SASSY SOLES

▶ What’s a chunky Birken­stock do­ing among the le­gion of lux­ury sneak­ers at Sole DXB? Hafsa Lodi finds out

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

There’s a cer­tain fash­ion di­rec­tor at The Na­tional’s Lux­ury mag­a­zine who’s been stand­ing on a well-kept se­cret for many years. Sarah Maisey, whose daily job in­volves analysing the col­lec­tions of top-tier fash­ion, footwear and jew­ellery houses, and styling them for photo shoots, of­ten walks into the of­fice not in Chanel sling­backs or Gucci loafers, but in hum­ble Birken­stock san­dals.

Birken­stock, pre­vi­ously the do­main of the com­fort-seek­ing but not nec­es­sar­ily the stylish, has made some­thing of a turn­around, be­com­ing a cov­etable footwear choice for a range of con­sumers, from fash­ion ed­i­tors to Gen Z hip­sters. In­deed, fash­ion­able and prac­ti­cal are no longer mu­tu­ally exclusive, notes Klaus Bau­mann, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of sales at Birken­stock. “Who­ever thinks one ex­cludes the other is not up to date,” he says. “Be­ing fash­ion­able is not strictly limited to the clothes you wear; that would be short think­ing. ‘Fash­ion­able’ is a zeit­geist con­nec­tion, a per­sonal style and per­son­al­ity. Wear­ing a Birken­stock is an at­ti­tude – lived by the cre­ative in­dus­try ev­ery day, world­wide.”

Com­fort is nev­er­the­less the fun­da­men­tal sell­ing point of this orthopaedi­c slip­per, along with its some­what retro aes­thetic. “They look old-school, and that trend is mak­ing a huge come­back, with sneaker cul­ture also go­ing strong. Com­fort has be­come pri­or­ity and these are very com­fort­able,” says Reya Sa­j­nani, con­tent creator and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Dubai fran­chise of French jew­ellery brand Les Nerei­des Paris. “I love how they look with denim. I also find them easy to have on all day – they’re so ver­sa­tile, I could wear them at home, to run er­rands, to the mall, to work, or to get a cof­fee.” Other women pair their “birkies” with fem­i­nine dresses and stylish loungewear.

The Birken­stock style was in­vented in 1774 in Ger­many by Jo­hann Birken­stock. In 1896, the fam­ily-run shoe­mak­ing trade be­came a cer­ti­fied busi­ness. By the 1970s, the com­pany reached the shores of the United States and quickly ce­mented its sta­tus as hum­drum, hip­pie-es­que footwear. Some­where along the line, the shoe sil­hou­ette grad­u­ated from its earthy con­no­ta­tions, at­tract­ing a new group of fash­ion-aware con­sumers and mil­len­nial jet-set­ters.

“The cork footbed al­lows your feet to feel cush­ioned with firm arch sup­port while walk­ing, mak­ing them com­fort­able for long pe­ri­ods of time when ex­plor­ing cities or wan­der­ing along the coast,” Bau­mann says.

This past year has shone a par­tic­u­larly bright spot­light on the brand, which has a num­ber of high-fash­ion de­signer col­lab­o­ra­tions un­der its belt. For spring / sum­mer 2019, Birken­stock teamed up with Amer­i­can fash­ion brand Rick Owens, which cre­ated footwear with the brand’s quin­tes­sen­tial cork sole. Valentino’s Birken­stock ren­di­tions, mean­while, ap­pear in swanky red and black leather, with one ver­sion fea­tur­ing bold VLTN let­ter­ing down one side. The start­ing price for both de­signer shoes is about Dh1,100.

Rather than these col­lab­o­ra­tions high­light­ing Birken­stock, Bau­mann proudly claims the op­po­site. “It’s more that Birken­stock shines a light on de­sign­ers – Rick has a per­sonal as­so­ci­a­tion with the san­dals, he puts ev­ery­thing into a cul­tural con­text. For Valentino, it’s an op­por­tu­nity to show a less dressy side of the brand. But yes, our light bright­ens when true prod­uct in­no­va­tions come our way,” he says. “We have a long list of col­lab­o­ra­tion re­quests – de­sign­ers ap­pre­ci­ate qual­ity and like that we don’t com­pro­mise.” In­deed, the brand seems to have cul­ti­vated its fol­low­ing or­gan­i­cally, with­out showy in­flu­encer mar­ket­ing tech­niques or In­sta­gram gim­micks. “They find us,” Bau­mann says of the brand’s new dig­i­tally at­tuned con­sumer base. The san­dals even fea­tured in the sus­tain­able

shop­ping gift guide by Fi­nan­cial Times’s How to Spend it

mag­a­zine.

The sil­hou­ette has be­come so pop­u­lar that it has in­spired a host of other footwear brands, from high street to high end. Lo­cal con­cept bou­tique Sauce, for in­stance, stocks Free­dom Moses – a brand that cre­ates dou­ble-strapped slip­pers in a Birken­stock-in­spired sil­hou­ette, although these come in bold prints and peppy hues, and are wa­ter­proof. Bri­tish fast-fash­ion store Pri­mark also stocks this style of slip­per, some­times adorned with metal­lic straps and be­jew­elled buckles.

The brand’s in-house de­signs, too, are be­com­ing more el­e­vated, such as the Ky­oto style from the Next Gen­er­a­tion col­lec­tion. “It is es­pe­cially in­spir­ing with its min­i­mal­ist, cool aes­thetic and rem­i­nis­cent of a Ja­panese

ki­mono in the way that it over­laps,” says Bau­mann.

Sa­j­nani ex­plains that some mis­con­cep­tions about Birken­stocks are that they’re only for older peo­ple, or can’t be styled eas­ily. “The new col­lec­tion is very cool, and su­per-trendy with the neon,” she says. These styles, along­side the brand’s de­signer col­lab­o­ra­tions, will de­but at the Sole DXB fes­ti­val – the re­gion’s de­fin­i­tive ur­ban life­style plat­form, on Thurs­day. Nes­tled amid the stores and stalls sell­ing collectibl­e sports­wear and limited-edi­tion sneak­ers will be Birken­stock’s ur­ban-oa­sis-themed in­stal­la­tion called the Soul Lounge, of­fer­ing cus­tomised en­grav­ings and foot mas­sages

The merg­ing of ur­ban footwear and de­signer fash­ion is at an all-time high, with streetwear be­ing equated with lux­ury. It ap­pears 2020 may be the year when a woman pairs her Birkin and her Birken­stocks.

Ushma Ra­j­pal

The lat­est Birken­stock styles will be avail­able at Sole DXB

Ushma Ra­j­pal; Valentino

Reya Sa­j­nani in a new Birken­stock de­sign. Left, the Valentino x Birken­stock san­dal

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