Strategy

Birkenstock Just Can’t Stop Collaborating!

From comfort shoes to luxury shoes, the strategy behind Birkenstock's atypical journey. This article, written by Abigail Grace Stover, is one of the two winning texts of the writing competition developed by Luxury Tribune and addressed to the MBA students of the University IESEG School of Management in Paris and Lille

Abigail Stover

By Abigail Stover21 juin 2022

The House of Dior is the latest brand Birkenstock has collaborated with in June of 2022 (Dior)

Birkenstock is a heritage brand in its own right, with the first pair cobbled in 1774 in a small town in Germany (northwest of Frankfurt) by Johann Adam Birkenstock. However, it wasn’t until 1896 that master shoemaker, Konrad Birkenstock opened two shops in Frankfurt and began making and selling the iconic flexible anatomical footbeds. The brand has been synonymous with traditional German footwear ever since. Targeting an audience compelled by relieving foot and back pain, Birkenstocks paved the way for today’s comfort footwear market.

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During recent decades Birkenstocks held a very polarizing position in footwear fashion. They saw some trendy moments, but struggled to make their relevance permanent. In the 90’s Kate Moss brought new attention to the Germanic sandal brand when she was spotted wearing a pair while off-duty. By 2013 Birkenstock Group was formed and they made headlines again when they appeared on and off the runways. In February 2020 the Birkenstock name was brought to infamy once more when Brooklyn-based collective MSCHF released their version of “Birkenstocks,” a pair of $76,000 USD sandals constructed using repurposed crocodile leather from Hermès Birkin bags. Even though Birkenstock was not directly affiliated with this stunt, it certainly helped push them up the fashion ranks.

A success story that has been gathering pace for five years

A model from Birkenstock's collaboration with Proenza Schouler (Birkenstock)

Later that year British Vogue named Birkenstocks the sandal of the year and searches for the footwear increased 225%, according to global fashion shopping app Lyst. While at first glance Birkenstocks may seem incongruous with luxury, the brand has become a magnet for high fashion labels -- even more so since the beginning of the pandemic, when consumer appetites shifted toward extreme comfort.

The Arizona sandal and Boston” clog were once only left for the pension receiving, fashion-illiterate who preferred comfort over style. But in today’s fashion scene, even those who once looked down upon the drab shoe can’t deny the fab facelifts the sandals keep getting. Birkenstocks are no longer just a symbol of the counterculture, they have become a footwear icon thanks to successful collaborations. From Proenza Schouler to Rick Owens to Valentino, the sandal brand has been involved in six different collaborations with major fashion houses since 2020 alone. Four of these have occurred in just the past year, since Birkenstock Group was purchased by L. Catterton, an LVMH-backed holding company in May 2021.

Each shoe was made in Birkenstock’s factory by the finest artisans

Manolo Blahnik for Harper's Bazaar

A pair of Birkenstock x Manolo Blahnik, collection released in March 2022 (Birkenstock)

The latest stunner Manolo Blahnik x Birkenstock just launched on March 24th. The collaboration originated from the Birkenstock Personality Campaign, a series which portrays the subjects in their own environment wearing Birkenstocks from their own wardrobe. “Birkenstocks have been in my wardrobe since the very beginning of time - I have loved and worn mine for many years”, Blahnik recalls on his website of the Spring/Summer 2020 campaign in which he and Kristina Blahnik (CEO and Manolo’s niece) were photographed by Jack Davison. The relationship blossomed from there into this remarkable collaboration.

Selling out on Birkenstock’s website in the first week, the collab features a total of five revised styles with three different colors. The sandals typical worn leather straps are replaced with premium jewel tone velvet or black calf skin and each are adorned with iterations of Manolo’s iconic sparkling square buckles... A second release of four new styles has been confirmed for June.

Comfort first, symbol of the Covid era

When Harper’s Bazaar asked about his vision for the collaboration, Blahnik described “I wanted to make something that can be worn casually but also that look fabulous with a ball gown, a sort of ‘dressed-up’ Birkenstock. The pieces are exquisite. Each shoe was made in Birkenstock’s factory by the finest artisans.” This finely crafted marriage of glamour with functionality rings up at $810 USD.

Good collaborations are art, great collaborations are kitsch

Ana Andjelic, high snobriety blog

Valentino also collaborated with the comfort footwear giant (Birkenstock)

So, what changed that young fashionistas are now willing to spend a month’s rent on a granola brand shoe? The slew of collabs has undoubtedly elevated the Birkenstock name and with each new drop, there seems to be a stronger affiliation with words like “high-fashion”, “exclusivity” and even “luxury”. Most importantly, Gen Z’ers are the biggest fans of collaborations. One might even draw the conclusion that it’s actually these high fashion brands which are now leaning on Birkenstock to position themselves with this younger audience. This raises the question of who is truly benefitting from these collaborations? Birkenstock has not only gained brand awareness, but has also earned a more prominent seat in the footwear fashion industry as a whole. Meanwhile, luxury maisons are able to appeal to younger customers through these limited-time, exclusive offers. So, at least for now, it appears to be a true win-win.

A men's model from the collaboration between the German brand and the House of Dior (Dior)

With the pandemic years now behind us, another concern for Birkenstock is a colossal shift in trends back to more sophisticated attire. Trend forecasters and journalists predicted a mass return to smarter dressing and certainly more stylish footwear by 2022, but it hasn’t been the case. Instead, there has been a collective obstinance to maintain a level of comfort with the athleisure style holding strong. And the succession of collaborations doesn't seem to be tiring consumers yet, as the craze is still going strong: the latest being the one with Dior, on June 16th. Indeed, the prestigious brand unveiled its capsule collection CD1947, and offered two reinvented emblematic models - the Tokio mules and the Milano sandals. A subtle tribute to the designer-founder's passion for gardening.

An atypical mix that makes them irresistible. As Ana Andjelic wrote in her blog (High Snobriety): "Good collaborations are art, great collaborations are kitsch." Bikenstock's collaborations are certainly the most awesome of all.

This article, written by Abigail Grace Stover, is one of the two winning texts of the writing competition developed by Luxury Tribune and addressed to the MBA students of the University IESEG School of Management in Paris and Lille 

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