädie GmbH & Co. KG that is based Neustadt (Hessen, Germany). The roots of the company are traceable to Johann Adam Birkenstock who’s entry in the 1774 church archives of the small village of Langen-Bergheim (Hessen, Germany) was that of a “shoemaker”. In 1896 his great-great-grandson, Konrad Birkenstock, developed the flexible contoured insole or footbed for use by shoemakers in the production of custom footwear. I am told that the insole is based on the sand cast of a healthy foot to ensure that the feet feel as comfortable as possible for as long as possible. The same year Konrad opened two shoes stores in Fankfurt.
1925 Konrad bought a factory in Freiberg for 24 hour production.
The classic Birkenstock sole comprises four layers: first is latex – for shock absorbency, that is durable and flexible, second is jute fibre – absorbent, third is cork – for support and finally suede – for comfort and dryness.
By 1963 Karl Birkenstock had developed and launched the “Madrid” (below) the first in the range of the now iconic Birkenstock shoe by using the family’s signature insole, combining it with cork with a latex core for flexibility and an extendable leather strap.
In 1966 Birkenstocks were introduced into the United States by Margot Fraser (who was based in San Francisco California) who had “discovered” Birkenstocks at a German spa and noticed the relief they gave her painful foot condition. The early years were difficult but by the early 1970’s Birkenstock’s had become synonymous with West Coast Hippies, American liberalism and the associated cultural revolution. In the 1990’s they became a firm favourite with the youth and college students. By 2007 the owners of Birkenstock had purchased their US distribution partner.
Constantly innovating and, no doubt, seeking to challenge the threat from rubber shoes like Crocs, Birkenstock have developed their own range of “wet’ use Birkenstock. Modelled on their classic styles, whilst in my experience my Birkenstock’s do not degrade when they get wet, I suspect these are a sensible alternative. Here’s are a sample range – the famous “Arizona” in rubber.
Birkenstock is now run by Alex Birkenstock as CEO and Christian Birkenstock as MD.
Seen as a high style item by celebrities, Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Goop” has called Birkenstock’s the “legendary-most-comfortable-sandals-ever” and they are beloved by style leaders including Steve Jobs, pictured below.
A pair of Steve Job’s old Birkenstock’s were sold at an online auction in 2016 and achieved in excess of $3,500.
Images courtesy of Birkenstock Orthopädie GmbH & Co. KG