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THE BIRKENSTOCK CHRONICLE
The Birkenstock family have been pioneers in foot health through their iconic innovations. Explore the key moments, 1774 to here & now.
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The early days of shoemaking
1774
A footwear revolution
1897
The footbed
1902
The System Birkenstock
1920
Madrid: the original footbed sandal
1963
More Iconic Models
1964 - 1983
Birkenstock’s conversation with fashion
1985
Made in Germany
1991
New ventures
Here & now
THE BIRKENSTOCK CHRONICLE
The Birkenstock family have been pioneers in foot health through their iconic innovations. Explore the key moments, 1774 to here & now.
The early days of shoemaking
1774

The roots of the shoemaking dynasty can be found in 1774 when Johannes Birkenstock is mentioned. He later even became ‘master craftsmen in shoemaking’.

The Birkenstock brothers lived the simple life of rural craftsmen, hand-making shoes from start to finish: producing leather, fitting it to the last and attaching an insole. Life in the German countryside was characterized by harsh weather conditions, which meant that clothing and footwear had to be functional and robust. At that time, the average person would own one pair of shoes their entire life, which would be repaired over the years by a local cobbler. Among poorer communities, shoes would even be handed down from generation to generation. It’s no surprise, then, that people formed a close bond with their footwear. The fact that the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dedicated his 1776 work Hans Sachsens Poetische Sendung to a shoemaker, speaks volumes about the reverence in which the shoemaking craft was held.

A footwear revolution
1897

At the turn of the 20th century, everyday life in Germany was undergoing a rapid transformation. Steam engines, railroads and electricity had already become commonplace across much of Europe, and now individual trades were being industrialized as a burgeoning middle class brought with it a growing desire for consumer goods. New factories were built to keep up with demand, which resulted in many artisans being left by the wayside, including traditional shoemakers. No longer required to make shoes from scratch, many of these craftspeople were downgraded to the role of cobblers, whose sole task was to mend factory-made footwear. Many shoemakers nevertheless, had maintained their reputation as high quality shoemakers. Young Konrad Birkenstock was amongst these.

Konrad Birkenstock (b. 1873), the great-grandson of Johann Adam Birkenstock, made the family’s first genuine shoe making breakthrough. From 1895 they were based in Frankfurt – a city not far from the family’s ancestral home of Langen-Bergheim. Konrad took on what was known as the ‘shoe-reform’ movement and brought their theories to reality. Like other young shoemakers, he designed lasts, which were essential pieces of equipment used throughout the entire shoemaking process, setting the size and shape of the final product. In 1897 Konrad Birkenstock developed the anatomically-shaped shoe last. This innovation featured a rounded heel, a malleable sole, and it distinguished between the left and right feet. The mainstream industry would soon standardize these new lasts for different foot sizes and integrate them into industrial shoe production.

The footbed
1902

In the early years of the new century, there was a growing sub-culture which embraced nature and this fed into ideas around shoe reform. Konrad Birkenstock began to think more about how the foot could perfectly ‘roll’ inside the contemporary shoe. In 1902, his experiments led to the production of the first ‘insole’. Up until that point insoles for curing or healing damaged feet were made out of metal because the mainstream view was that the foot could only be healed or stabilised when it was ‘fixed’ in place. But for Konrad, insoles weren’t just about healing damaged feet or alleviating foot illnesses, they were crucial to all round foot health. For over a decade, he experimented with a variety of materials. In 1913 he settled on an insole construction made with a mixture of materials (including cork and latex), and officially registered this product under the name “Fußbett” (footbed). The introduction of Birkenstock’s orthopedic footbed was a revolution for the family business and foot health.

The System Birkenstock
1920

Konrad Birkenstock’s insoles were a success in his local area. But knowing he had hit upon a powerful solution for foot pain and walking problems, he was determined to spread the word far and wide. He began to travel across Germany, Switzerland and Austria giving technical lectures to fellow shoemakers about the benefits of the ‘System Birkenstock’ – a combination of handcrafted shoes made with orthopedic lasts and featuring the flexible footbed.

His hard work soon paid off and sales of his insoles began to rise. He was able to move from Frankfurt to Friedberg, where he could establish a factory to mass produce footbeds for the first time. But even though his ideas were based upon the research of professionals within the shoe-reform movement, in these experimental and exploratory early years the mainstream did not wholeheartedly embrace the idea.

Konrad was accompanied by his son Carl on his travels around Europe – and later Carl established training courses for shoemakers and shoe sellers on the ‘System Birkenstock’. Once having been trained in the System, shop owners were permitted to use it in their shops and to sell BIRKENSTOCK footbeds.

Madrid: the original footbed sandal
1963

Carl Birkenstock took his father’s ideas and developed them even further. In 1936, he patented the ‘ideal shoe’, a handcrafted piece of footwear based on the idea of enabling Naturgewolltes Gehen (walking as nature intended). But actually producing this shoe, which would allow for absolutely no level of compromise, proved to be impossible. In 1954, Carl’s son Karl decided to join the family business, taking to new technologies and materials with a keen interest. Karl took the ideas of his father and grandfather, developed the industrialization process, and came up with an innovative, creative and disruptive idea: the original BIRKENSTOCK ‘footbed sandal’.

Like his family before him, Karl was inspired by the zeitgeist. In this case the impact of brutalism in modern architecture. In 1963, BIRKENSTOCK released a sandal where the structure and construction of the product was visible and integral to the design, which is a perfect reflection of brutalism. The flexible footbed with the cork-latex core was the basis of the sandal, and it featured a simple adjustable strap. Again BIRKENSTOCK was ahead of its time. While shoe fashion in the 1960s was influenced by the Italian stiletto, the avant garde modernity of Karl’s sandal was not accepted by the mainstream. It launched at the 1963 shoe trade fair in Düsseldorf, but turned out to be a failure. The first path to success would clearly not come through fashion, but from the success that had already been developed within the health care system.

Karl Birkenstock made doctors his partners in spreading the word about the shoe. He produced a pamphlet, distributed in a medical journal, in which he offered to provide free samples of the Madrid sandal. He was soon swamped with orders from healthcare workers. This was just the beginning. The rapidly changing lifestyle of the 20th century meant people had more leisure time, much of which was spent at home. With comfort more important than style for at-home footwear, people turned to BIRKENSTOCK as the obvious choice. The footbed sandal was also taken up by members of various subcultures, expressed their unconventional thinking by wearing the sandal that also broke all conventions. Initially referred to only by product numbers, which ran from 410 to 431, the model was renamed ‘Madrid’ in 1979. True to the company’s principles, it was crafted entirely from natural materials. The unique and avant garde design remains almost unchanged to this day.

More Iconic Models
1964 - 1983

Karl Birkenstock was on a roll. His creativity spurred him to design more groundbreaking styles over the next few years. In the fall of 1964, at the Foot and Shoe Trade Fair in Hamburg, he launched a new ’closed model’, which later became known as ‘Zürich’. In the design Karl kept the brutalist core. Again a clear silhouette was created, keeping the visibility of its construction. This sandal featured a wide upper, available in both leather and wool versions for regular outdoor wear as well as indoor use as a slipper. Madrid with its single strap wasn’t a typical shoe. Wearing a sandal wasn’t common in those days, especially for men, so Zürich was designed with the same principles as Madrid but to cover the foot. From the functional side, it appealed to motorists, older people and professionals, all of whom benefitted from the enhanced coverage, support and grip offered by the broader shape. Meanwhile, both styles were embraced by members of alternative movements taking part in protests as well as the general public, who by now were coming around to the idea of health-promoting footwear. The design concept that had broken convention was moving step by step into the mainstream.

THE TWO-STRAP SANDAL ARIZONA

1973

November 1973 was a major date in BIRKENSTOCK history, marking the arrival ‘Arizona’. The design of Arizona was based on Zürich. Karl ‘opened’ the shoe, keeping the silhouette and following his strict design rules. Initially, it was made with a synthetic ‘sportswear’ upper backed with genuine leather, available in either black or white. Over the next four decades, hundreds of variations were designed and millions of pairs sold, making this iconic model BIRKENSTOCK’s bestseller. Today, Arizona is the quintessential BIRKENSTOCK sandal. This design has featured on the pages of renowned fashion magazines, as well as on the feet of a wide range of international and intergenerational celebrities. Fans include Apple founder Steve Jobs, who was an early adopter in the 1970s, Leonardo DiCaprio, Julia Roberts, Charlize Theron, Tracee Ellis Ross, Jeon Jungkook, Gigi Hadid and Kaia Gerber.

THE CORK CLOG: BOSTON

1976

In the 1970s BIRKENSTOCK set about creating a cork clog. Rather than being heavy or rigid – like many of the wooden styles at the time – ‘Boston‘ was lightweight and flexible. It hit shelves in 1976. Available in numerous colors and materials, this minimalist closed-toe model became another go-to style for indoors and outdoors, work and leisure. BIRKENSTOCK’s signature functionality and quality combined with fashion-forward styles – including more recent shearling and Big Buckle versions – has attracted a loyal following of Boston fans. Notable wearers include Whoopi Goldberg, Sienna Miller, Keira Knightley, Robert Pattinson, Kanye West and Jason Momoa.

THE THONG SANDAL: GIZEH

1983

Karl Birkenstock’s creations hardly followed mainstream fashion – offering a choice of colorways was about the closest he came to thinking about style. He never adapted the iconic and basic design of his sandals to fashion trends. But as thong sandals became ubiquitous, eventually Karl did see that he could again create something special by designing a new style. This staple shape was not compatible with the all-important BIRKENSTOCK footbed, so Karl set about creating a version that was. After three years of meticulous tinkering, he finally perfected the brand’s first design-led selection of thong sandals. ‘Gizeh‘ was the stand-out success, going on to form part of today’s core collection. Over the years, this chic style has been sported by the likes of Julianne Moore, Heidi Klum, Anne Hathaway and Ashley Olsen.

Birkenstock’s conversation with fashion
1985

With a firm focus on foot health, BIRKENSTOCK engaged with the world of fashion on its own terms. Aesthetics were combined with function, but never compromised in favour of mainstream fashion trends. During the economic upswing of the 1980s and 1990s, BIRKENSTOCK was nonetheless selling its products internationally, albeit still overwhelmingly to medical staff and members of eco-conscious subcultures. But then something unexpected happened. Photographer Kim Knott included the Arizona and Boston models in an avant-garde Japanese-influenced shoot for British Elle in 1985, while in July 1990, a 16-year-old Kate Moss posed in the Palermo and Rio Birkenstocks for a cover story in The Face magazine shot by Corrine Day. Ninety years after the invention of the orthopedic last, suddenly the BIRKENSTOCK products were appearing on red carpets and runways.

The fashion world had officially taken an interest in BIRKENSTOCK, definitively putting the brand on the map. But even with all this newfound admiration, BIRKENSTOCK never compromised on its principles: the form and footbed remained unchanged, with just the uppers available in a choice of colors and materials – a choice that BIRKENSTOCK began to allow others to make. The first fashion designer to take on the task was Marc Jacobs, who reinterpreted the iconic Arizona model as part of his riotous Spring 1993 Grunge Collection for Perry Ellis. These premium versions were crafted from natural leather, silk and suede and trimmed with a shapely, shimmering rhinestone buckle. The limited-edition Arizonas were available exclusively at Bergdorf Goodman in New York – a far cry from the little village of Langen-Bergheim where it all began.

In the early millennium, BIRKENSTOCK deepened its relationship with fashion by inviting German supermodel Heidi Klum to reinterpret three iconic BIRKENSTOCK designs. Arizona, Madrid and ‘Amsterdam‘ all received a rebellious biker-inspired makeover as part of the Glamour Collection. Following the success of the partnership, BIRKENSTOCK and Heidi Klum went on to release the Africa Collection, the Third Collection and the Graffiti Collection.

The fashion set had officially traded in their high heels for supportive footbeds, proving that style can also be functional. Encouraged by the success of its previous partnerships, BIRKENSTOCK began to work with a range of renowned designers, including Rick Owens (2018, 2019, 2021), Maison Valentino (2019 and 2020), Jil Sander (2021) and the students of London’s legendary fashion school, Central Saint Martins (2021).

Meanwhile, BIRKENSTOCK continued another of its family traditions: live events (though those put on in the 2010s were somewhat more glamorous than the training courses and seminars held by Konrad and Carl Birkenstock at the turn of the 20th-century). In 2017, a collaboration with high-end German retailer Andreas Murkudis was launched in Berlin in an architect-designed mobile ‘BIRKENSTOCK Box’, while others popped up in Barneys New York and 10 Corso Como in Milan.

By the late-2010s, an increasing number of fashion designers were challenging stereotypes and pushing the boundaries of beauty and style – just like Carl Birkenstock’s original concept of the ‘ideal shoe’ and later Madrid`s indifference to the aesthetic tastes of the 1960s. Fashion and functional footwear were now more compatible than ever. This was reflected in the opening of BIRKENSTOCK 1774, BIRKENSTOCK’s creative studio, which focuses on collaborations with established and emerging designers. BIRKENSTOCK had become a key part of the world’s fashion capital.

Made in Germany
1991

By the end of the 1980s, the Birkenstock family had worked in the tradition of German shoemaking for over 200 years. Though many other industries moved production out of the country in the 1970s in pursuit of lower labor costs, BIRKENSTOCK bucked the trend and stayed put. By the late 20th century, the insoles and footbeds were factory-made, while a team of experienced workers took care of the manual tasks. Finished products were shipped around the world from Frankfurt. Demand continued to rise, meaning BIRKENSTOCK had to increase its capacity. The early 1990s was the beginning of a new era in Germany: the Berlin Wall had collapsed, along with the Eastern Bloc. It was cause for celebration. In the reunited country, many manufacturers were encouraged to expand their operations into the eastern states in a bid to create more jobs. With unwavering commitment to keeping the production of all sandals in Germany, BIRKENSTOCK enthusiastically began setting up sites across the state of Saxony. The first hub opened in Bernstadt on July 1st 1991, dedicated to processing uppers for the sandals. Next, the brand took over a weaving mill in Schönbach and adapted it for the production of cork-latex footbeds and the BIRKI sandal offshoot collection. In 1993, the assembly of preforms of the clog uppers, insertion of the straps and the attachment of buckles and rivets was relocated to Seifhennersdorf. Finally, a contemporary site was set up in Görlitz in 2009 for the production of cork-latex footbeds. The two most important factors when choosing a new location have always been a proximity to nature and staying true to the brand’s German roots. The notion of relocating further afield in order to exploit low-wage workers remains at odds with the BIRKENSTOCK ethos. The customers and their ethical values are always a key consideration in the company’s development.


OUR VALUES

New ventures
Here & now

In the 2010s, and for the first time in the history of BIRKENSTOCK, day-to-day management moved away from the Birkenstock family. Markus Bensberg and Oliver Reichert, two highly experienced managers, took the reins - and the BIRKENSTOCK Group was created. This new way of working saw unprecedented growth in sales and an increasing relevance of the brand. After an incredibly successful 2021, co-CEO Markus Bensberg stepped back from management and day-to-day operations, leaving Oliver Reichert at the head of the company as sole CEO.

But while evolution is inevitable, some things stay the same. The footbed, Konrad Birkenstock’s revolutionary inception from 1902, is still a cornerstone of the BIRKENSTOCK philosophy of ‘Naturgewolltes Gehen’ (walking as nature intended). With the introduction of sleep systems and certified natural cosmetics, BIRKENSTOCK continues to develop this principle with a holistic approach. BIRKENSTOCK sleep systems represent a further development of the anatomically shaped footbed into an anatomically shaped bed. Just like the footbed, BIRKENSTOCK sleep systems adapt to the shape of the body and provide optimal support. Meanwhile, BIRKENSTOCK NATURAL SKIN CARE, the range of certified natural cosmetics, also focuses on general health. These natural cosmetic products are made in Germany and are completely free from chemicals. In their formulation we find a familiar friend: natural cork, which gives BIRKENSTOCK footbeds their elasticity. This is a key component of these cosmetics’ active ingredients.

As the company gears up production across its offering to meet increasing demand, it has renewed its commitment to German manufacture. Underlining this, a new production facility is being built in the north-eastern German town of Pasewalk. The Birkenstock family’s historic mission, to make walking as nature intended accessible to everyone, feels more alive than ever.

OUR VALUES

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Function

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Attitude

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Quality

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Style