Beautiful they are not. However, a lack of aesthetic appeal hasn’t kept Birkenstock from being one of the most beloved and long-lived shoe styles ever.
Once a counterculture badge, dismissed as “Berkeleystocks” and “the hippie penny loafer,” the Birkenstock is now seen on the feet of the famous - from JFK Jr. to Madonna to Whoopi Goldberg to retired Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf - as well as on mainstream television shows such as “Friends” and “ER.”
“I said, ‘Those are really ugly,”’ recalls Tom Jackson of his initial impression of the duck-billed shoes. Still, Jackson took a chance 25 years ago and agreed to carry them in his Jackson’s Shoes in Santa Cruz, Calif., the first shoe store in the United States to sell them.
“I said, ‘I don’t think they’ll sell,’ but I sold everything out the first week, and we do a very big business in Birkenstocks today,” says Jackson, who has also become a convert.
“I’m at the point of my life where I want comfort and that’s all I wear. I have six or seven pairs and I don’t put any other shoes on,” he says. “I have one pair of dress shoes I wear only under duress.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Birkenstock’s debut in America, an event that came about through a chance exchange between Margot Fraser and a yoga instructor at a German health spa.
Fraser, then living in Santa Cruz, was visiting her native Germany when she asked the instructor where she might find some Dr. Scholl sandals. “She said: ‘You don’t want wood; it’s not good for your feet. Look at what I’ve got.’ She showed me her Birkenstocks,” Fraser says.
Although she purchased a pair before traveling back to Santa Cruz, Fraser says she didn’t wear them until she got home. “I thought they would be great around the house and before I knew it, I was wearing them all the time,” she says. “I had had foot troubles and suddenly I didn’t have foot pain anymore. I wore them for two-and-a-half to three months before it dawned on me how good it was for me.
“In the ‘60s we were still dressing up more then we do now, but after a while I totally forgot about how they looked and was only interested in how they felt and how my feet felt wearing them, so looks didn’t matter. Pretty soon I thought they looked just great.”
Fraser believed others with foot problems would appreciate the unisex sandals, so she reached an agreement with the Birkenstock family, which has been making orthopedic footwear since 1897, to import the sandal version to the United States.
She says it wasn’t a difficult decision to import the shoes. The difficulty came when she tried to get shoe stores interested. Rebuffed, Fraser starting selling the sandals out of a small import shop she owned with her then-husband, explaining their value and benefits directly to consumers. Her first break came a year later when she took her Birkenstock to an annual meeting in San Francisco of a group of health food store owners and exhibited them.
“That’s where it started,” Fraser says. “The health food store owners immediately bought them for their own use. People said, ‘I’m behind the cash register all day long. I’m going to try these.’ They talked to their customers, and that’s how it started.
“I thought this is going to be easy because there are so many women that have foot problems and here I have a great answer and that should be very simple. But I didn’t know about business and I didn’t know it takes capital. Luckily it grew very slowly so I could find out how business was done.”
Fraser relocated to Marin in 1971 after her divorce and now runs the company out of Novato, Calif. The Birkenstock line has expanded to more than 300 style and color combinations that range from the familiar sandals to enclosed Footprints shoes, sporty Birki’s, gardening clogs, all-synthetic shoes and even Birkenstock socks. Sales exceed 1 million pairs a year. Prices range from $30 to $50 in children’s shoes and $42 to $185 in adult styles.