The Birkenstock brand launch in India is a matter-of-fact affair in a hotel. All the shoes they’re bringing to India in their Spring-Summer 2020 collection, called Next Gen, are laid out neatly, with the merchandiser taking us through the range. There is an adjacent room with an AV playing. It is all very functional, stripped of marketing spiel, and has none of the drama of a country launch, much like the sandal itself.
Oliver Reichert, the CEO, in his description of the product, says, “Birkenstock is the perfect combination of function and quality.” You can’t get a simpler, more stodgy answer. But irrespective of how many collaborations the brand does — with American designer Rick Owens, Italian designer Valentino, sneaker store Concepts, retailer Opening Ceremony — they are neither pushing for those, nor are they moving into fashion territory. “We don’t play in the fashion arena… We didn’t push for the fashion dollar, which is a very fickle place to play in,” says Lucy Holmes, the regional marketing manager, Middle East and India. In fact, Reichert says the brand has only ever approached Rick Owens. “All other brands have to come to us,” he says.
The journey from Frankfurt
The concentration is still on the sole, which began its journey in 1896, with shoemaker Konrad Birkenstock operating two shops in Frankfurt. He developed the first contoured insole to be fitted into custom-made shoes, and later, a flexible arch support for factory-made shoes. In the first decade of the 1900s, he made insoles from a cork-latex blend, giving rise to the term footbed.
It was in 1964 that the Birkenstock sandal was born, with a footbed consisting of a toe grip, an arch and a heel cup — all to help support the foot. There are two layers of jute on either side of this, and then suede or calf leather insoles, and EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) on the sole, though the original single-strap Madrid had moss crepe (rubber). While the hard soles are supposed to be orthopaedically good, America prefers the softer version with a latex foam cushioning, available across the world. Worldwide, the double-strap Arizona is the most popular, despite its clunky ‘I work in development’ like proclamation.
A sixth-generation family-owned company that claims to sell between 25 and 30 million pairs each year, production is still solely in Germany, with 60% in Gorlitz, and raw materials (cork from the oak, latex, and leather) sourced from Europe. Today, collaborations are managed by a creative studio called 1774 Birkenstock, that operates out of Paris. There are no “targets”, only “partnerships”, and the voice is clear. “Our heritage is about quality and comfort, which is aspired [to] by many designers. If that translates into fashion and offers comfort, we feel this is a good combination,” says Reichert.
From the Next Gen Birkenstock collection
New age consumers
How does a brand that doesn’t feed a particular demographic stay relevant? At last year’s Oscars, Frances McDormand wore Birkenstocks in yellow suede custom made by Valentino. Vogue called it “couture-meets-comfort”, but the folks at Birkenstock say that at its core, it has a health DNA. Holmes says the brand became fashionable because the consumer that bought Birks was, like Gigi Hadid, Alexa Chung and Julianne Moore. And the Next Gen collection has a model called Kyoto (most of its slippers and sandals are named after countries), which is “a modern version of their [forefoot-covering] Zürich”, Reichert calls it.
It is also a practical purchase that lasts for years, suddenly relevant in today’s ecologically conscious consumer who’s dissing fast fashion, but it is also important, says Reichert, for people to either love them or hate them. He himself now owns “several hundreds” that he bought “simply because there weren’t too many options around in my shoe size, which is 46 EU”. But he has stayed with them for a while now.
In India, the only store is at Delhi airport’s domestic terminal 3 (prices here start at ₹3,999), and they retail online (birkenstock.in — they don’t sell from any other website). There are no India collaborations yet, though Reichert says they are looking at Bollywood for synergies, since it has a global presence. Also, none of the existing collabs will come to India. Abroad though, American fashion’s Proenza Schouler will go to the Paris fashion week in March this year and the premium 1774 collection will be at the Frieze Art Fair in Los Angeles with Matchesfashion, next month.