How Birkenstock went from clumpy comfort to the uniform of the trendy

What’s a chunky Birkenstock doing among the legion of luxury sneakers at SoleDXB? Hafsa Lodi finds out

There's a certain fashion director at The National's Luxury magazine who's been standing on a well-kept secret for many years. Sarah Maisey, whose daily job involves analysing the collections of top-tier fashion, footwear and jewellery houses, and styling them for photo shoots, often walks into the office not in Chanel slingbacks or Gucci loafers, but in humble Birkenstock sandals.

Birkenstock, previously the domain of the comfort-seeking but not necessarily the stylish, has made something of a turnaround, becoming a covetable footwear choice for a range of consumers, from fashion editors to Gen Z hipsters. Indeed, fashionable and practical are no longer mutually exclusive, notes Klaus Baumann, managing director of sales at Birkenstock. "Whoever thinks one excludes the other is not up to date," he says. "Being fashionable is not strictly ­limited to the clothes you wear; that would be short thinking. 'Fashionable' is a zeitgeist ­connection, a personal style and personality. Wearing a Birkenstock is an attitude – lived by the creative industry every day, worldwide."

Comfort is nevertheless the fundamental selling point of this orthopaedic slipper, along with its somewhat retro aesthetic. "They look old-school, and that trend is making a huge comeback, with sneaker culture also going strong. Comfort has become priority and these are very comfortable," says Reya Sajnani, content creator and managing director of the Dubai franchise of French jewellery brand Les Nereides Paris. "I love how they look with denim. I also find them easy to have on all day – they're so versatile, I could wear them at home, to run errands, to the mall, to work, or to get a coffee." Other women pair their "birkies" with feminine dresses and stylish loungewear.

The Birkenstock style was invented in 1774 in Germany by Johann Birkenstock. In 1896, the family-run shoemaking trade became a certified business. By the 1970s, the company reached the shores of the United States and quickly cemented its status as humdrum, hippie-­esque footwear. Somewhere along the line, the shoe silhouette graduated from its earthy connotations, attracting a new group of fashion-aware consumers and millennial jet-­setters.

“The cork footbed allows your feet to feel cushioned with firm arch support while walking, making them comfortable for long periods of time when exploring cities or wandering along the coast,” Baumann says.

This past year has shone a particularly bright spotlight on the brand, which has a number of high-fashion designer collaborations under its belt. For spring / summer 2019, Birkenstock teamed up with American fashion brand Rick Owens, which created footwear with the brand's quintessential cork sole. Valentino's Birkenstock renditions, meanwhile, appear in swanky red and black leather, with one version featuring bold VLTN lettering down one side. The starting price for both designer shoes is about Dh1,100.

Rather than these collaborations highlighting Birkenstock, Baumann proudly claims the opposite. “It’s more that Birkenstock shines a light on designers – Rick has a personal association with the sandals, he puts everything into a cultural context. For Valentino, it’s an opportunity to show a less dressy side of the brand. But yes, our light brightens when true product innovations come our way,” he says. “We have a long list of collaboration requests – designers appreciate quality and like that we don’t compromise.”

Indeed, the brand seems to have cultivated its following organically, without showy influencer ­marketing techniques or Instagram ­gimmicks. "They find us," Baumann says of the brand's new digitally attuned ­consumer base. The sandals even featured in the sustainable shopping gift guide by Financial Times's How to Spend it magazine.

The silhouette has become so popular that it has inspired a host of other footwear brands, from high street to high end. Local concept boutique Sauce, for instance, stocks Freedom Moses – a brand that creates double-strapped slippers in a Birkenstock-­inspired ­silhouette, although these come in bold prints and peppy hues, and are waterproof. ­British fast-fashion store ­Primark also stocks this style of slipper, sometimes adorned with metallic straps and bejewelled buckles.

The brand’s in-house ­designs, too, are becoming more elevated, such as the Kyoto style from the Next Generation collection. “It is especially inspiring with its minimalist, cool aesthetic and ­reminiscent of a ­Japanese kimono in the way that it overlaps,” says Baumann.

Sajnani explains that some misconceptions about Birkenstocks are that they're only for older people, or can't be styled easily. "The new collection is very cool, and super-trendy with the neon," she says. These styles, alongside the brand's designer collaborations, will debut at the Sole DXB festival – the region's definitive urban lifestyle platform, on Thursday. Nestled amid the stores and stalls selling collectible sportswear and limited-edition sneakers will be Birkenstock's urban-­oasis-themed installation called the Soul Lounge, offering customised engravings and foot massages  

The merging of urban footwear and designer fashion is at an all-time high, with streetwear being equated with luxury. It appears 2020 may be the year when a woman pairs her Birkin and her Birkenstocks.