Barbara Atkin is Canada’s trend spotter-in-chief. The fashion director at Holt Renfrew, who has been setting the country’s style dial for the last three decades, says she lives for moments like the one she witnessed on the Céline catwalk during Paris Fashion Week’s spring 2013 shows.
“[Designer] Phoebe Philo created a pair of furry, jewel-encrusted Birkenstock-style sandals,” she recalls. “When they came down the runway, I think every fashion director in that room just knew this was a nugget, one of those moments in fashion that we live for.” Almost immediately, Atkin sent an e-mail message to Holt Renfrew’s Toronto HQ, telling her team that it was time to start tracking comfort sandals in general and one brand in particular. “When you look at that shoe and think who did it the best, it was ‘Birks.’ It was a Birkenstock moment.”
Flash forward to this summer and Birkenstocks have proven to be not a fashion blip but an emblem of contemporary wardrobe wisdom, which seems to be prizing irony and the jolielaide over prim and pretty. Once reserved for camp councillors and gender studies profs, the sandals have been spotted on celebrities from the Olsen twins to Heidi Klum. Peek into the editorial department of any fashion magazine or a high society social gathering and chances are the average centre of gravity has lowered by at least a few inches.
“The same girls who filled their shoe closets with Louboutins and Manolo Blahniks a few years ago now probably have a couple of pairs of Birks, a couple of pairs of sneakers,” says Susie Sheffman, the veteran Toronto stylist and a long-time devotee of utilitarian footwear. “Flat, sexless sandals,” she jokes, “are kind of my thing.”
Sheffman also cites the Céline fashion show as a signpost on the comfort sandal comeback trail, along with several other high-fashion iterations that followed: Giambattista Valli (metallic), Givenchy (striped) and Marni (also metallic).
But the magic moment for Sheffman was seeing Milla Jovovich in the December 2013 issue of The Edit, an online magazine from Web retailer Net-a-Porter: “[Jovovich] was wearing a very classic men’s white shirt, a pair of white trousers and men’s black Birks and it was like, ‘Whoa! That’s the girl I want to be.’ ”
It-girl endorsements have been essential to Birkenstock’s fashion-world ascent. Trendsetters like the Olsens, Alexa Chung and Leandra Medine of The Man Repeller blog were all early adopters. At first, the orthopedic sandals drew jeers, then acceptance and finally adulation. “Every now and then, the eye needs a shock. Putting on a Birkenstock changes the proportion of your whole look,” Sheffman says, adding that it’s not uncommon for a once unfashionable accessory to suddenly become appealing. “What happens is your eye starts getting used to that new proportion and then everything else just falls away.”
Sheffman is one of many who are sporting white Arizona Birkenstocks, the basic, double-strap models that are now almost impossible to come by (they sold out at both Holt Renfrew and J.Crew, which produced a capsule collection with Birkenstock this spring).
At Circle Shoes in Toronto, you can special-order the white Arizonas but there is a waiting list. The tiny momand– pop footwear store has been carrying Birkenstocks since the seventies, when they entered the North American market after being discovered by an American tourist in Germany. Owner Vicky Rados says that the core customer (think those aforementioned camp counsellors and gender-studies profs) hasn’t changed, but she has received a lot of interest from a new, more style-obsessed shopper. “We’ll get phone calls from girls who have seen a certain style on a certain celebrity or in a magazine,” she says.
To meet this new level of international demand, Birkenstock will double its annual production from 10 million pairs to 20 million over the next five years. Earlier this year, a new design team was assembled by the brand; its spring 2015 line will include, for the first time, Birks with heels and wedges. The company also plans to push the classic single-strap Madrid model as the must-have sandal next season in the hopes of avoiding Arizona burnout.
Staying on top with the famously fickle fashion crowd may be an unrealistic goal, but Barbara Kanner, CEO of Birkenstock’s Canadian distributor Serum Footwear, sees the recent bout of Birk-mania as an opportunity. “Obviously, we can’t be the hottest thing every year, but being popular in the fashion world gives us an opportunity to bring the brand to new customers,” she says.
“Maybe high heels are going to be back in fashion, but they can still have their Birks. And I think there is a real appreciation for the comfort as well as the style.”
In other words: Once you go Birk, you may not go back.
Talia Shipman, a Toronto-based fashion photographer and long-time Birkenstock booster, agrees. “I find that you can wear a pair of black Birks with anything – you can dress them up, dress them down. For me, there is a huge element of comfort and, I don’t know, I think they look pretty cool.”
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