Birkenstock: The German orthopaedic sandal that conquered the world 

Birkenstock: The German orthopaedic sandal that conquered the world 

An orthopaedic sandal might sound like an unlikely contender for a favourite fashion piece, but that's exactly what the German footwear giant Birkenstock has managed to achieve. During its long history the Birkenstock may occasionally have been reduced to a laughing stock, but it's always managed to rise up the fashion echelons once again. We take a look at the history of everybody's favourite orthopaedic sandal, from its humble beginnings in Germany to its Chinese expansion. 

The history of Birkenstock sandals

Birkenstock was founded way back in 1774, by the cobbler Johann Adam Birkenstock. The church archive of the town of Langen-Berheim in Hesse lists Herr Birkenstock as a "cobbler and subject". 

120 years later, in 1896, the master shoemaker Konrad Birkenstock had opened two shoe shops in Frankfurt, selling flexible footbed insoles, and by 1925 sales were so successful that Konrad was able to open the company’s first factory. Amazingly, the company is still owned by descendants of the original founder - Alex and Christian Birkenstock, two brothers. 

In the 1930s and 1940s, Carl Birkenstock wrote and published widely on the subject of podiatry and specialist footwear, developing his theories about the "natural gait" and healthy footwear. When Birkenstock first launched in the United States in the 1970s, the shoes were sold in health shops, widely associating the brand with hippies for many years to come.

In more recent years, the company has been looking to expand into more new regions, including the massive Indian and Chinese markets. In 2021, the company eventually chose L Catterton as a takeover partner - in a deal rumoured to be worth more than 4 billion euros - since the firm has strong experience of taking brands to Asia. 

Where are Birkenstocks made?

In this day and age, it’s unusual to hear of companies who make their products at home, so Birkenstock is a refreshing change from the Global Value Chain (GVC) model which often favours producing or assembling items in countries that have lower setup and labour costs.

Instead, Birkenstock still makes their shoes at home in Germany, including a huge modern factory in Görlitz in Saxony, near the border with Poland, which can make a whopping 30.000 pairs of sandals each day. 

Comfortable, durable and even animal-friendly

In times like these, many of us reach for comfort - in our food choices, TV choices, and even our choice in footwear. Though the words “high fashion shoes” might not immediately spring to mind when someone mentions Birkenstock, the shoes have actually gained much attention on the runway in the last three decades - time and again falling out of favour and then regaining in popularity. 

From Kate Moss in the 1990s to Birkenstock X Valentino in 2019, the shoes have faced great exposure to the world of high fashion, and even managed to win an award from PETA in 2018 for being the “Most Animal-Friendly Shoe Company” too.

After all, you can't shake off a shoe that's got nearly 250 years of history behind it. 



Emily Proctor

Former Editor at IamExpat Media.

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