The other day, while mindlessly scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed, I stopped for a few seconds as an ad for a Vogue article entitled: ‘BirkenShock! After 242 Years, Birkenstock Premieres at Paris Fashion Week’ caught my eye. Nevermind the fact that this means that all of the lovely internet cookies are doing their slightly scary work of keeping track of the fact, that yes, I have been googling Vogue a lot. What really struck me was the article’s meaning, however. Birkenstock? At Paris Fashion Week? Really? I chuckled slightly, and then sat back in awe, marvelling at what appears to be a genius piece of marketing strategy. Growing up as a child in Germany, I can safely say that, in my own experience, Birkenstocks were popular, but not cool, let alone fashionable. Practical? Yes. But not cool at all. They were worn widely but seemed especially popular in slightly musty smelling organic shops. Not at all like the health food, hipster-ised places today, but the ones you only ventured into when you had a genuine food allergy (dairy and wheat in my case) and had no other choice. You would be served by middle-aged, muscular, skinny women called Maike or Ortrud, that probably lived on a diet of sunflower seeds and herbal tea alone; fabulous non-conformists with sun tanned skin, crop tops and long skirts. The other place the cork soled shoe could be spotted almost with certainty every time was a doctor’s office. Pared with clinical white trousers, shirts and overcoats they formed part of the uniform of horror that greeted you for your set of vaccinations – a known traumatic experience of any childhood. Birkenstocks back then were and still are deemed as a health shoe; they were comfortable and practical, impeccably German and not the most aesthetically pleasing.
The short article in Vogue, too stresses their health aspect, but quotes Birkenstock’s CEO as justifying the brand’s venture into fashion by saying: ‘We have been in the fashion industry for so many years already! Go around and ask every top photographer and stylist, they are all wearing Birkenstock…’. And really, while flicking through the slideshow of the fashion show on Vogue’s website you do feel that the shoe slots right in. The fact that the article appears in Vogue alone lends them increasing fashion credibility. Birkenstock’s own website also highlights them as a shoe for creatives, interviewing a few Londoners working in the creative field (fashion curator Shonagh Marshall amongst them) to showcase just how fashionable they are.
Birkenstock’s are, for me, one of those very straightforward examples of the constant volatility within the cycle of fashion and also the tension between what is popular but not necessarily fashionable at any given moment and period of time. Clearly for me, the article in Vogue perhaps suggest I get over my childhood trauma, and give into the fashionable comfy-ness of the ultimate German shoe. Different to many other fashion fads, at least this one promises to keep my feet healthy…