What’s your take on Birkenstocks? For me, they are some of the ugliest shoes that exist. And to spare all potential Birkenstock fans the outrage, the company itself produced a series of videos last year, “exploring the relevance of foot health and revealing why healthy shoes look exactly the way they do”, which they entitled ‘Ugly for a Reason’. There you have it.

But irrespective of personal taste, there was some recent news about the German shoe manufacturer that made me ponder the astounding international success of the Birkenstock brand: The company, headquartered in western Germany in the small town of Linz on the Rhine, recently opened a big new production facility in Pasewalk, another small town but in the country’s east close to the Polish border, to keep up with the demand for its healthy shoes. They spent around EUR 100 million on the site, the largest single investment in the company’s history, and plan to employ 1,000 staff at the factory in the long-term and produce up to 6.4 million pairs of shoes per year. That’s a lot of shoes ‘made in Pasewalk’ (lost on Germans, but just noticed there’s a nice word play opportunity for the pun-loving Brits).

The other piece of news is that of Birkenstock’s IPO at the New York Stock Exchange, scheduled for the second half of October – with an impressive valuation of approximately USD 8 billion. Most of the company, which used to be a classic German family-owned business with roots going back to the 18th century, is now owned by L Catterton, a private equity firm backed by the luxury group LVMH. This means that the ‘ugly shoe’ now sits side by side in a portfolio with Louis Vuitton, Dior, Bulgari and the likes. When LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault was asked how the “Birkis” fit into this concept, he referred to Birkenstock being “one of the few iconic brands in the shoe industry”. And what can I say, he’s right.

If you had told me all that in the 1980ies and 1990ies when I was in school and university in Germany, I would certainly not have believed it. Back then, while Birkenstocks were already very popular and worn by many (not me, needless to say), they also had a reputation that was nowhere near the cool and iconic brand it now is. They were ‘Öko-Schlappen‘ (eco slippers), with a green and hippi-ish image. Shoes for people who are the opposite of fashionistas and care about comfort and foot-friendly design.

Fast forward a couple of decades and in a complete reversal, fashionistas around the world wear Birkenstocks, due to a mix of celebrity endorsements and clever collabs with high-fashion brands. Or how about the most recent appearance of a Birkenstock sandal in the Barbie movie, which resulted in a 518 % increase in UK Google searches for ‘womens Birkenstocks’. There you go. A proper success story, based on a very German theme (Health! Comfort! Who cares what it looks like!) and, of course, back in 1774, on the expertise, inventiveness and craftmenship of a master shoemaker called Johann Adam Birkenstock. With Birkenstocks being all the rage, will I venture out any time soon now to finally get my own pair of comfy sandals? That’s still a no, I’ll stick to shoes that are comfortable AND meet my personal taste. But I have a feeling Mr Arnault & Co. won’t need my support anyway…

Barbara Geier is a London-based freelance writer, translator and communications consultant. She is also the face behind www.germanyiswunderbar.com, a German travel and tourism guide and blog that was set up together with UK travel writer Andrew Eames in 2010.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Discover Germany, Switzerland & Austria.

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