The Devil Wears Birkenstocks

Observations July 7, 2014 7:28 am

JCrew Birkenstock

There’s a pivotal scene in the film The Devil Wears Prada where Andy, the smart but yet not-yet fashionable assistant to Runway magazine editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly, laughs when a stylist can’t decide between two nearly identical (to the untrained eye) turquoise belts. Her chuckle sets off a searing diatribe from Priestly about Andy’s own sweater, and how its color has been “selected” for her by a trickle-down effect from the fashion industry:

I can’t help but think of this scene every time I see someone wearing Birkenstocks. I have never given much thought to fashion trends, but Birkenstocks are so proliferous this summer that they are impossible to ignore. Fashion bloggers, celebrities, coworkers, friends… everywhere I look, online and on the street, people are wearing Birkenstocks.

A quick look at Google Trends confirms my suspicions; Birkenstocks are indeed experiencing a renaissance:

What I find so striking about this trend— and perhaps why I picked up on it in the first place— is the fact that I used to proudly own a pair myself in the 1990s. But back then they weren’t weren’t fashionable or cute. They were summer camp sandals, something to be worn with scraped knees and cutoff shorts, not paired with designer labels. What made the perception of Birkenstocks shift so drastically? How have Birkenstocks transitioned from sandals for hippies and children to models and fashionistas?

With The Devil Wears Prada and Miranda Priestly’s words as my guide, I did a little digging to see if I could uncover the birth of a trend and understand the resurgence of Birkenstocks. Below, a short timeline of Birksenstocks’ rise to popularity, mainly thanks to the Vogue archives:

Summer 2011: Ashley Olsen is among the fashion-forward celebrities spotted wearing Birkenstocks. The sandal causes minimal stir, and only the most fashion forward follow her lead.

June 2012: Birkenstocks grace the pages of Vogue Paris, modeled by Gisele. Pictured on the beach and wearing a swimsuit, the Birkenstocks complete an easy summer beach look, not high-fashion editorial.

September 2012: A fur-lined Birkenstock walks down the runway as part of the Céline Spring 2013 collection. The Vogue review describes the sandals: “The oddness? Truly eccentric Birkenstock-like fur sandals and pool shoes were hardly regulation executive footwear, but a sight that triggered thoughts in a foot-sore stiletto-heeled audience of how nice it might be to wriggle one’s toes into them at home—although not in any work or social situations one could conjure.” This fashion show, however, will become the tipping point for the trend.

February/March 2013: Guardian proclaims 2013 “The Year of the Birkenstock and influential fashion blogger Leandra Medine (aka The Man Repeller) gives Birkenstocks her nod of approval. Both cite the Céline Spring 2013 fur-lined birkenstocks as their inspiration.

June/July 2013: Summer is in full swing, and other designers are joining the trend, introducing their own high-end version of Birkenstocks. According to VogueBirkenstocks are now the must have shoe of the summerand fashionistas can choose from no less than ten different takes on the classic sandal. A second Vogue article, Why Vogue Girls Have Fallen For The Birkenstock, reinforces the trend, praising the sensibility of the shoe as a welcome relief to high-heel clad feet.

December 2013: Time for year-end reviews and trend lists. Vogue recaps the top trends of 2013, and not surprisingly, Birkenstocks make the list, with the editors writing, “the most unlikely of comebacks, Birkenstocks became the It shoe of the year.” But in the same breath, Birkenstocks are last year’s news with the proclamation that Teva sandals will be the next big thing in 2014.

April 2014: As another summer approaches, the first major stirrings of mixed opinion about the popularity of Birkenstocks. A writer for the The Man Repeller writes about (still) wanting a pair, and J.Crew features white Birkenstocks in their Style Guide accompanied with the headline, Comeback Kicks. You Heard It Here First. Birkenstocks will be everywhere this summer.” Meanwhile, Racked  says “the ship has sailed” to purchase a pair of Birkenstocks, and that Tevas are the next big thing, echoing Vogue’s 2013 prediction.

June 2014: The fashion world was officially already moved on, but not to Tevas, but to clogs. Vogue declares clogs as the shoe of the summer.

What strikes me most about this timeline, especially compared with Google Trends, is that according to the fashion world, Birkenstocks are already “over” when the average consumer is just becoming aware of them. Birkenstocks had their moment in the high-fashion world during Summer 2013, but it wasn’t until Summer 2014 that the trend trickled down to the average consumer and mass retailers like J.Crew. And while the the much-discussed Céline runway show in fall 2012 is largely credited as the tipping point for the revival, the Birkenstock resurgence started percolating as far back as 2011, and perhaps even as early as 2007.

Which begs the question, if the fashion world has already declared the Birkenstock as “out,” how long will the sandal continue to make headlines with the average consumer? The rise and fall of Birkenstocks is eerily similar to the scene above in The Devil Wears Prada; one major fashion designer starts a trend, which is then adopted by other designers, and then picked up by mass retailers and mainstream shoppers.

Because of J.Crew’s proclamation that Birkenstocks will be everywhere in summer 2014, we can surmise that the trend, although falling, is not yet dead. J.Crew sits somewhere between high-end and accessible in the fashion world, so Birkenstocks still have some life before they catch fever with the average, department-store shopping consumer.

If the scene in The Devil Wears Prada and the subsequent rise and fall of Birkenstocks is any indication, fashion trends are years in the making. Which brings me to my final thought: Birkenstocks aren’t new, and never fully disappeared. Many people have worn Birkenstocks for more than a decade, and are now wearing “trendy” shoes not because they are fashionable, but because they never bothered to throw out their old pair. Could the trend cycle be so long that they, these loyal yet unfashionable Birkenstock consumers, held onto their sandals long enough to inspire the fashion world?

I’m fascinated with how trends form, and the difference between early adopters and mainstream consumers. While trend cycles differ by industry, it’s a similar pattern whether you’re in the fashion world or the tech world. The Vogue editors and high-fashion trend setters of the world are a small subset of the total shopping population, as are the early adopters and startup backers in the tech industry. The Birkenstocks trend sits in parallel with that of Yelp adoption; although the online local search guide has been one of the more popular startups to come out of Silicon Valley, adoption is far from ubiquitous, evidenced by the publishing of their “Top 100 Places to Eat” list. Trends don’t percolate overnight, and while early adopters set a trend in motion, they don’t determine its success. This is evidenced by the many high-fashion creations that never leave the realm of runways and haute couture, and the graveyard of startups that never gain critical mass.

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