A Sandal for All Seasons: The Very Long History of Birkenstocks

Close-up of a Birkenstock Boston clog
Image is my own / All rights reserved

If ever there were an unlikely success story in footwear, it would be that of Birkenstocks. If the Birkin bag represents the high point of desirability in fashion, the Birkenstock is regularly cast as its nadir (Although, a sense of irony and some very deep pockets did recently spawn the ultimate high/low fashion mashup: a pair of Birkenstocks made of Birkin bags).

It’s the look that puts some people off, of course. But try on a pair and it’s hard not to be won over by their comfort and support. Unsurprisingly, they’ve done exceptionally well recently in the work-from-home world. Plus, there are those who love the aesthetic, all of which has been enough to make Birkenstocks a perpetual shoo-in for hot summer trends. Whether thanks to Kate Moss in 1990 or Kendall Jenner 2020, squares and fashionistas alike have been perennially enthralled by the world’s most famous sandal-maker. 

Birkenstock Arizona sandals with colourful socks
Image credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

But, no matter the vagaries of seasonal trends, Birkenstocks are clearly here to stay. The brand has been around for an astonishing two and half centuries and if you take a closer look at what’s gone into making their shoes, you’ll discover exactly why they’ve managed to build a brand worth $4.7 billion.

Birkenstock Arizona sandals on a blue background
Image credit: THOR / CC BY 2.0

The company was set up in 1774 by Johann Adam Birkenstock in the German town of Bad Honnef where it was found listed in the local church archives as a ‘vassal and cobbler’. Just over a century later in 1896, Johann’s descendant Konrad Birkenstock would develop the company’s first flexible footbed insole — a feature that came to define Birkenstock shoes for generations to come. (Remarkably, the company was family-owned for all of its existence until a majority stake was finally sold earlier this year to L Catterton, a firm backed by LVMH’s Bernard Arnault).

Konrad Birkenstock spent well over a decade travelling through Germany and Austria, preaching the gospel of his revolutionary footbed. He gave lectures to master cobblers and guilds explaining his ideas for fully malleable, custom-build shoes and licensing his design to other shoemakers as he went around. This proselytising approach to the wonders of moulded shoe beds is one that the company employed for decades to come through popular training courses and books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

The brand’s first real break came in the First World War when in 1916 it was hired by Frankfurt Friedrichsheim Hospital to make orthopaedic shoes for wounded soldiers. But it was only some 50 years later that the entire world went berserk for ‘Berkies’.

Japanese Birkenstock sign
Image credit: Michael Rehfeldt / CC BY 2.0

In 1973, thanks to the development of an electromechanical moulding machine, Birkenstock launched its first blockbuster hit. They called it the Arizona, establishing a cosmopolitan naming convention that is still in use, with other well-known models including the Boston, Zurich, and Gizeh. Josh Sims describes it as follows:

‘The Arizona was a two-strap sandal from a then little-known German company called Birkenstock. Everything about it was unmanly, given the hirsute, barrel-chested concept of masculinity at the time. It was, like much of the 1970s, brown. It also had two buckles. And it was orthopedically correct, with a footbed shaped like a footprint in wet sand that supported the foot in the correct way shoemakers had long ignored, moulding itself to the shape of the footbed over time.’

Josh Sims
Birkenstock Arizona sandals on sand
The Arizona, Birkenstock’s first blockbuster hit
Image credit: nateen08650 on Pixabay

Its appeal proved so undeniable that the Arizona completely remoulded said hirsute manly types, not unlike it had done with its signature insoles. Suddenly, barrel-chested blokes everywhere wore Birkenstocks. As Sims goes on to say, ‘not since the uniform of Roman centurions had a sandal been so macho’.

But don’t let the brawn fool you — on the design front, Birks are all brain. Their footbeds are shaped to improve your posture, all while a cork and latex milk composition absorbs moisture and combats odour-producing bacteria. After the Arizona, they took fully three years to develop their next shoe and registered eight patents along the way. They were an industry leader in adopting environmentally-friendly glue back in 1988, and even produce shoes that require no glue at all thanks to the introduction of the EVA sandal in 2015. In 2018, PETA awarded them the title of ‘Most Animal-Friendly Shoe Company’.

With this combination of obsessive German engineering, forward-looking environmental thinking, and an unmistakable aesthetic, it’s little surprise that Birkenstocks continue to be pretty much the dictionary definition of ‘sandal’.

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