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The 250-year endurance of Birkenstocks, from Steve Jobs to Gen Z

Dristi Sharma
Dristi SharmaNov 21, 2022 | 13:43

The 250-year endurance of Birkenstocks, from Steve Jobs to Gen Z

Birkenstocks sandals are considered the new Ugg boots. (Photo: dailyO)

Out of all the things former Apple CEO Steve Jobs was known for, his attire was unquestionably one of them. His 'uniform', which comprised a black turtleneck, jeans, and dad sneakers, is surely well-known today, but his constant companion in the early 1970s when he was building Apple, was a pair of Birkenstock sandals.

Photo: Steve Jobs and his 'uniform'

Last week, Julien's Auctions house sold a pair of these worn-out sandals for $218,750 (approximately Rs 1.77 crore). With this bid, it became the highest sum ever paid in an auction for a pair of sandals.

Photo: Steve Jobs once wore Birkenstock as a part of his uniform (Julien's Auction house)

Iconic sandals: According to the auction house, the brown suede Birkenstock Arizonas was worn by Jobs during "many pivotal moments in Apple's history" in the 1970s and 1980s, NPR reports.

The shoes were initially valued at about $60,000, which is still a hefty amount considering that a new pair sells for $125 (Rs 10,000)! 

Birkenstock sandals are notoriously regarded as 'ugly', but people are nonetheless willing to pay a high price for them. And by 'people', we mean influencers, wanna-be 'it girls', celebrities, and wealthy cool dudes.

German 'engineering': Birkenstock is a German brand of sandals and other shoes known for their contoured cork footbeds (soles) made of suede and jute layers that are engineered to fit the shape of the wearer's feet.

Your average Birkenstocks come with two types of footbeds, which you can choose based on your needs and the money you want to spend: the original hard footbed, and the soft footbed. The soft footbed provides additional comfort with a cushiony pillowy feeling for your feet, while burning a slightly deeper hole in your pocket.

 

A 250-year-old legacy: The Birkenstock brand can be traced back to Johann Adam Birkenstock, who was documented as a "vassal and shoemaker" in local church documents in the small Hessian village of Langen-Bergheim, Germany, in 1774.

  • Konrad Birkenstock, Johann's great-great-grandson, created the first 'contoured' insole.
  • In 1896, Konrad also invented the Fussbett (footbed) and built two shoe stores in Frankfurt, Germany, where he continued to manufacture and sell his insoles.

Soon, they started training and educating people about the importance of wearing comfortable footwear.  

Photo: Attendees at a Birkenstock training course, 1935 (Birkenstock.com)
  • By 1925, Birkenstocks were sold all over Europe.
  • The word spread rapidly, and even during World War II, because of the orthopaedic support, the Birkenstock sandals were popular among soldiers returning home.

Birkenstocks have now become the new Ugg boots, given that all Hollywood celebs are wearing them. However, the prices are still a little steep for you or me.


Birkenstock, unlike your other shoe brands, does not offer discounts, regardless of where you go (not even at stores in Germany, where they are made).

With just only 36 stores in the world, how did Birkenstock get so popular? Birkenstock is a well-known brand, but the high price you pay for these sandals is not solely due to their fame or comfort, which is the case with other luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton or Dior. What lies beneath the high pricing is a little more nuanced than meets the eye:

  • Sustainable raw materials: The brand markets itself by saying it uses sustainable raw materials to make the sandals. For instance, they use the cork from oak trees; or the adhesives used in the manufacture of Birkenstocks, 98% of which are water-based, posing low pollution danger to the environment. 
Photo: Layers of a Birkenstock sandal (Birkenstock.com)
  • Smart branding: They also follow simple economics - 'we like those goods that are not readily available and are willing to pay a high price for them.' Birkenstock plays on the demand and supply dynamic. Despite being available at only 36 stores worldwide (and online), Birkenstock sold 23.8 million pairs of shoes in September 2019. People frequently associate a restricted number of retailers with limited and rare goods, therefore they buy them and are willing to spend on them.
Photo: Birkenstock store in Gurugram's Ambience Mall (Retailer's Growth)
  • Good living conditions for workers: Unlike other shoe companies that use minors in their factories and pay them very little to live on, Birkenstock claims to pay its employees a respectable wage that ensures good living standards. Also, given that all their shoes are made in Germany, and not outsourced to developing or under-developed nations, there's no exploitation of labour on the face of it.
  • Long-lasting pairs: Birkenstocks are made of high-quality materials; so, they last long. People who buy them also see it as an investment.
Last updated: November 21, 2022 | 13:43
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