No doubt most of you will have had a cheeky peek at the brilliant Tumblr blog Shit Bloggers Wear, showcasing illustrations by Portland-based Cecilia Doan of items that fashion bloggers en masse have a penchant for because of the mystical powers of PR rounds, gifting or just by sheer force of word of wear. I must confess, I've fallen prey to a few of the named and shamed culprits but fortunately as suspected, Doan says herself it's all a bit tongue in cheek she herself doesn't actually think the items are actually shit.
What struck me when I was scrolling through the blog though was how aesthetically different a lot of the "blogger" items are from one another. How does a dainty pair of Alexander Wang open-toe heeled sandals marry up with New Balance 410 trainers or a handmade flower crown with a spear-headed Vita Fede bracelet. As someone vaguely in the "game" as it were, it's obvious which items have done the gifting rounds or given the PR push but the majority I would say have been bought out of sheer free will and due to ripple effect, seem to penetrate across the blogosphere.
One particular item that definitely did NOT become a "Shit Bloggers Wear" because of PR magic was the Birkenstock Arizona sandal. It seemed timely that after a rash of "They're back!" articles, numerous designers doing their own Birkenstock-esque shoe and thus the re-re-re-re-surgence of the humble Birkenstock itself, that I was asked to go visit Birkenstock HQ and factory, in the Rhineland in a place called Vettelscho√ü near Cologne. It was a journalist first apparently.
In fact everything about the way Birkenstock has been run up till now was endearingly lo-fi. No fancy PR agencies. No super swanky campaigns. No gifting. No fancy all-singing all-dancing stands at tradeshows. No paid celebrity endorsement. Unlike many brands that become fashionable whilst having a history rooted in function over anything else (Dr Martens born out of improving army military boots, Levi's jeans for rail workers, Nike shoes for college track teams), Birkenstock have steadfastly maintained that they are NOT a fashion brand. They eschewed any notion of trendiness. Ever since Karl Birkenstock took over the family business back in 1954 and introduced the Birkenstock sandal in 1964, the company under subsequent Birkenstock family members' management, changes and different permutations have never ventured too far from their comfort zone (comfort being the operative word here).
Birkenstock is after all rooted not in footwear but footcare. As far back as 1774 Johann Adam Birkenstock was registered as a "shoemaker" but it was his grandson Konrad Birkenstock in the late 19th century/early 20th century who produced insoles and arch supports for shoes. They held seminars for medical specialists advocating their support systems and published a widely read book on foot-health entitled "Birkenstock's Podiatry." It's the natural role of the foot and the mechanics of the footbed which go underneath the feet that has interested the generations of Birkenstock family members, not the aesthetic stylings that cover the soles.
That didn't stop them undergoing waves of popularity, with hippies in the seventies, with the tree hugging neo-hippies in the nineties and from my own memory, were frequently papped in the celeb rags on famous feet emerging from Fred Segal and Kitson. This year in particular, the Birkenstock underwent an unlikely revival as a trickle-on effect from being re-appropriated, most prominently as "furkenstocks" at Celine's S/S 12 show. Similarly Giambattista Valli and Marni have fashioned their own bejewelled and studded takes on the Birkenstock sandal, namely the Arizona. It was no surprise then that people would return to the original shebang, getting functional bang for buck and caching in on authenticity.
That's exactly what I discovered when I was let loose inside Birkenstock HQ and its factory. There's almost something absurd about the fact that all of the celeb hoo-ha, high fashion hi-jinx, and overt on-trendness relating to Birkenstocks, originate from this austere, quietly industrious and very German company. The funniest thing is for the longest time, many of the employees in the company just didn't care about what trend waves Birkenstock were riding. They did nothing to encourage it and never pandered to the attention once the name started seeping into public consciousness outside of Germany.
Ask the average person on the streets of Germany however and for them Birkenstock is a well-loved homegrown brand that does great orthopaedic footwear. They are viewed as unapologetically fuddy duddy and there's nothing wrong with that because ultimately they're useful. There's something quite charming about that. And so the old contradiction in fashion rolls on, that something completely unfashionable and supposedly repellant to the eyes has entirely the opposite effect on trendsetters (see Connie Wang's particularly hilarious ode to Ugly Shoes on Refinery 29).
The factory itself certainly doesn't concern itself with trends or aesthetics. As I sauntered about taking photographs, workers went about their business whilst looking at me with bemused and curious expressions (like I said the factory hasn't had that many visitors). I very much doubt that Celine appropriating the shoe that they make day in, day out has registered. Every element of the shoe from the embossed metal buckles to the footbeds and soles are made in Birkenstock-owned factories dotted around Germany and then assembled here in Vettelscho√ü. In different areas split up by shoe style, the Birkenstock assembly line works like clockwork. The various parts of the sandal be it the Arizona, the Madrid or the Gizeh rotate from one worker to another, in a blend of human hand with efficient machinery. Organised, structured and incredibly fastidious concerning every detail of the shoe – the Birkenstock factory sort of reminded me of another famous German company Volkswagen, who ran an ad that poked fun at these stereotypical German attributes. The liberals in this country banging on and on about how the UK doesn't make things anymore would look at the Birkenstock setup with misty eyed jealousy.
Those values of pragmatic function may reign at Birkenstock but there are changes a-coming. For a start, the fact that a rando blogger was asked to go and see the factory was a PR shift in itself for Birkenstock. The company has been restructured this year following some internal corporate tussles between the Birkenstock heirs and a new creative director of design and product, Rudy Haslbeck has been appointed. Birkenstock had a lot of messy loose ends in sideline brands such as Tatami, Alpro's Betula and the branding Footprints. Most of this will be done away with leaving the Birkenstock name to be the sole focus. Haslbeck has already been setting into motion design changes that means for SS14, there are new materials, more exciting colourways and generally a growing awareness of trends. Baby steps though. Things like using a new foam or a metallic leather for a sandal strap or having a coloured footbed would have been frowned on by the Birkenstock of old. Respect for what the company does and knows best is the still the primary concern. I am told though that Birkenstock will be making more of a shout about any collaborations within fashion that they do. They've crept into shows in a quiet way but an impending "louder" collab is well on its way and likewise one supposes that their far removed PR strategy will definitely change.
For now though, summer rolls on as I'm writing this on a flight to New York where it's still scorching it up in the upper 70s. It's likely that Birkenstocks or their designer counterparts will be on show at the shows. The best part of course is that my feet are still benefiting from yes, you've got it – a pair of bloody Arizona's and some multi-strapped floral Papillio's (the sub brand which makes more "feminine" styles) and some inky blue Madrids. When someone commented on my LA post, accusing me of unoriginality because I chose to wear Birkenstocks, I gladly retorted to say that it's impossible that my feet should be "original" whatever that means, 100% of the time. Not when my feet are put through the paces of cheap shoes, walking in heels and other unsavoury things that only a podiatrist or a good pedicurist can fix. Despite Birkenstock's ubiquity though, halving delved into its background and seen its operations, you could say that their trajectory is a unique one. Odd, weird and yes, maybe a bit ugly. You know, the kind of "shit" bloggers love to wear.