Oi Polloi

The Birkenstock Sandal — an Oi Polloi Champion

Published: Fri Jul 19 2019

This article was originally published a year or so ago now, but seeing as loads of Birkenstocks have just landed up, now seemed like an alright time to whack it back to the top for a while. 

On a planet heavily populated by middle of the road blandness, the Birkenstock sandal has always sat firmly in its own lane. This chunky, foot-shaped orthopaedic sandal made of cork and suede (and occasionally ethylene vinyl acetate) might be misunderstood by many, but as far as Oi Polloi is concerned, it’s a definite design classic.

The Birkenstock story starts in 1774, when Johann Adam Birkenstock was first registered to make shoes in the small German village of Langen-Bergheim. Just over 100 years later, his great, great grandson Konrad devised the first contoured footbed to follow the shape of the foot.

Obviously this sounds a little quaint by today’s standards… but in the dark days before the Ford Focus, Northern Rail and digital teleportation, anything that made the long walk to the next town a bit more comfortable would have been a revelation.

Six years later another patented Birkenstock innovation came in the shape of flexible arch support — again, these were much appreciated. Still keen to do more for foot health, Konrad took to the road, touring Europe and preaching the word of appropriate footwear. 

“Normal shoes were a significant threat to foot health.”

All this is well and good, but it wasn’t until Konrad’s grandson, Karl entered the business that things really got interesting, as Birkenstock’s Jochem Gutzy explains.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, shoes in Europe and the Western Hemisphere were generally more narrow, pointed and sleek than they are today. Normal shoes, work shoes and shoes for waiters were a significant threat to foot health.

In his father’s shoe insole shop, Karl Birkenstock was confronted with the damages these shoes caused on a daily basis, and figured out they could only be prevented by wider, more foot-shaped footwear.”

Keen to hunt out the solution to the world’s toe-woes, Karl set to work finding the answer in a slightly unlikely setting… his parents’ kitchen. After raiding the drawers, he hit upon a mixture of cork and latex — the ideal material to create flexible, supportive footwear. In 1963 the first modern Birkenstock sandal, the single strap Madrid, was finally unleashed at a German trade show. The reception wasn’t great.

“Many shoe manufacturers reacted with displeasure and even anger,” said Jochem. “They considered Birkenstock as a troublemaker, evading contemporary shoe fashion. The failed trade show appearance with the new sandal got the company into serious trouble.”

Unfazed, Karl had the ingenious brain-wave of selling directly to doctors and nurses, who had already disregarded footwear norms in favour of wooden clogs in the search for practicality.

As with a lot of iconic things, the design is only part of the story — uncontrollable elements like time, taste and luck also play a part in turning a basic inanimate object into a part of the cultural pie. The next part of the story probably sits in the luck category.

In 1966 a designer called Margot Fraser was kicking back and taking it easy on a spa holiday in Germany when she caught glimpse of a pair of wide, roomy sandals like none she’d ever seen before — as you’ve probably guessed, they were Birkenstocks. After trying them on, she was transported into a new realm of comfort, and quickly set about trying to find out more about these mysterious cork-soled wonders.

She was soon on the blower to Karl Birkenstock himself, and after a bit of a chat, was given distribution rights in her home state of California. It’d be nice to say that this was an instant success and the sandals flew off American shelves like orthopaedic hot-cakes… but they didn’t. Once again, the Birkenstocks were too radical for conservative tastebuds, and no shoe shops were interested in Margot’s ‘ugly sandals’.

Undeterred, she ditched the traditional means of shoe flogging in favour of a new, untapped market… health food shops. The logic was simple — people who were into healthy eating probably appreciated healthy footwear.

The staff were often the first to buy them, as the hard-wearing, comfy sandals were ideal for long days stood behind a till and stacking shelves. Thanks to these hard working ambassadors, word spread quickly throughout the lentil lovin’ whole foods contingent.

Not only were these things comfortable, but due to their distinct shape, they were a bold statement in the face of straight-laced bores, and a useful tool in distancing yourself from the masses.

Even amongst free-thinking individuals, patterns emerge, and the Birkenstock sandal slowly became part of the unenforced uniform for left-wing teachers and patchouli-scented earth children.

Fast-forward to the late 80s, and they’d found their way to North West England – where a small but dedicated group was keen to distance themselves from the London fashion elite. I wasn’t around then, but Oi Polloi founders Steve and Nigel were — Steve was particularly early on the sandal scene.

“At the time in London and Leeds they were all wearing this smart acid jazz stuff. But we were more into this weird psychedelic scally thing. It was a reaction against what was going on – we’d wear grey marl sweatshirts and sand Stüssy beach pants, mixing it up with a pair of Birkenstocks.

In the Haçienda each alcove would have a different crowd. For us, it was about wearing really pared-down stuff — it was anti-label. There were people wearing all sorts of mad stuff, so wearing socks with sandals wasn’t really that outlandish.”

“At the time in London and Leeds they were all wearing this smart acid jazz stuff. But we were more into this weird psychedelic scally thing.”

For Nigel, it took a trip to America to be convinced. “I’d seen them in ’86 in Turkey. Every single German had them on, and I remember thinking that they were the worst things I’d ever seen. But when I got into backpacking and going around the world, sandals started to make a lot of sense.”

“The first time I saw them and thought, ‘these are really right,’ was in 93 when I went to America. Everyone was wearing hiking gear with Birkenstocks, hiking socks and cord shorts. And then The Pharcyde were wearing them with tube socks. It was that summertime camping thing, but it also fitted in with hip hop and skate stuff.”

By now it’s a cliché to say that Birkenstocks aren’t quite to everyone’s taste, but that slight Marmite flavour only adds to the appeal. “I remember wearing socks and Birkenstocks sat outside a pub in and my mate was ripping into me. I wasn’t even bothered though, because I was so chuffed with them. Even now, it’s a step out of time. It’s an anti-style statement.” 

It’s rare that a sandal becomes a statement, but as you’ve probably gathered by now, the Birkenstock isn’t just any sandal. Created with function in mind, it’s since outgrown its orthopaedic origins to become a true cult favourite. Nigel rounded it off slightly more imaginatively

“It’s like a Citroen Mehari or a Talbot Rancho. It divides opinion so much, but it’s designed for purpose. It’s utilitarian, but it’s friendly and comfortable - it’s an absolute design classic. At the end of the day, it’s the best sandal that’s ever been made.”