Are Birkenstocks cool? How they made it from slacker to staple for the second spring in a row

Are Birkenstocks cool
Left: Birkenstocks on the Celine Spring 2013 Runway. Middle: Kate Moss in the Face via The Blow. Right: Opening Ceremony's Spring 2014 Magritte Birkenstocks.

We can credit the genius of Phoebe Philo for bringing back the Birkenstock out of grandpa’s closet and onto our must-have shopping lists for spring. Céline’s fuzzy, fur-lined sandal kicked off the third coming of the comfort shoe legend last year. After a year in the spotlight, Birkenstocks have returned for a second year with practically every hip label, from Givenchy to Zara, has some sort of a version just waiting to make you look orthopedic.

When it was introduced to North America in 1973, Birkenstock’s two-strap “Arizona” men’s sandal was the antithesis of the decade’s bare chested machismo ideal. It didn’t take long to be adopted with outdoorsy types, becoming a go-to for camping and campus-ing alike.

Its launch, however, didn’t inspire the fashion crowd until the now-infamous 1990 The Face editorial, featuring teenage Kate Moss, shot by the late Corrine Day, wearing rolled up jeans with white Birkenstocks, and not much else.

It was a far cry from company’s humble beginnings in 1774 Bad Honnef, Germany, when Johann Adam Birkenstock first registered as “vassal and shoemaker.” It wasn’t until hundred years later that the brand would get its first breakthrough, when the founder’s grandson Konrad Birkenstock created the shoe’s legendary moulded footbed. He spent the next two decades trying to obtain an investor for a commercial product. Eventually, Birkenstock found one when the orthopedic workshop of the Frankfurt Friedrichsheim hospital hired him to custom-make shoes for wounded First World War soldiers. Thus, the shoe’s ‘blue footbed’ sole became the company’s trademark.

The 1990s came and went, but not even the Great Kate could make them cool among the fashion crowd. The Arizona sandal became synonymous with slackers and slobs, including Clueless’ resident stoner Travis Birkenstock—although, if his last name indicated any family lineage to Johann Adam, and if Cher had better trend forecasting skills, she wouldn’t have exclaimed, “As if!”

This spring, thanks to their everlasting comfort, and the breezy, carefree attitude of the runways, Birkenstocks are bigger than ever. The brand hit the New York runways with Trina Turk and Houghton, and collaborated with the king of Japanese cool, Yohji Yamamoto.  The cool kids, Isabel Marant and Riccardo Tisci, appropriated the classic style into their own versions. Whether original, or inspired, the sandal is now a bona fide Instagram star: hashtag #birkenstocks or #birkies, for short.

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