DRESDEN: Birkenstocks, epitomised by the classic two-strap Arizona sandal, are a case study in function over form, durability over relevance, and singular vision over collaboration, according to a new interview with the company’s CEO.
Birkenstock sandals have found a renewed interest among customers new and old, with a steady stream of new business: since 2012, the brand has tripled its sales to $800 million. And while the company fits into some of the trends in fashion – see, for instance, the Balenciaga effect of chunky ‘dad’ shoes – it has resisted others.
When New York Magazine channel, The Cut, went to find out how the popular and durable shoes are made, it discovered that Birkenstock has turned down collaborations with brands like Supreme and Vetements, collaborations that have been both lucrative and brand-strengthening elsewhere. “I just wanted to work with Birkenstock because their shoes are so comfortable,” said Demna Gvasalia, the Vetements creative director.
“There’s no benefit for us except prostitution, because this is just prostitution,” CEO Oliver Reichert told The Cut. He’s not keen on aesthetics either: “If you talk to Karl Birkenstock, 82 years old, sitting in his house in Austria, getting more and more negative, he is the godfather of this absolutely design-hating, anti attitude – to say that nothing is designed. It’s about function.”
In part, this is the attitude that Birkenstock needed to be liberated from. “Nothing says I want to tell you how to live your life more than Birkenstocks,” said the film director Jason Reitman. At first, the sales outlets where the shoes sold best were health food shops. It was only with a sales uptick that followed the introduction of different colours that the brand shifted from a ‘whats-good-for-you’ to a ‘what-you-want’ position.
Nevertheless, the company’s leadership remains sceptical of fashion. “I don’t give a shit about fashion. Fashion is, pfffttt, what is fashion?” said Reichert. “Inditex [owner of Zara] is doing fashion 12 times a year. What is this nonsense?
“But I know people are hungry for pure things. And there’s a huge crowd of people heavily believing in and loving this brand [and] it’s not because of the marketing, because there’s no marketing. There’s nothing.”
However, he also offered some lessons in how to test new ideas on a global brand. “Do very few collaborations, but locally.” The brand has opened design studios in cities around the world to tap into new ideas, wherever they may be. The problem all too often, he said, is “we try to focus creativity on a very small group of people. It’s not working. My guess is it’s better to be around in the world, invite people to creativity, and you can pick what is fitting to the brand and what is not fitting.”
To his mind, brand is not just aesthetics, but something more, something beyond fashion. “It’s less painting, it’s less colour, bit it’s more emotion.”
Sourced from The Cut, WARC