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Birkenstocks

Birkenstocks

Birkenstock sandals are specially designed casual shoes with flexible cork and latex (type of rubber) insoles that are shaped like the bottom of a person's foot. Designed in Germany, Birkenstocks were first introduced in the United States in the late 1960s, and they immediately became identified with a youthful generation who preferred natural and comfortable clothing to the more restrictive fashions of their parents. Birkenstocks introduced the concept of "comfort shoes" that has been continued by many other manufacturers.

Karl Birkenstock came from a family of German shoemakers. His grandfather Konrad had first come up with the idea that shoes would be more comfortable if the soles were contoured or shaped like the bottom of a foot. In 1897 he invented a flexible insole that fit inside a shoe to increase its comfort, and he sold his insoles successfully all over Germany and Europe. In 1964 his grandson Karl invented a shoe that used Konrad's idea by making a cork sole that was shaped like a footprint.

In 1966 Margot Fraser, a German woman who had moved to the United States, visited her native country where she tried Birkenstock's sandals. She found them to be the most comfortable shoes she had ever worn, ending the foot pain she had experienced for years. She brought them back to the United States and began to sell them from her home. She tried to sell them to shoe stores, but the managers of the stores took one look at the boxy, plain Birkenstocks and laughed at her. They told her that American women would never buy shoes that looked like that.

Fraser then decided to approach people who might have less conventional ideas. As a result, she began to sell her shoes at health food stores, which were popular among a small, but growing, number of people at the time. Birkenstocks became so popular during the late 1960s and 1970s that specialty shoe stores began to sell them, too. During the conservative 1980s the shoes went out of fashion somewhat, but by the 1990s they had come back more successfully than ever. By the early twenty-first century many styles of Birkenstocks had been designed, including hiking boots and men's and women's formal shoes. Birkenstock sandals were even seen on the runways at designer fashion shows. The basic footprint design has remained unchanged throughout the years, as has the company's commitment to comfort over fashion.

Though thousands of people buy and wear Birkenstocks, they are still very much seen as the shoes of social rebels or political radicals, and people often assume they know the political beliefs of those who wear them. In fact "Birkenstock-wearing" is an adjective regularly used to describe environmental activists or those who support other social causes, usually by those who disagree with them. In reality, however, all types of people have found comfort in the Birkenstock sandal. Margot Fraser's company, Birkenstock Footprint Sandal, Inc., lives up to the shoe's liberal, open-minded image, supporting recycling, Earth Day, and other environmental causes. Refusing many offers to sell out, the California-based company is moving toward becoming totally worker owned.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Birkenstock. http://www.birkenstock.com (accessed on August 27, 2003).

Brokaw, Leslie. "Feet Don't Fail Me Now." Inc (May 1994): 7076.

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Birkenstock

Bir·ken·stock / ˈbərkənˌstäk/ • n. trademark a type of shoe or sandal with a contoured cork-filled sole and a thick leather upper. ∎  denoting people concerned with political correctness or conservationist issues: leave environmentalism to the Birkenstock crowd.

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Birkenstocks

Birkenstocks

Birkenstocks—the name commonly used for sandals made by the Birkenstock Company—are the parent of "comfort shoes" in the United States. Called hari krishna shoes, monk shoes, Jesus sandals, and nicknamed granolas, Jerusalem cruisers, tree huggers, Flintstone feet, hippie shoes, and beatniks, they have carried numerous social connotations. Nevertheless, the influence that Birkenstocks have had on what Americans wear on their feet goes beyond alternative trappings. Not only have they become a household word in the 1980s, but they have also joined the likes of Nikes in gaining name-brand recognition.

Birkenstocks were created by a family of German shoemakers. Emphasizing comfort rather than fashion, the original Birkenstocks were open-toed, leather-strapped, flat-heeled, slip-ons. In 1964, Karl Birkenstock combined a flexible arch support and a contoured sole—inventions his grandfather Konrad had engineered at the turn of the twentieth century—into an orthopedic shoe. The ergonomically designed sole is shaped like a footprint in wet sand, with cupped heel and raised bar where the toes meet the ball of the foot. The pliable insole is a cork/latex matrix sandwiched between layers of jute and covered in suede leather.

Margot Fraser introduced Birkenstocks to the United States in 1966. While visiting her native Germany she bought a pair to alleviate her foot pain. Back in northern California, she sold a few pairs to friends, never intending to start a business. Quickly convinced that everyone would benefit from such comfortable shoes, she began importing them. Retail shoe store owners, however, balked at selling an unconventional "ugly" shoe. Undaunted, Fraser took Birkenstocks to health fairs and found buyers among owners of health food stores and alternative shops. Having carved out a niche by 1971, she convinced the German parent company to give her sole United States distribution rights and she incorporated the company. The most recognizable and popular Birkenstock style, the Arizona, developed for the American market, was introduced the same year.

By the late 1970s the shoes had become a favorite of hippies, the back-to-the-earth crowd, and the health-conscious, especially women looking for alternatives to the popular narrow-toed, high-heels generally available. Still, the shoes were anti-fashion—they were cited as a fashion "don't" in a women's magazine in 1976. In 1979, the Boston, a closed toe style, was introduced.

The company grew gradually until the late 1980s when it finally got a foothold in the athletic/comfort shoe market. Americans' desire for more comfortable clothing and a nostalgia for the trappings of the 1970s, coupled with Birkenstock's aggressive marketing, set off the shoe's phenomenal rise in popularity and sales in the 1990s. Countering a perceived association with Dead Heads, hippies, and grunge rockers, Birkenstock catalogs featured hip young urbans. Between 1989 and 1992 the company expanded 500 percent and, according to the New York Times, between 1992 and 1994 sold more shoes than it had in the previous 20 years. The popularity bred knock-offs by high-end shoemakers such as Rockport, Scholl, Ralph Lauren, and Reebok, and discount copies appeared in stores such as Fayva and Kmart in the 1990s. In 1992, shoemakers Susan Bennis and Warren Edwards created a formal imitation with rhinestone buckles for Marc Jacobs' runway show. Competition from other "comfort shoe" companies such as Teva and Naot began. Birkenstock eventually opened its own stores and the shoes were made available in shops geared toward comfortable footwear and through mail order giants such as L.L. Bean; mainstream retailers like Macy's and Nordstrom also began to carry Birkenstocks.

Originally Fraser sold four styles, but by the early 1980s the company offered over 20 different models with an expanded color selection. The company also introduced a completely non-leather shoe, the Alternative, for ethical vegetarians. Smaller sizes of the classic styles, made to fit children, were offered around the same time. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the color selection moved out from neutral and earthy tones like tan, black, white, brown, crimson, and gold to include bright and neon colors like orange and turquoise. During the same time, closed shoes made specifically for professionals who spend most of their workday on their feet, such as restaurant and health care workers, showed up in shops and catalogs.

Birkenstocks, once the ugly duckling, moved to the center of fashion. Vogue, GQ, Sassy, and Details magazines all featured sandal and clog styles in fashion layouts throughout the 1990s. Birkenstocks were seen on the feet of stars such as Madonna, Tanya Tucker, Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, and Yvette Freeman; politicos Norman Schwarzkopf, Donna Shalala, and John F. Kennedy Jr.; sports greats Shaquille O'Neal, Dennis Rodman, and Dan O'Brien and the maven of taste, Martha Stewart, among others. Menswear designer John Scher had custom Birkenstocks made in gold leather, gray corduroy, and wine pinstripe for his fall 1998 collection. Perry Ellis, Sportmax, and Narcisco Rodriguez have also featured Birkenstocks in their runway shows.

By the late 1990s Birkenstock had over 50 styles including rubber clogs, trekking shoes, women's wedge heels, multi-colored sandals, anti-static models, as well as mainstays like the Zurich, a style similar to the shoes Margot Fraser brought from Germany in 1966. Fraser is chief executive officer and 60 percent owner of the Novato, California, based company, called Birkenstock Footprint Sandals, Inc., with employees owning the balance. Fraser's corporation has over 3,600 retail accounts, 125 licensed shops, and four company-owned stores in the United States, including the San Francisco flagship store opened in 1997. Birkenstock's sales for fiscal 1997 were an estimated $82 million.

—ViBrina Coronado

Further Reading:

"Birkenstock Braces to Fight the Competition." Personnel Journal. August 1994, 68.

Brokaw, Leslie. "Feet Don't Fail Me Now." Inc. May 1994, 70.

McGarvey, Robert. "Q & A: Margot Fraser." Entrepreneur. February 1995.

O'Keefe, Linda. Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers and More. New York, Workman Publishing, 1996.

Patterson, Cecily. "From Woodstock to Wall Street." Forbes. November 11, 1991, 214.

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