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No doubt most of you will have had a cheeky peek at the brilliant Tumblr blog Shit Bloggers Wear, showcasing illustrations by Portland-based Cecilia Doan of items that fashion bloggers en masse have a penchant for because of the mystical powers of PR rounds, gifting or just by sheer force of word of wear.  I must confess, I've fallen prey to a few of the named and shamed culprits but fortunately as suspected, Doan says herself it's all a bit tongue in cheek she herself doesn't actually think the items are actually shit.   

What struck me when I was scrolling through the blog though was how aesthetically different a lot of the "blogger" items are from one another.  How does a dainty pair of Alexander Wang open-toe heeled sandals marry up with New Balance 410 trainers or a handmade flower crown with a spear-headed Vita Fede bracelet.  As someone vaguely in the "game" as it were, it's obvious which items have done the gifting rounds or given the PR push but the majority I would say have been bought out of sheer free will and due to ripple effect, seem to penetrate across the blogosphere.  

One particular item that definitely did NOT become a "Shit Bloggers Wear" because of PR magic was the Birkenstock Arizona sandal.  It seemed timely that after a rash of "They're back!" articles, numerous designers doing their own Birkenstock-esque shoe and thus the re-re-re-re-surgence of the humble Birkenstock itself, that I was asked to go visit Birkenstock HQ and factory, in the Rhineland in a place called Vettelscho√ü near Cologne.  It was a journalist first apparently.  

 

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In fact everything about the way Birkenstock has been run up till now was endearingly lo-fi.  No fancy PR agencies.  No super swanky campaigns.  No gifting.  No fancy all-singing all-dancing stands at tradeshows.  No paid celebrity endorsement.  Unlike many brands that become fashionable whilst having a history rooted in function over anything else (Dr Martens born out of improving army military boots, Levi's jeans for rail workers, Nike shoes for college track teams), Birkenstock have steadfastly maintained that they are NOT a fashion brand.  They eschewed any notion of trendiness.  Ever since Karl Birkenstock took over the family business back in 1954 and introduced the Birkenstock sandal in 1964, the company under subsequent Birkenstock family members' management, changes and different permutations have never ventured too far from their comfort zone (comfort being the operative word here).  

Birkenstock is after all rooted not in footwear but footcare.  As far back as 1774 Johann Adam Birkenstock was registered as a "shoemaker" but it was his grandson Konrad Birkenstock in the late 19th century/early 20th century who produced insoles and arch supports for shoes.  They held seminars for medical specialists advocating their support systems and published a widely read book on foot-health entitled "Birkenstock's Podiatry."  It's the natural role of the foot and the mechanics of the footbed which go underneath the feet that has interested the generations of Birkenstock family members, not the aesthetic stylings that cover the soles.  

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That didn't stop them undergoing waves of popularity, with hippies in the seventies, with the tree hugging neo-hippies in the nineties and from my own memory, were frequently papped in the celeb rags on famous feet emerging from Fred Segal and Kitson.  This year in particular, the Birkenstock underwent an unlikely revival as a trickle-on effect from being re-appropriated, most prominently as "furkenstocks" at Celine's S/S 12 show.  Similarly Giambattista Valli and Marni have fashioned their own bejewelled and studded takes on the Birkenstock sandal, namely the Arizona.  It was no surprise then that people would return to the original shebang, getting functional bang for buck and caching in on authenticity.  

That's exactly what I discovered when I was let loose inside Birkenstock HQ and its factory.  There's almost something absurd about the fact that all of the celeb hoo-ha, high fashion hi-jinx, and overt on-trendness relating to Birkenstocks, originate from this austere, quietly industrious and very German company.  The funniest thing is for the longest time, many of the employees in the company just didn't care about what trend waves Birkenstock were riding.  They did nothing to encourage it and never pandered to the attention once the name started seeping into public consciousness outside of Germany.

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Ask the average person on the streets of Germany however and for them Birkenstock is a well-loved homegrown brand that does great orthopaedic footwear.  They are viewed as unapologetically fuddy duddy and there's nothing wrong with that because ultimately they're useful.  There's something quite charming about that.  And so the old contradiction in fashion rolls on, that something completely unfashionable and supposedly repellant to the eyes has entirely the opposite effect on trendsetters (see Connie Wang's particularly hilarious ode to Ugly Shoes on Refinery 29).  

The factory itself certainly doesn't concern itself with trends or aesthetics.  As I sauntered about taking photographs, workers went about their business whilst looking at me with bemused and curious expressions (like I said the factory hasn't had that many visitors).  I very much doubt that Celine appropriating the shoe that they make day in, day out has registered.  Every element of the shoe from the embossed metal buckles to the footbeds and soles are made in Birkenstock-owned factories dotted around Germany and then assembled here in Vettelscho√ü.  In different areas split up by shoe style, the Birkenstock assembly line works like clockwork.  The various parts of the sandal be it the Arizona, the Madrid or the Gizeh rotate from one worker to another, in a blend of human hand with efficient machinery.  Organised, structured and incredibly fastidious concerning every detail of the shoe – the Birkenstock factory sort of reminded me of another famous German company Volkswagen, who ran an ad that poked fun at these stereotypical German attributes.  The liberals in this country banging on and on about how the UK doesn't make things anymore would look at the Birkenstock setup with misty eyed jealousy.  

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Those values of pragmatic function may reign at Birkenstock but there are changes a-coming.  For a start, the fact that a rando blogger was asked to go and see the factory was a PR shift in itself for Birkenstock.  The company has been restructured this year following some internal corporate tussles between the Birkenstock heirs and a new creative director of design and product, Rudy Haslbeck has been appointed.  Birkenstock had a lot of messy loose ends in sideline brands such as Tatami, Alpro's Betula and the branding Footprints.  Most of this will be done away with leaving the Birkenstock name to be the sole focus.  Haslbeck has already been setting into motion design changes that means for SS14, there are new materials, more exciting colourways and generally a growing awareness of trends.  Baby steps though.  Things like using a new foam or a metallic leather for a sandal strap or having a coloured footbed would have been frowned on by  the Birkenstock of old.  Respect for what the company does and knows best is the still the primary concern.  I am told though that Birkenstock will be making more of a shout about any collaborations within fashion that they do.  They've crept into shows in a quiet way but an impending "louder" collab is well on its way and likewise one supposes that their far removed PR strategy will definitely change. 

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For now though, summer rolls on as I'm writing this on a flight to New York where it's still scorching it up in the upper 70s.  It's likely that Birkenstocks or their designer counterparts will be on show at the shows.  The best part of course is that my feet are still benefiting from yes, you've got it – a pair of bloody Arizona's and some multi-strapped floral Papillio's (the sub brand which makes more "feminine" styles) and some inky blue Madrids.  When someone commented on my LA post, accusing me of unoriginality because I chose to wear Birkenstocks, I gladly retorted to say that it's impossible that my feet should be "original" whatever that means, 100% of the time.  Not when my feet are put through the paces of cheap shoes, walking in heels and other unsavoury things that only a podiatrist or a good pedicurist can fix.  Despite Birkenstock's ubiquity though, halving delved into its background and seen its operations, you could say that their trajectory is a unique one.  Odd, weird and yes, maybe a bit ugly.  You know, the kind of "shit" bloggers love to wear.  

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Overspill of photos from LA

Comments (26)

  1. Angelina S says:

    cool range – love Birkenstocks. not the most ‘fashionable’ footwear no matter how much colour is pumped into them but but durable and comfortable! therefore I must give them a big thumbs up – i do love all the different styles.
    Good to see the craftsmanship and the assembly line.

  2. Leslie says:

    I love that tumblr blog! It’s so good! haha
    http://www.downtownhautefashion.blogspot.com

  3. Nicola says:

    Interesting post, not a show I could pull off but great styling for yourself!
    http://www.thestylecheck.com

  4. Matthew Pike says:

    Really enjoyed this post Susie, though you may have seen the share on Twits. Hollie’s been wearing Birkos for as long as I can remember but I’ve been fancying a pair myself and she’s said I should give them a go for ages. Comfy.com she and you both say. Great factory shots and it’s interesting to hear the shift that’s going on in the company, nice of them to shout out a bit more when needed.

  5. Meghann says:

    If you like Shit Bloggers Wear, I think you would really enjoy my illustrated designer alphabet!
    http://meghannfinley.blogspot.com/2013/08/v-is-for-vivienne-westwood.html
    xx

  6. Jame says:

    Nice blog. I care it
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  7. jay says:

    As that bitchy commenter which accused you of being unoriginal on the LA post, I have to say I think you’ve missed my point. Even though everyone is singing praises to Birkenstocks at the moment, no blogger would actually be wearing them, if they weren’t considered to be the latest “it thing”, and the fact that we’ve never seen them on your blog until this summer, kind of proves my point.

  8. The Provoker says:

    I’m liking them actually, I have new respect for these shoes, then again, I always loved ‘ugly’ shoes, they’re the best! ;P
    xx The Provoker
    http://www.the-provoker.com/2013/08/mawi-giveaway-or-bling-ring.html

  9. susie_bubble says:

    I would say that the reason that I’ve personally never worn them until this summer is a combination of the lack of press contact, the structure of their sales points in the UK (they’re not ACTUALLY that easy to find unless you wish to buy from what looks to be a very outdated website) and just lack of need for them due to the climate here and the fact that I haven’t been on holiday properly in five years until LA this year.
    Also I’ve never really had problems with my feet until in the last year or so because of a twisted ankle and toe dislocation. I never really saw the medical benefits of wearing them versus say wearing a pair of Topshop sandals (in truth, there is only about one month in the year where open toed flat sandals are doable in London).
    I’m not someone who is drawn to “IT” items but like brands like Clarks, Dr Martens and Nike, I like genuine authentic products. And having seen the way they are made, there’s something very honest about a sandal that has thus been appropriated by high fashion designers. There are people that perhaps have latched on to them because the likes of Celine and Marni have made them “acceptable” as a shoe shape but for me, alongside those “authentic” highly focused brands, they’re like the open-toe sandal equivalent of say apair of Docs or desert boots. They “work” in their orthppedic properties.
    I just didn’t get a chance to discover that until now precisely because they have undergone restructuring. That neatly coincides with their perceived “cool” factor yes, but the two weren’t necessarily connected with each other. As I said, Birkenstock just isn’t a company that recognises or wants to embrace their fashion credentials.

  10. QM says:

    Does it really matter when or how someone might discover a brand? Who really gives a flying fuck about who wore them first – they are Birkenstocks for fucks sake!
    And also, was that “bitchy commenter” of which you speak not actually yourself??

  11. jay says:

    Yes,I said it was me in the comment. Learn to read, ffs!

  12. jay says:

    Sorry about your ankle, that sounds awfully painful.

  13. Iris says:

    Not a fan of Birkenstocks but I love this post! I guess a lot of people don’t know the background of these sandals and I think it’s very interesting to see how they are produced. I do kind of like the patterned version and I love how you incorporated them in your outfit!
    xoxo Iris
    A DASH OF FASH

  14. Megan says:

    Whenever I see Birkenstocks I cannot help but think of Perry Farrell’s comment when someone threw one on stage:
    ‘he doesn’t even understand fashion!’
    Here’s the moment:
    http://youtu.be/Vx6691i0KDE
    (it’s at 2:32 onwards)

  15. 33 says:

    Timely post. I was just browsing birkenstock sandals on various sites trying to decide if i should get a pair or not.
    My brother has been wearing them for about 2 decades, never seen him in anything but. I have a pair of black Mephisto that looks like the single band lapiz blue birkenstock you had on in LA that I wear often.
    For now I am still sitting on the fence because 1. summer is about over, and 2. can’t find the all black Arizona in my size, and 3. been spending 2 much buying end of summer sale….
    regardless, i am glad birkenstock invited you to tour the facility. only you can write about a brand, an old and trustworthy one like birkenstock, that’s worth the salt. brava!

  16. Trash says:

    As a person that has difficulty standing and walking I find Birkenstocks a blessing. But I enjoyed wearing Birks even before. I would kill though to be able to wear my platforms again. I thought they were comfy and funky then and now.

  17. Ken Stewart says:

    Very interesting, I love this! Thanks for sharing.

  18. In Germany a lot of people use Birkenstock as slippers. Their insole is made out of cork and quickly adapts to the body warmth so that in wintertime your feet stay warm without socks :-)

  19. I too discovered Birkenstocks a couple of years back (before they were on the catwalk) because my back was giving me a hard time and had to change&adapt my footwear towards a more comfy palette instead of plain fashionable.
    To my greatest surprise, I became so addicted that I only want to wear non-Birkenstock footwear only if I’m forced by the circumstances/occasions.
    You’re lucky to have seen their ateliers! But from all the ‘bloggers’ wearing ‘shit’ you’re the one who really deserved being there!
    K
    http://stylefrizz.com

  20. Deadly Bite says:

    Very interesting article. I learnt a lot from it :)

  21. SLIP says:

    Really nice Thanks for sharing your nice info!!!

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