Summer 2013: The Season We All Started Wearing Birkenstocks Again

Birkenstocks are back with a vengeance. From Ashton Kutcher to Miley Cyrus, Isabel Wilkinson on the revival.

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There’s a scene midway through Jobs, the biopic that opened Friday, when Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) begins recruiting a team within Apple to begin developing the Macintosh. It’s the mid-1980s, and by now Jobs is the company iconoclast, striding around the office in his signature mom jeans, in open defiance of The Suits.

Jobs prefers to walk barefoot—but, forced to wear shoes to work, he settles on Birkenstocks. An underling is typing on his primitive computer when Jobs barges into the office unannounced, removes his Birkenstocks, and asks the poor schmuck to hold them. Then he bends down and unplugs the computer. The underling’s on the Macintosh team now.

Throughout Jobs, the sandals are used as a symbol of defiance. Here is a person who refuses to succumb to corporate pressure, who rebelliously marches to the beat of his own drum. But they are also a sign of Jobs’s idealistic outlook on the world—he wants Apple’s products to be more functional and sensible, to serve the consumer rather than appease the board.

It’s opportune timing for Birkenstocks to reenter the conversation. Over the last nine months, they’ve been mounting a slow comeback within the fashion industry. Last October, they made a splash on Céline’s Spring/Summer 2013 runway, when designer Phoebe Philo unveiled a pair with fur lining, which were quickly nicknamed “furkenstocks.” Giambattista Valli introduced a pair studded with gold, and Miu Miu showed a bejeweled version. “For those obsessed with runway trends who don’t care about looking taller or thinner, this is the shoe for you,” wrote W magazine last fall.

And, sure enough, they have been everywhere this summer. Heidi Klum wore a pair of the Gizeh sandals with cutoff jean shorts, and Ashley Olsen wore them just about everywhere. Leandra Medine, of the popular blog the Man Repeller, formally endorsed the comeback—and Miley Cyrus visited Good Morning America in the $910 Céline furkenstocks, which she paired with sweatpants and a sports bra.

By July, even Vogue had blessed them, with writer Chioma Nnandi pointing to an image of Kate Moss photographed by Corinne Day in the 1990s—“the picture of alluring youth”—as an inspiration for the trend. In the article, associate accessories editor Jorden Bickham described the modern allure of the Birkenstock: “I think it’s so much more sexy to be slightly underdressed,” she said. “Like you’re not trying too hard.”

Indeed, in the same way Jobs rebelled against The Suits, Birkenstocks have come to feel like a rebellion against the norms of fashion. They’re a symbol of comfort and functionality, of not caring too much or trying too hard. Of course, they are part of a larger trend that has played big this summer: ’90s nostalgia, with its sea of crop tops, overalls, platform sneakers, and an obsession with all things Clueless.

Birkenstocks were invented in 1910, but the sandals didn’t catch on until the 1960s. As Shelly Glasgow, Birkenstock’s director of product development and merchandising, told The Daily Beast last fall: “It’s interesting because we don’t chase fashion. When it comes your way it’s almost like, ‘Oh my god, people think it’s hip.’” J.Crew collaborated with Birkenstock to produce men’s sandals for its Spring 2013 season, and New York magazine recommended them as “laid-back sophisticates” last month.

If anything, the trend is a symbol of the return of ugly-pretty—a trickle down, perhaps, of Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, and all things ugly-chic. But even Medine of the Man Repeller, self-proclaimed purveyor of that sort of style, confessed last week: “I can’t get past the stains of their previous identity … I want to feel like Kate Moss … I’m just not quite sure I’m there yet.”

As Vogue warns, the trick to riding the current comeback is not to dredge out old Birkenstocks from the back of your closet, thinking you can finally relive your glory days—but rather to find crisp new ones, such as the brand’s $130 Arizona sandals in white or metallic.

As summer fades into fall, only time will tell how long the Birkenstock revival will last. Even Jobs, after all, eventually replaced his Birks with a pair of New Balances.