This year has been nothing short of happening for German footwear brand, Birkenstock. Just recently, the company -- best known for its premium sandals -- filed an initial public offering at the New York Stock Exchange, which could value the company at US$8 billion (288 billion baht), according to estimates.
But beyond big business expansions, the brand has imprinted itself into popular culture -- with a splash too. In a cameo in this summer's blockbuster Barbie, the Arizona shoe served as a significant plot device in the movie: when Barbie had to choose between a pink stiletto or a pair of brown Birkenstock sandals. One represented her perfect, rose-coloured world as she knows it, the latter, the less glamorous facets of the real world. The ending of the movie saw Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, going for the best of both worlds -- she is wearing a pink Arizona Birkenstock, a model that has now flown off the shelves globally since the movie's release.
"Since the movie, there's been a greater awareness for the Birkenstock brand," comments Sakaoporn Wajeepolkumhang, assistant PR manager at Pacifica Group, the official importer of Birkenstock in Thailand. "People are now seeing it more as a fashionable item, beyond its everyday practicality."
Boston suede leather clog.
A small Mushkin art toy with Arizona sandals.
BIRKENSTOCK BEFORE BARBIE-MANIA
Long before Barbie-mania, Birkenstock's backstory dates back hundreds of years. Founded by Johann Adam Birkenstock in 1774, in the German village Langen-Bergheim, this name has long been crafting premium quality shoes. By 1896, Johann's descendant, Konrad Birkenstock, had perfected flexible footbed insoles. In 1902, Konrad fine-tuned the invention even more with metal-free arch support, the heart of what Birkenstock shoes are well recognised for today.
With its prominent mission to maintain foot health, Birkenstock was a pioneering wellness brand that cared about wellness before the word wellness was even a buzzword. Konrad Birkenstock believed that the shoe's last and sole should be three-dimensional too just like the natural feet -- a forward-thinking idea that other traditional shoemakers from the era did not follow, due to its costly and time-consuming production.
Despite strained finances, Konrad was driven by his vision. During World War I, he tirelessly worked in the orthopaedics department to study foot defects and how to treat them at the Friedrichsheim Hospital in Frankfurt am Main in Germany. The popularity of his shoes started to grow upon the return of millions of soldiers after World War I, many of whom suffered from foot problems and needed the support of Birkenstock's footbeds.
Artist MRKREME or Varagun 'Andy' Chongthanapipat with Mushkin wearing the Arizona sandals.
When the brand made its way to the US market in 1966, it was sold in health stores due to its appearance and orthopaedic roots. This led to it being associated with a "Californian casual" style and hippies, the first group to embrace these shoes for its "back to nature" philosophy and foot-friendly contour.
Today, Birkenstock is synonymous with high quality, comfort and health. As one of the most well-known German brands in the world, it is also the German footwear industry's largest employer. A new production facility in Pasewalk, Germany -- the largest single investment in the history of the company worth €110 million (4.2 billion baht) -- has just started its production according to schedule this month.
While its classic styles from the 1900s are enduring, the brand continues to maintain its relevance, both culturally and with concerns to environmental sustainability. Vegan leather options are available and fashion moments push the name to the mainstream, as high fashion brands such as Celine, Rick Owens and Givenchy have created their own versions of the Birkenstock sandal. As a long-time purveyor of living well, the brand also branched out into skincare in 2017 to promote good skin, alongside healthy walking and standing. The Birkenstock Natural Skincare line was developed using another ingredient that was essential to the brand -- namely the cork oak. While cork gives its shoes elasticity and flexibility, it was also discovered that extracts from the cork bark showcased anti-ageing and smoothing effects on the skin. Natural and sustainably sourced, the line is comprised of oils, facial care, body care and hand and foot care products.
With the brand's rich history and growth potential, it comes as no surprise that the brand would eventually attract the attention of global retail houses. In 2021, the Birkenstock family sold a major stake of its shares to L Catterton, the largest global private equity firm backed by Bernard Arnault's LVMH.
BIRKENSTOCK IN THAILAND
The brand has left noteworthy footprints in Thailand, since its arrival onto our shores in 2020. Imported and managed by lifestyle and fashion retailer Pacifica Group, there are currently 10 Birkenstock stand-alone stores, as well as 11 consignments across Thailand. The latest stores to open will be at the new EmSphere Mall and Central WestVille Mall towards the end of the year.
While the perennial best-seller in Thailand has always been the Arizona sandal, interestingly, the up-and-coming model, which sees waiting lists, is the Boston clog in taupe. Despite the country's tropical climate, the suede clog has become a popular choice of footwear due to a form that suits many occasions.
Birkenstock x Valentino collection.
"It's surprising for us too [that this is the most in-demand style] but it's because the clog is easy to slip on and is also suited to both casual events and semi-formal functions that call for closed-toe shoes," says assistant PR manager Sakaoporn. "We are currently trying to show that Birkenstocks are not only shoes for casual gatherings but that they can also be fashionable shoes worn in other facets of daily life. Since university students can wear sandals to class these days, I've found it quite interesting to see students wearing Birkenstocks to class and with socks."
Last year, the "Hourglass Exhibition" was held at Siwilai Central Embassy to provide an insight into the brand's long heritage. Considered to be the first exhibition of its kind in Southeast Asia, the displays showed not only the Birkenstock family's dedication to medical education and to improving foot health but also snazzy collaborations with other fashion houses such as Valentino.
In July, the brand collaborated for the very first time with Thai artist, MRKREME, or Varagun "Andy" Chongthanapipat. Known for his pop surrealist street art and art toys, the world of MRKREME features a myriad of kooky, furry monsters that are striking for their doe-eyed cuteness. One of the monsters, Mushkin, has never worn shoes before. In this collaboration, Mushkin finally sports a pair of Birkenstock Arizona sandals, as seen on the two-metre-tall sculpture which is currently showcased at Iconsiam. Smaller Mushkin art toys are also created for this project, featuring the white monster wearing Arizona sandals, the other wearing Madrid Big Buckle sandals and another sitting inside the Boston clogs.
Until the end of September, customers who spend 15,000 baht at Birkenstock will receive a Mushkin toy with their purchase. As a real user of Birkenstocks since his university days, Andy praises the shoe's durability and foot arch support -- traits that are crucial when he is walking on paint and all sorts of surfaces while creating street art.
Displays at the 'Hourglass Exhibition' at Siwilai Central Embassy last year.
"What I really appreciate is Birkenstock's history, their usage of cork and how the shoe transforms according to your feet to give support," says the artist. "There couldn't be a better first pair of shoes for Mushkin to wear."