Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Spiked Schnapps (1774)

Mar 15, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller

Forest Gump observed, “My mama always said you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes, where they going, where they been.” While Forest never wore Birkenstocks, the footwear of the flower power generation trod quite the path since its founder, Johannes Adam Birkenstock, fashioned the first pair.

      Before Crocs and Uggs were glimmers in their creators’ eyes, church records from the German town of Langen-Bergheim listed Johannes Adam Birkenstock as “vassal and cobbler.” In the late 19th century, his descendant, Konrad Birkenstock, opened two stores in Frankfurt where he fashioned shoes with a fussbett, “footbed,” that emulates the sensation of walking on sand. The store proved profitable as Germans extoll the virtues of walking though the cultural trend carried negativity. In the country’s anti-Semitic literature of the fin de sièce era, a malformed foot caricatured Jews as much as did hooked noses. The success of the footwear led to a national contract during World War I to help injured soldiers. In the 1960s, Karl Birkenstock experimented in his kitchen where he blended cork and latex to create the light yet resilient Madrid model. 

      The metamorphosis of Birkenstock from a Bavarian family-owned business to a world-wide conglomerate occurred when Berlin born Margot Fraser married an American and moved to Santa Cruz, California. On a 1960s trip home to visit a spa, she purchased a pair of Birkenstocks, far more comfortable for her painful foot condition than the narrow-pointed toe style then in vogue. Trying to peddle her idea, shoe-store owners-one who referred to them as “hideous-” said they would never sell. Undaunted, she set up a booth at a San Francisco convention that proved popular with health store owners who placed them alongside granola. They proved de rigueur for the counterculture generation.  So many wore them in the Bay Area they became known as “Berkeleystocks.” For Margot, the sole American distributor, the cork sandal became her glass slipper.

     As with the Aesopian turtle, the prosaic shoes sold steadily but surely under the hippie shoe came under the 1990s spotlight. Model Kate Moss and designer Perry Ellis gave them a thumbs up that led to the patronage of Madonna, Harrison Ford, and Keanu Reeves. In 2012, Birkenstocks trod a Paris runway when Phoebe Philo of Céline arranged a fashion show where the models sported the German sandals lined with fur in what magazines dubbed “Furkenstocks.” Miley Cyrus sported a bejeweled pair coupled with a bra top. Italian designer Giambattista Valli offered a metallic version edged with studs; Givenchy’s version displayed pink roses. Actress Frances McDormand presented a 2019 Oscar wearing a pink Valentino gown and custom yellow suede Valentino Birkenstocks. To the shock of Sex and the City fans, Carrie Bradshaw, slavishly devoted to the stiletto, in the follow up series, And Just Life That, wore a pair of mocha-toned Birkenstocks. Kendall Jenner and Dakota Johnson followed suit. With hippie and celebrity stamp of approval, the company sells approximately thirty-four million shoes annually in a 100 countries.

     Proof positive that the once ugly duckling has shed its reputation as Geekenstocks is its 2021 incarnation when the orthopedic sandal transformed to one where its leather strap consisted of a repurposed Hermès Birkin bag that sells from $34,000 to $76,000-depending on foot size. In the same year, Alex and Christian Birkenstock announced it was selling a majority of its $4.85 billion company sold to luxury brand LVMH-think Louis Vuitton. If Johannes could see where his shoemaking shop had led, he would think mischievous elves had spiked his schnapps.