Birkenstock Is The Shoe of Choice of Titos and Stylish Men
Over the last couple of years, something shifted. It’s tough to say what, exactly, it was. But suddenly Birkenstocks went from being the uniform of weird uncles and German tourists to the uniform of weird uncles, German tourists... and pretty much everyone in the urban, creative class.
“This was a bit of a sleeping giant for a while,” says David Kahan, CEO of Birkenstock USA. Now, that giant is waking up, and punctuating the moment with a brand-new store in New York City, its first on American soil. “I’ve been here for five and a half years,” Kahan explains. “The brand has grown, financially, tenfold. But more than that, it’s grown in mind space. The brand went from being ‘Who are those weird people wearing Birkenstocks?’ to, now, the world embracing us.”
It’s been a long time coming. The footwear company traces its roots back more than 240 years to 1744. It first hit US shores in the mid-1960s, picking up steam in the countercultural corners of the ‘70s landscape. Since then, the brand has popped on and off the fashion radar, whether on the feet of college-aged Gen Xers in the ‘90s or, more recently, on downtown cool kids and artistic types in major cities across the States.
“It’s blowing up, completely,” says Amit Greenberg, the New York-based artist who collaborated with Birkenstock on a campaign and limited-edition product to celebrate the new store on Spring Street in Soho. He compares the near-ubiquity of the brand’s designs to the almost anti-fashion embrace of sneakers by outfits like Vans and Converse by subcultures the world over. “I feel like Birkenstock is a little beyond fashion, it’s its own thing.”
That stance—a part of the conversation, but just a little bit removed—is part of what made Greenberg happy to work on the NYC launch. That, and the fact that he saw a connection between Birkenstock’s quirks and those of the city he calls home. “I think the sentence I sent them was, ‘New Yorkers are strange and beautiful, just like toes,’” he says. “That was leading the whole thing.”
The next step was creating everything from tees and Arizona sandals to an entire fake band comprised of big, blue puppets. “I was like, ‘I kinda want puppets,’” Greenberg says. “And at a certain point, I was like, ‘OK, we need a narrative.” So I came up with the idea of Birkie and the Toes, an indie-rock band from a small town in Germany coming for the first time to New York.” The Abbey Road-inspired photo you see here? Yep, that’s Birkie and the Toes on their great adventure.
But this moment isn't just about jokey photos (however fun they may be). For Birkenstock, the new store represents an opportunity not just to reach new customers, but to learn about them at a time when opportunities abound. “Within the next five to ten years, the brand’s going to grow exponentially,” says Kahan. Part of that growth will necessarily mean fine-tuning its products based on customer feedback.
To that end, Kahan thinks of the New York store as “a laboratory,” with no shortage of experiments to be performed. “We can learn a lot here,” he says. “Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon when this store is packed, we’re going to get learnings from that to further develop our product line.”
That development is already underway. Kahan points to the popularity of proper shoes and boots—as opposed to sandals and clogs—as a major part of Birkenstock’s upward trajectory. “That’s the holy grail," he says. "If you’ve been wearing Birkenstocks forever, the holy grail is, ‘How do I get the feel of a sandal in a shoe?’ That’s what we’ve done. And that’s why people are really embracing it.”
Of course, those closed-toe options still retain one essential element: Birkenstock’s famous footbed. You know, the contoured one that molds to your feet over time? (Which is maybe why your weird uncle won’t throw his old pair of Birks away; probably best to address that sooner rather than later.) That footbed is, more than anything else, the hallmark of Birkenstock footwear. And Kahan views that comfort and continuity with the rest of the line as indispensable—even as the company grows.
“The DNA of the brand will never change,” he says. “The fashionable crowd is into Birkenstock, but they’ve just found out what everybody knew forever: The shoes just feel great. That’s the beauty of it.”
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.