Second Comings

Are Birkenstocks Cool Again? Céline, Giambattista Valli & More (PHOTOS)

Once a staple of grunge, Birkenstocks have reemerged as a fashionable item for spring. Misty White Sidell on how the ’90s footwear became cool again.

Everyday luxury abounded on Céline’s spring runway in October. There were satin dresses, cascading trench coats, and an array of perfectly tailored trousers. It was, as Cathy Horyn put it, a “clean, fluid, and funky” collection. But panning down, models’ feet told a different story: Birkenstocks.

From that moment it was clear: call them ugly, old-fashioned, or just downright comfortable, Birkenstocks are cool again. Designers such as Céline’s Phoebe Philo and Giambattista Valli have put their own spin on the brand’s classic styles for spring, embellishing the hippie shoe with oversized studs and bright fur. Last summer Ashley Olsen was spotted in a black pair of the brand’s Gizeh sandals, while Anne Hathaway was photographed in the same shoe one month later. For spring 2013, Birkenstock will capitalize on its current popularity by launching a small collection with J.Crew men—the first time they’ve collaborated with another brand. “It’s interesting because we don’t chase fashion,” Shelly Glasgow, Birkenstock’s director of product development and merchandising, told The Daily Beast. “When it comes your way it’s almost like, ‘Oh my god, people think it’s hip.’”

Perhaps the return of the Birkenstock can be explained by the popularity of American “heritage” brands such as Pendleton, J.W. Hulme, and the Cambridge Satchel Company. There’s a certain nostalgia to Birkenstocks, which have been around since 1910 (but weren’t popularized until the 1960s). It might also be explained by a “Californication” on the Paris runways—an increasing interest in a West Coast attitude, perhaps ushered in by Hedi Slimane, the new Los Angeles–based director of Yves Saint Laurent.

This season, Giambattista Valli took his own liberties with Birkenstock’s classic two-strap Arizona sandal by fabricating a runway-ready version in nude, silver, and black leather with exaggerated metal studs pierced into the perimeter of their soles. “For a New York–based client it’s a tougher look,” Claire Distenfeld, owner and chief buyer of renowned Upper East Side store Fivestory told The Daily Beast of Valli’s studded sandal. She purchased the $850 style in black for spring. “I’m not naturally drawn to a feminine shoe, and I think they are both practical and stylish for everyday use … I literally walked around the showroom in them to make sure they were comfortable.”

While Birkenstock’s sister company, Tatami, collaborates with emerging designers (in 2008 they hooked up with then-newbie Phillip Lim on a limited-edition range of sandals), brand regulations have inhibited Birkenstock from participating in collaborative fashion projects. “It’s why Birkenstock has been so successful, because we really have held tight by holding really true to our values on the longer term,” Glasgow said. Rising design talent Gregory Chait, whose Los Angeles–based line of cashmere basics, called the Elder Statesman, just won this year’s CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, agrees with Birkenstock’s long-standing sentiment. In fact, while participating in the Fashion Fund, Vogue stylists paired Birkenstocks with all of Chait’s looks for their annual fashion show. In a way, the Birkenstocks contributed to his winning look. “They have made them for so long, so why move away from what makes the brand iconic?” he said of the shoes.

The double-strap styling also appeared at Céline, where Philo embellished the foot beds of her sandals with a patch of brightly colored mink fur. The shoes instantly became an industrywide meme. Beth Buccini, co-owner of boutique Kirna Zabete, labeled them “furkenstocks.” But since they’re intended for summer, what would happen when you inevitably sweat? “I guess it would kind of be like an UGG [boot] maybe?” Glasgow told The Daily Beast. But despite their impracticality, renowned stores like Kirna and Barneys New York scooped up the $895 style. “The furkenstocks went above and beyond my wildest imagination, I could not have loved them more. When I think back on the entire spring season across the board, that is the one item that really sticks in my head as cheeky, new, innovative and fun and comfortable,” Buccini told WWD.

And while Birkenstock can’t veer too far from their founding principles, they’re doing the best they can to further their good fortunes for the season. Soon the brand will release some of its most classic styles in a range of neon brights for spring. “It’s about as far as our boundaries can go as a brand, but we’re happy to have our name thrown around with Céline,” Glasgow says. “That’s quite a treat.”