behind the scenes

The Dwarf, the Prince, and the Diamond in the Mountain

The city of Görlitz in eastern Germany is three hours from Berlin and two minutes from Poland. Miraculously, Görlitz was not bombed during the Second World War, and even more miraculously, its architectural treasures — Gothic, Baroque, rococo — were merely allowed to rot during the Communist era. Nothing was torn down. As a result, whole streets resemble a movie set, ideal for a colorful Saxon fairy tale (like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was shot here) or a bleak Cold War thriller.

In June, I traveled to this corner of Germany with the photographer Juergen Teller to cover a company whose long history has been similarly marked by accident and fortune. For Görlitz is where a high percentage of Birkenstock’s cork-and-leather sandals are made; the company is headquartered near Bonn, and the family that has owned the business since 1774 lives mostly outside Germany.

If you didn’t know that Birkenstock has seen a huge resurgence in the past few years, it’s probably because you never stopped wearing them, like my friend Rob, who got his first pair 37 years ago, when he lived on a commune. This summer in Provincetown, says the stylist Miguel Enamorado, “since Birkenstock has made the rubber sandal, everyone in P-town is wearing them. It’s the new flip-flop.” He means the new polymer sandals, known as EVAs, which are molded in the shape of Birkenstock’s tried-and-true styles — the two-strap Arizona, one-strap Madrid, and thong Gizeh — and cost $40, as opposed to $100 and up for the traditional styles. The EVAs now account for as much as 15 percent of the 25 million pairs of shoes the company will make this year.

Bark is harvested for the Birkenstock cork base. Photo: Juergen Teller
Raw cork that will be crumbled and turned into footbeds. Photo: Juergen Teller
The factory floor where the base of the Birkenstocks are pressed together. Photo: Juergen Teller

In 2012, that number was an anemic 10 million. That year was also a turning point for both the company and the Birkenstock family, which had become mired in sibling squabbles. For the first time in Birkenstock’s long history, the family agreed to give up control to outside managers, although it retained ownership. A company veteran, Markus Bensberg, was put in charge, but more controversially, a loquacious, burly Schwabe named Oliver Reichert, who had been a consultant since 2009, was appointed as his equal. Reichert had no knowledge of the shoe business, unless you count that he has worn Birkenstocks since he was a boy — it was the only brand sold near his home in southwestern Germany that carried size 46 (12 in U.S. sizing). Nor did he know anything about manufacturing. Reichert, 47, had spent the previous ten years working at a German sports television channel in Munich, rising to managing director. Nonetheless, Reichert sensed that Birkenstock was “a sleeping giant.” He believed it could sell 20 million pairs of shoes a year by 2020, which of course it has, ahead of schedule and then some.

What Reichert didn’t know was that his prophecy for the clunky sandal was about to get an assist from the unlikely quarter of the Paris catwalk in October 2012, when Phoebe Philo, then of Céline, took a black Arizona, lined it with mink, and put it on the runway. Delirium ensued.

“All of a sudden, all you wanted was an Arizona again,” recalls Enamorado. (I know: I had a New York furrier line a pair in sable for me.) “A long dress with a Birkenstock became the new minimalistic chic.” The sandal had surfaced before on the runway, notably in Marc Jacobs’s 1992 grunge collection for Perry Ellis and in magazines around that time. But, until they were inspired by Philo’s funny “Furkenstocks,” which she showed with flowing pants and silk tops, fashion people couldn’t overcome their distaste. “It was always the old man in the socks and the Birkenstock sandals,” says the Berlin-based editor Klaus Stockhausen. “[The brand] was Crocs or something.” Other luxury brands like Givenchy soon offered their own gussied-up versions.

“The truth is nobody controlled what Céline did with our shoes,” admits Reichert, and at the time, Birkenstock wasn’t quite ready to take advantage of the attention — the company was still focused on adding new employees (a number that would eventually exceed 2,000) and changing an archaic, fragmented culture. Philo’s twist brought favorable publicity, but at the time, Birkenstock didn’t even have a sales force, let alone a real marketing and PR operation. People had always discovered Birkenstocks on their own — the shoes were the perfect blend of quality and function. As recently as five years ago, if a store needed more sandals, it phoned the office in Germany and they were sent out.

Excess cork and latex is trimmed off the footbed. Photo: Juergen Teller
A machine sprays the base of the Birkenstocks. Photo: Juergen Teller
Glue. Photo: Juergen Teller
Rows of Birkenstocks bases. Photo: Juergen Teller

Today, Birkenstock is very much the one in control — and bigger. The company doesn’t release results, but according to estimates, sales have tripled since 2012 to $800 million. The brand is even cool enough to turn down Supreme and Vetements, both of which, Reichert says, wanted to put logos on sandals. Reichert said no, chiefly because Birkenstock didn’t need more demand in its factories; earlier this summer, it had orders for 2 million pairs, bread-and-butter styles, that it still hadn’t filled. There also seemed to be little gain in being perceived as another classic brand on the trendy-fashion punch list, especially since the customers for those brands already know and probably wear Birkenstock.

“There’s no benefit for us except prostitution,” says Reichert. “Because this is just prostitution.” (“I just wanted to work with Birkenstock because their shoes are so comfortable,” Demna Gvasalia, the Vetements creative director, told me. Two weeks after I spoke with Reichert, he, though still skeptical, allowed his marketing department to restart discussions.)

The Birkenstocks are not exactly the Buddenbrooks of the Mann novel, but they have produced their share of family drama and enterprising characters. In the late-19th century, when German spa culture was at its zenith, Europeans and rich Americans flocked to resorts like Baden-Baden for water cures, and Konrad Birkenstock, a Frankfurt cobbler, began making shoes with contoured insoles to serve them. (Before then, insoles had typically been flat.) His innovation led to a flexible arch support that could be inserted into factory-made shoes, and by 1925, the family was turning out its distinctive blue flexible Fussbett, or “footbed,” in a factory in Hesse. Konrad always sought to promote health, and seminars and textbooks by his son, Carl, helped remind the public that the Birkenstocks were above all orthopedic experts. That was also Carl’s son’s aim in 1963, when he developed the contoured insoles into sandals using a homemade blend of latex and wine cork for the footbed. Karl Birkenstock thought they’d be good for fitness.

A fluke encounter with a Californian named Margot Fraser made Birkenstocks an emblem of the peace and environmental movements. Fraser discovered them in 1966, on vacation in her native Germany. Her feet hurt, the sandals helped, and she asked Karl if she might try selling some back home. Jochen Gutzy, head of communications at Birkenstock, told me that the relationship with Fraser was very typical of Karl: “He chose to work with her not because she was a professional — ‘Oh, this person will sell lots of our sandals’ — but because she was a ‘trustful person.’ ” He even advanced her credit, though it was tough to persuade California retailers to take the sandals (they thought they looked like small boats). Fraser’s best outlets were health-food shops, near the granola.

That was the start of Birkenstock USA. People who were against nukes, processed foods, and the sexualization of women wore them. In short, Birkenstocks were the shoe of opposition. Or, as the director Jason Reitman once put it, “Nothing says I want to tell you how to live your life more than Birkenstocks.”

To an extent, this attitude was baked into the company under Karl. Despite the tremendous success of the American division, even Fraser sometimes met with resistance. Before her death in 2017, she told Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker that when she asked for color, the firm’s Swiss distributor said, “ ‘This woman is going to ruin us. We are orthopedic — we don’t need color.’ But we brought color into the United States, and it helped sales everywhere.”

Reichert says, “If you talk to Karl Birkenstock, 82 years old, sitting in his house in Austria, getting more and more negative, he is the godfather of this absolutely design-hating, anti attitude — to say that nothing is designed. It’s about function.”

The glue used to stick the straps. Photo: Juergen Teller
Residue from the machines. Photo: Juergen Teller
Shoe traps marked with glue drying. Photo: Juergen Teller

To be sure, Karl got more right than wrong. When I visited Görlitz in June, Sean Harris, an amiable German-American in charge of supply-chain matters, pointed out that although the factory was opened after Karl retired in the early aughts, most of the technology is still based on his concepts. “He really had the idea that made the family shitloads of money,” Harris said when showing me around. We had paused near a group of workers swiftly attaching leather straps to future Arizonas. The place smelled of glue and baked cork; it was odd but not unpleasant, like dough rising on a carburetor.

“You know how shoes are built over a last?” he asked, referring to a foot-shaped mold, usually of wood or plastic.

I nodded.

“He realized you didn’t need a full last to build a sandal. It takes more time to put them on a full last. We only need half of that.”

Karl was focused on making sandals in the most efficient way and would often call about leather or supplies. Harris said, “He could never let go. That made it tough on his kids.” The model of a strong-willed entrepreneur, Karl Birkenstock created as many as 38 independent companies, all under the Birkenstock name. There was a company, for example, that produced his special shoemaking machines and another that profited from the brand’s logistics skills. Karl loved the competition that naturally developed among the entities, and indeed the structure was a lot like a family in its dynamics. But it proved to be hell for Karl’s three sons — Stephan, Alex, and Christian — when they took over.

Karl divided ownership among his sons, so a business once led by a dominant father figure was now run by a regency. Clashes developed, as the brothers had different visions, and the overall growth rate stalled to around 2 percent a year, Harris told me. He said, “This whole culture was centered on what we did internally, and it wasn’t focused on the outside at all.” That began to change when Christian brought in Reichert as an adviser in 2009.

Buckles. Photo: Juergen Teller
Another buckle. Photo: Juergen Teller

At six-foot-five, Reichert is an immense bear of a man, with curly golden-brown hair and beard fuzz. He once played amateur football, as a defensive end: the guy who sacks the quarterback (he describes himself as a “tank”). He is dressed in a light-blue open-neck shirt and jeans with Arizonas when we meet in the bar at the Four Seasons hotel in Florence. He’s brought his wife and four young children with him — they were out by the pool.

Reichert’s arrival at Birkenstock was fortuitous. After he’d left the sports channel, an art-dealer friend who was delivering some Beuyses and Richters to Christian Birkenstock invited Reichert to take the drive from Munich, where he lives, to Austria. (Christian also has a farm in South Africa. Officially, he and Alex are not actively involved in the company, and for that reason, among others, they’re not available for interviews.)

“He invited us in for a beer,” Reichert says. “You felt he was under pressure, with a lot on his mind. He started talking immediately. Maybe he felt it before I did, but somehow he decided that I was a soul mate. For whatever reason. It’s like when you’re sitting next to a lady and she starts screaming and telling you her husband is an idiot. And you’re like, ‘Okay, but maybe it’s your problem!’ ”

“What was the gist of his problem?” I ask.

Reichert, summarizing Christian, says, “ ‘I have a problem with my brother [Stephan]. But wait a second, I have a problem with my family. But wait a second, I am fully losing control of my situation.’ That was more or less the cascade of things.

“So I said to him, ‘Let’s start talking about your brother, because I know if we start about your father, we can talk for years but we won’t change a thing.’ ” At the end of the three-hour visit, Reichert and his friend returned to Munich; he continued to talk with Christian over the next few months before taking the consulting job. By 2013, he had helped persuade Stephan to sell his shares, leaving Christian and Alex co-owners, with Reichert named chief executive alongside Bensberg.

“I don’t give a shit about fashion,” Reichert tells me. “Fashion is, pfffttt, what is fashion? Inditex [owner of Zara] is doing fashion 12 times a year. What is this nonsense?” He continues describing his thought process at the time: “But I know people are hungry for pure things. And there’s a huge crowd of people heavily believing in and loving this brand. And it’s not because of the nice people working there, because there are no nice people. And it’s not because of the marketing, because there’s no marketing. There’s nothing. It must be the product. Because they do everything wrong — everything!” He laughs. “I’ve met so many people who said, ‘Yeah, I tried to call your company in 1983, 1989, and nobody was answering.’ ”

Reichert, whose energy must be difficult to keep up with at times, is actually speaking of the state of Birkenstock when he met Christian. But his point is clear: The sandal is magical.

He chose Florence for our meeting because Birkenstock was hosting a runway show and party that evening as part of the Pitti Immagine menswear fair. Lately, Birkenstock has been raising its fashion profile. It set up a pop-up shop last year with Barneys, opposite the Whitney, and opened another at Berlin Fashion Week. This spring, it released a group of sandals and clogs designed with Rick Owens. Birkenstock has made stuff before for other brands and retailers, like Kirna Zabête, but this represents the first collaboration with a top designer. More was involved than sticking on a logo: Owens’s Arizona comes in fuzzy gray calf-hair, with fringed straps — a pleasant challenge, Harris says, for the factory. Owens is one of the very few American designers to successfully establish a brand in Europe. That appealed to Reichert, who calls his work “funny, crazy, edgy,” adding, “The form and the content matches. With most of the big designers, there’s a form but little content.”

A bucket of rubber bands. Photo: Juergen Teller
The box of in-process Birkenstocks. Photo: Juergen Teller
Different designs on display. Photo: Juergen Teller
An Arizona EVA next to the particles that compose it. Photo: Juergen Teller

Reichert, for all his savvy, can sometimes seem a bumptious tourist in fashionland. At the Four Seasons, he says, “I was talking to the guy doing the music at the party. It was shit. It was like pop-music shit. And I told him — he was a French guy doing the Louis Vuitton shows, the Hermès shows. I told him, ‘Get rid of this Lenny Kravitz shit. Who wants to listen to that?’ We’re not a radio station. Janis Joplin is real. We’re not the remix company.”

Does he mean Michel Gaubert, the leading sound director in the industry? Reichert nods. (When I saw Gaubert in the DJ booth at the party, he confirmed, with a Gallic shrug, that this had been the spiel.)

Reichert, however, has an intuitive sense of where the fashion industry stands. He understands, for example, that the number of truly talented, world-shaking designers is finite and that brands like Birkenstock can’t rely on the kinds of collaborations that have juiced the industry, at all levels, since Marc Jacobs transposed Takashi Murakami’s Superflat style to a Vuitton bag in 2003. He tells me, “Is there any chance that I will get somebody like a Karl Lagerfeld? Maybe. But is Karl Lagerfeld the gravedigger of Chanel or the god of Chanel? Because what’s after Lagerfeld? I mean, it’s a serious question. Who will fill this gap when he is gone?

“I think the problem,” Reichert says, “is we try to focus creativity on a very small group of people. It’s not working. My guess is it’s better to be around in the world, invite people to creativity, and you can pick what is fitting to the brand and what is not fitting.” To that end, Birkenstock has begun to open design studios in big cities around the world (like New York and Tokyo) with the plan of asking local freelance designers and artists to propose patterns and colors — perhaps even a new style or shape — which would then be offered in select Birkenstock shops globally. “I think this is the future for corporations,” says Reichert. “Do very few collaborations, but locally.” It’s a giant leap of faith, especially for such an insular company, but to me it’s progressive thinking. It shows that Reichert and Bensberg aren’t bound by conventional, big-brand rules, and it feels generally consistent with the company’s early organic willingness to work with (and trust) unknown distributors like Fraser.

In other respects, Birkenstock remains a company in flux. After five years of explosive growth, can it sustain the momentum? How to keep a brand fresh that depends on being predictable? (Birkenstock’s efforts to produce closed-toe shoes have met with only modest success.) And will one of Germany’s oldest names, older than Benz, ever say “Made in the USA” or, for that matter, “China”? Harris thinks this is feasible, but Reichert is extremely doubtful, at least for the near term. The concern is controlling raw materials from afar. “Other brands have completely different benchmarks than we do,” he says. “They’re not testing anything. We’re testing everything, every leather, because we don’t trust the trade-offs.” Next year, the company will spend $4.7 million on a new testing lab.

Amy Gardner, who owns a store called Scarpa in Charlottesville, Virginia, near where I live, recently mused: “There’s a sense of play and enduring irony about it all. You can absolutely have your edgier Birks, like the Monterey in matte-black leather, your fun Birks, and you can still make like your hippie aunt and go 100 percent granola with those original dusty hues.”

Another view of the factory. Photo: Juergen Teller
A sculpture made of sticky cork crumbles. Photo: Juergen Teller

At the end, this story comes back to the simple, functional design invented by Karl Birkenstock in the early ’60s. When Christian Birkenstock sought Reichert’s help, the goal wasn’t just to clean up the org chart and reburnish the brand. It was also to extract from a family mess its most valuable asset. This year, more than half of the 25 million pairs of shoes that Birkenstock will produce are the three classic sandals, led by Arizonas — the second style that Karl created, in 1973, and to which Margot Fraser, in the spirit of that age, gave a name. Adventure! Hit the road!

That is quite an achievement — and so is knowing what to do with a pure thing in our globalized century. Reichert’s strategy for waking a sleeping giant turned out to be relatively straightforward. He expanded production and put salespeople around the world. In short, he answered the phone. But, in spite of what marketing initiatives like cocktail parties and a satellite design studio may suggest, he would be the first to say that the Birkenstock is beyond fashion.

“It’s less painting, it’s less color,” he tells me at one point, “but it’s more emotion.”

I burst out laughing. “So you’re saying Karl Birkenstock, bitter or not, is right? That it’s not about design?”

Reichert smiles and then says with care (or for effect; I can’t tell), “There’s always a dwarf in the mountain having the biggest diamond. It’s not the nice prince. You need the nice prince to get the diamond out of the mountain and treat it right. But the ugly, mean dwarf in the mountain — he owns the diamond.”

All photographs are property of © Juergen Teller, All rights reserved.

*A version of this article appears in the August 20, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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