Quality Through Time: The History of Birkenstock

Birkenstock’s iconic silhouette has stood out for decades and is synonymous for comfort and style. The brand has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, with “Vogue” even naming them part of the 2020 look

When look back through Birkenstock’s history, you find a complex story of a brand known for comfort that suddenly also became known for its style. Let’s take a look at the history, timeline, and evolution of this classic brand. 

Birkenstock Meaning

Birkenstock is a German footwear brand named for its founding family. The tradition started with Johann Adam Birkenstock in Frankfurt, Germany, who is listed in the archives of Langen-Bergheim, Germany, as “subject and cobbler.” Over the years, the passion for comfortable shoes was passed down to each of his descendants with Karl Birkenstock creating 38 companies under the Birkenstock umbrella and dividing them amongst his three sons. 

When Was Birkenstock Founded?

The Birkenstock brand dates back all the way to 1774. Cobbler Johann Adam Birkenstock started making a shoe with a flat bottom, and over the span of almost 200 years, his descendants innovated the materials to become flexible and soft. One of the brand’s first products was a blue footbed that was originally the company trademark. It was sold throughout Europe in the early 20th century and continued to be reinvented by the family as new advances were made.

Original Birkenstock Logo

An original logo from Birkenstock. Photo: Birkenstock.com

The footbed, combined with the family’s long-standing investment in the field of podiatry, eventually evolved into a single strap design in the 1960s. The shoes then made their way to America on the feet of a tourist named Margot Fraser, who was looking for a shoe to soothe her aching feet when she returned from Germany to San Francisco. She brought home a pair of of the sandals and then bought the import rights to sell the shoe in the United States. Karl Birkenstock sold the rights to her, not because he thought it was a good business opportunity, but because he trusted her. 

However, no mom-and-pop shoe store wanted to touch them. Not ready to give up, Fraser started selling the sandals to health food stores, and soon the legacy of the Birkenstock sandal in the United States was born. 

Fraser was the one who first suggested adding color to the shoes, much to the dismay of the Swiss distributor who thought that since the shoes were orthopedic, they didn’t need to be fashionable. However, Fraser pressed on and, in 1989, hired the first full-time sales representatives for the company. At that time, the company offered 28 styles, with the two-strap Arizona model coming in 25 colors and textures. Over the years, Fraser continued to be actively involved in selecting colors for the shoes that would appeal to American markets.

What Did the Original Birkenstock Sandals Look Like?

The original Birkenstock sandals were a footbed until the 1960s. Birkenstock focused on the insoles of shoes creating comfortable footbeds that focused on podiatry and science. In the 1960s, Karl Birkenstock decided to take the foam and cork footbed and release it as the “gymnastics sandal.” Today, the same model is called the Madrid sandal in the Birkenstock line. 

The design features a single adjustable strap that can be adjusted over the wearer’s footbed, offering a winning combination of ergonomics and comfort. 

The classic two-strap sandal was first made in 1973. Similar to the Madrid, the two-strap design, which remains popular to this day, has adjustable upper straps and the same ergonomic footbed that the company has been known for. The Arizona model continues to be one of the most leading designs at the company leading over 25 million annual orders in 2018.

When Did Birkenstock Become Popular?

Because the original outlet for the Birkenstock sandal was California health food stores, the brand became associated with (and popular with) hippie culture early on.

In the 1960s, Birkenstock was all about function over comfort, and the brand has maintained that legacy and touchstone value throughout its history. However, because they were seen as simple, functional sandals, they weren’t always considered fashionable. Then in 1990, a photo of model Kate Moss caught public attention—and she was wearing Birkenstock sandals. Around this time, Birkenstock became trendy in counterculture groups, as the brand quickly became associated with surfers, skaters, and college students.

Then, in 2012, Birkenstock suddenly saw a resurgence that may be in part due to Phoebe Philo of Celine. Philo took one of Birkenstock’s Arizona sandals, lined it with mink, and put it on the runway. This sparked a new desire for the sandals as they quickly became a part of a minimalist chic wardrobe. In fact, over the years, the brand has collaborated with the likes of Proenza Schouler, Rick Owens, and Valentino, among others, adding luxe details to the sandals to enhance their appeal. 

These collaborations were really a turning point for the brand as they changed their methods of operation. Prior to this, and even afterward, there was no sales force or any real public relations and marketing efforts for the shoe. If a seller was out of Birkenstock, then they had to call the home office outside of Bonn, Germany, to have more sent to them. 

Today, celebrities such as Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Kaia Gerber, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jade Jagger all step out in their Birkenstock sandals proudly.

The family eventually gave up managerial control of the company, but not ownership, and the brand continues to thrive with distribution to over 100 countries and offers around 800 styles. It is currently experiencing a period of growth, sticking to its values, and very much aware that it wants to stay away from being an ephemeral brand that people want to check off their fashion bucket list. 

Bring Home a Pair of Birkenstock Sandals Today

Want to experience this iconic shoe brand for yourself? Pick up one of the classic Birkenstock sandals in a color and style that suits you today at JD Sports.



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