The Reputation of the Birkenstock

How a geeky sandal from Germany found its way to America and actually got trendy. By Robert Klara

Early in the summer of 1990, the British photographer Corinne Day took a then-unknown model named Kate Moss onto the beaches of Camber Sands for a photo shoot. As Day popped off her shutter, a pencil-thin Moss crouched in the sand, smoked cigarettes and regarded the camera with that no-makeup, no-hairstyling, no-enthusiasm look she was about to make famous. That July, when the photo feature appeared in the pages of U.K. culture mag The Face, a tremor rumbled through the fashion world. One reason was because Moss, then 15 years old, happened to be topless.


The other reason: She was wearing Birkenstocks.


Why the fuss? Well, 28 years ago, there was no single piece of footwear more dorky and less fashionable than a pair of Birkenstocks. And while that image has changed in recent years, it’s still hard to name a brand that elicits more sarcastic comments and rolled eyes than a basic pair of Birks—or, if you prefer, “Geekenstocks,” “Jesus sandals,” “Flintstone feet” and “Granolas,” that last slur a reference to the shoes’ stereotypical popularity among American liberals, to wit: “granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing tree-huggers who want to take your guns,” to quote the internet.


Exactly how Birkenstocks got associated with Berkeley vegan lefties, we’ll get to in a moment. For now, the cold, hard truth: Say what you want about this ugly duckling of footwear, but Birkenstock reportedly sells 25 million pairs a year. Its revenue has grown tenfold in the past five years. And according to Birkenstock USA CEO David Kahan, it’s all because, appearances notwithstanding, Birkenstock makes a very comfortable shoe. “The heart and soul of everything we do is anatomically correct, orthopedic footwear that makes people feel good,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”


In 1774, Johann Adam Birkenstock began working as a cobbler just outside of Frankfurt, Germany. At the time, the bottoms of shoes were flat as boards, but Johann’s descendants began innovating, eventually perfecting a soft, flexible “footbed” insole that won fans all over Germany.


But they were shoes. Not until the 1960s did Birkenstock begin making sandals—specifically, 1962’s Arizona, the classic-two strap that might never have made it to America were it not for an American tourist named Margot Fraser. Traipsing across Germany with aching feet, Fraser found relief by buying a pair of Birkenstocks, which she wore home to San Francisco. Sensing a business opportunity, Fraser negotiated the rights to import the sandals—only to find that no shoe store would touch them. “Mom and pop shoe stores looked at them and said, ‘These are the ugliest things we’ve ever seen—nobody will ever wear them,’” Kahan related. Undeterred, Fraser began selling Birks in Bay Area health-food stores, thus engendering the tree-hugging, Volvo-driving, granola-eating stereotype that adheres to the shoes to this day.


But not entirely. In 2013, Birkenstocks began popping up on the fashion runways in Paris and London. A sign that the beautiful people had finally had enough of chic-but-painful shoes? Perhaps. Or maybe it was just another of fashion’s inexplicable swerves. Said Vogue’s Emma Elwick-Bates about Birkenstocks: “They’re the right mix of weirdo
and luxe.”

Birkenstocks and their famous footbed (bottom) were brought to America in the 1960s by Margot Fraser (top). 

Birkenstocks and their famous footbed (bottom) were brought to America in the 1960s by Margot Fraser (top). 

The soft sole that molds to the shape of the wearer’s foot (top) is made with thermal cork (bottom).

The soft sole that molds to the shape of the wearer’s foot (top) is made with thermal cork (bottom).

Comfortable but homely, Birkenstocks have turned up on the fashion runways recently (top). Among Birkenstock’s new fans are the members of neo-Zeppelin rock band Greta Van Fleet (bottom), whose vocalist Josh Kiszka has even taken the stage in his Birks.

Comfortable but homely, Birkenstocks have turned up on the fashion runways recently (top). Among Birkenstock’s new fans are the members of neo-Zeppelin rock band Greta Van Fleet (bottom), whose vocalist Josh Kiszka has even taken the stage in his Birks.

A 2017 collaboration with Barneys New York, the Birkenstock Box (top) sold select apparel and limited-edition shoes like the pink-fur sandals designed by the store’s fashion director Marina Larroudé (bottom). Birkenstock proudly ignored fashion trends for a century, but when designers began using the sandals on runways, the brand decided to get trendy with some edgy designs. These limited-edition patent leather and pink shearling Arizonas ($290) appeared last year. Kahan is quick to point out that the signature sole was still part of the sandal. “We just play around a little with the uppers,” he said.

A 2017 collaboration with Barneys New York, the Birkenstock Box (top) sold select apparel and limited-edition shoes like the pink-fur sandals designed by the store’s fashion director Marina Larroudé (bottom).