The introduction of the Birkenstock brand in India is a matter of course in a hotel. All the shoes they bring to India in their spring-summer 2020 collection called Next Gen are neatly arranged, and the merchandiser guides us through the range. There is an adjacent room with AV playback. It's all very functional, without a marketing game, and has none of the drama of an inland launch, much like the sandal itself.
Oliver Reichert, CEO, describes the product as follows: "Birkenstock is the perfect combination of function and quality." It couldn't be easier or more difficult. Regardless of how many collaborations the brand has – with American designer Rick Owens, Italian designer Valentino, sneaker store Concepts and the opening ceremony of the retailer – they neither push for it nor enter fashion areas. "We don't play in the fashion industry … We didn't campaign for the fashion dollar, which is very volatile," said Lucy Holmes, regional marketing manager for the Middle East and India. In fact, says Reichert, the brand has so far only turned to Rick Owens. "All other brands have to come to us," he says.
The journey from Frankfurt
The focus is still on the sole, which began its journey in 1896 with the shoemaker Konrad Birkenstock, who runs two shops in Frankfurt. He developed the first contoured insole that could be fitted into bespoke shoes, and later developed a flexible arch support for factory-made shoes. In the first decade of the 20th century, he made insoles from a cork-latex mixture, which gave rise to the term footbed.
In 1964, the Birkenstock sandal was born with a footbed consisting of a toe grip, an arch and a heel cup – all to support the foot. There are two layers of jute on each side and then suede or calf leather and EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) insoles on the sole, although the original Madrid single strap had moss crepe (rubber). While the hard soles are said to be orthopedic, America prefers the softer version with latex foam padding, which is available worldwide. The Arizona double belt is the most popular, despite its bulky proclamation "I'm working in development".
The sixth generation family-owned company, which claims to sell between 25 and 30 million pairs annually, still produces exclusively in Germany, 60 percent in Görlitz, and sources raw materials (cork from oak, latex and leather) from Europe. The collaboration is now managed by a creative studio called 1774 Birkenstock, which operates from Paris. There are no “goals”, only “partnerships” and the voice is clear. “Our legacy is about quality and comfort that we strive for [to] by many designers. If this is implemented in fashion and offers comfort, it is a good combination for us, ”says Reichert.
From the Next Gen Birkenstock collection
New Age consumers
How does a brand that doesn't feed a specific demographic group remain relevant? At last year's Oscars, Frances McDormand wore Birkenstocks made of yellow suede, which was made by Valentino. Fashion called it "Couture-meets-Comfort", but the people at Birkenstock say it has a health DNA at its core. Holmes says the brand came into fashion because the consumer who bought Birks was Gigi Hadid, Alexa Chung and Julianne Moore. And the Next Gen collection has a model called Kyoto (most slippers and sandals are named after countries) that is "a modern version of them" [forefoot-covering] Zurich, ”says Reichert.
It's also a practical purchase that lasts for years and is suddenly relevant to today's environmentally conscious consumer who is quickly becoming fashionable, but it's also important, according to Reichert, that people either love or hate them. He now owns "several hundred" that he bought "simply because there were not too many options in my shoe size, which is 46 EU". But he's been with them for a while now.
In India, the only store is located at Delhi 3 domestic terminal 3 (prices start at 499 euros) and they sell online (birkenstock.in – they don't sell through any other website). There are no Indian collaborations yet, although Reichert says Bollywood is looking for synergies as it has a global presence. Neither of the existing collaborators will come to India. Abroad, Proenza Schouler of American fashion will be attending the Paris Fashion Week in March this year, and the Premium Collection 1774 will be on display next month with Matchfashion at the Frieze Art Fair in Los Angeles.