Birkenstock Moves Beyond Its Famous (& Famously Fugly) Sandals

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Credit: Illustration by Oliver Munday

The September opening of Birkenstock's sleek pop-up shop in New York's Meatpacking District may have seemed an unlikely move for the traditionally low-profile (and sometimes low-fashion) brand, but it was just the latest example of the footwear company's retail refresh.

After rising to prominence at various times in the U.S.—first in the late '60s and early '70s with the hippie generation, and then during the '90s hippie nostalgia—the 243-year-old brand has seen its fashion cred resurrected in recent years thanks to Birkenstock-wearing It girls such as the Olsen twins and Alexa Chung. Now it's hoping to stoke that revival by entering new categories—earlier this year, the brand introduced beds and beauty creams—and pushing more year-round products such as closed-toe clogs and slub socks. To engage more directly with consumers, Birkenstock is dabbling in e-commerce and opening pop-up shops around the globe. And it's embracing more marketing for the first time.

"In the past, Birkenstock has not done a lot of marketing. It was all down to product," says Yvonne Piu, the brand's chief marketing officer, who's charged with growing the brand while maintaining its core identity of wellness and health.

"The product is still the hero," says Piu. But the company, she notes, is doing more events for customers, retail partners and the press, including during Fashion Week: "We're getting closer to our fans, customers, new clients and industry partners."

There are about 15 people working in the marketing department in Neustadt, Germany, where Piu is based. The retailer does not have an agency of record—most of its marketing is developed internally, according to Piu—and it's leaning heavily into festivals, designer collaborations and fairs to bolster its brand.

How it got here
From humble beginnings—German cobbler Johann Adam Birkenstock founded the company in 1774—the brand made a name for itself with innovative, flexible footbeds, which stressed comfort above all. After brokering endorsements from podiatrists in the 1930s, Birkenstock entered the U.S. market in 1966. It was regarded as a comfort brand, not a fashionable one.

But while it had its moments, as recently as 2012, Birkenstock was a has-been, a relic of a decade when tossing a hacky sack was regarded as a sport. The brand's buckled leather was associated primarily with granola-loving earthy types. Yet the adoption by trendsetters and the subsequent appearance on fashion runways, along with a rise in the so-called normcore fashion of the '90s, helped propel the brand back into the spotlight.

"Everyone is wearing them. They're huge now," says Emily Fine, men's accessories and footwear editor at trend-tracking firm Fashion Snoops. "It went hand-in-hand with the resurgence of the white tennis shoe. It's that everyday option that's so easy to wear."

But privately held Birkenstock, which declined to disclose revenue (German paper Handelsblatt Global estimates it at near $800 million, triple that of 2012), is not standing idle on its signature cork footbeds. In addition to the 2,000-square-foot New York pop-up open through Dec. 24, it's operating a mobile retail store, called the Birkenstock Box. The temporary space, a former freight container, is touring the globe with stops in Berlin, Milan, New York, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Birkenstock partners with different retailers, including Barneys New York, for each placement.

And though associating a sandal brand with sleep or skin care might not be easy, executives say Birkenstock's new product categories revolve around a common nexus of health. Earlier this year, Birkenstock began selling mattresses in Europe, partnering on bedding systems with Austrian furniture brand Ada. Each mattress is made from cork and leather, while the slatted frames are constructed from wood, all designed to mold with the body much like the brand's shoes. Procuring one in the U.S. is a bit difficult but can be done by special request.

In addition, Birkenstock is trying its hand at skin care, introducing foot and hand creams, as well as leg and foot oil, all boasting natural ingredients such as elderberry, avocado and cork oak. Each bottle has a cork top, of course.

"The idea behind this range of diversification is to get in touch with the consumer in all of his or her daily situations," Piu says.

Birkenstock is also selling more winter shoes, socks and hosiery, and is looking to invest more in the children's space.

At odds with Amazon
"The brand is cutting across generations, which is a strength—they're not just counting on the fickle millennial to drive their business," says Matt Powell, sports industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group. "It's wise they're looking at brand extensions to take it beyond just a sandal to being a 12-month shoe business, and establish themselves as a health and wellness kind of total brand."

There's one place Birkenstock won't be expanding: Amazon. Earlier this year, the company stopped selling to the e-commerce giant because of counterfeiting issues. But over the summer, third-party shops began selling Birkenstock products to Amazon after the Seattle company contacted them, according to reports. Birkenstock's U.S. CEO, David Kahan, drew headlines for calling the effort "modern-day piracy," warning shops about repercussions for selling to Amazon and reiterating that Birkenstock itself does not sell via the platform.

Last month, a Birkenstock spokesman said that the company does not sell to Amazon but that some authorized retailers do. The company declined further comment.

"Amazon is driving a lot of eyeballs, but I understand [Birkenstock's] frustration," says Powell. "As long as they stay hot, they'll be fine."

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