History of a global super brand
It is under precarious conditions in the German countryside outside of Frankfurt in the 18th century where we find the beginnings of what has now become a true global purpose brand: BIRKENSTOCK. It is not the beginning of a company or a brand, but that of the Birkenstock shoemaker dynasty. That family's legacy is the basis of today's company. The inventive spirit and the creative force of its members created the products in the 20th century that continue to this day.
Beyond the last 125 years – some more than half of its history – the guiding idea has been to create shoes that are good for your feet. In this endeavor, the inventors, who were mostly ahead of their time and always met with great resistance, never lost hope. Perseverance, resilience, even stubbornness were needed before the importance of a healthy foot for the overall well-being of mankind became anchored in society. To this day, the company and its employees are driven by the underlying purpose of this idea to produce healthy footwear products. Below you will follow a historical journey through the key epochs of this traditional history that tells the story of the crucial moments.
The rise of a shoemaking dynasty
1774 - 1895
For over 100 years, the Birkenstock family is rooted in the shoemaker's trade in the countryside. They live in a village in the middle of Germany, not just the brothers of the first shoemaker generation in the second half of the 18th century, but also their children, grandchildren and cousins. The women in the Birkenstock family marry into other shoemaker families, giving rise to a dynasty of shoemakers that can be traced back to a documented mention of Johannes Birkenstock in the year 1774.
The craft of shoemaking has been rooted in the Birkenstock family for generations. The beginnings of the shoemaking dynasty can be traced back to the year 1774, the first documented mention of Johannes Birkenstock (1749-1812).
The Birkenstock shoemaking family has its roots in Langen-Bergheim. In the village on the trade route between Frankfurt and Leipzig, the Birkenstock family laid the foundation for its shoemaking dynasty, establishing itself in the wide-ranging shoemaking trade but without reaping any financial success.
Johannes Junior (1790-1866), nephew of Johannes Birkenstock, continued the tradition as a shoemaker, supported by his son Johann Conrad (1819-1888). The family's continued poverty caused the two to rebel against the state: In the middle of the 19th century, both joined the German freedom movement, which culminated in the revolution of 1849. They seek to improve their poor conditions – unsuccessfully at first. The revolution of 1948/49 fails. In the long term, though, the revolution gave important impetus to the founding of the German Empire in 1871 and was one of the origins of democracy and fundamental rights in Germany.
From a shoemaker's workshop to a manufacturing company
1896 – 1945
Konrad Birkenstock leaves the countryside and opens a shoemaker's shop in Frankfurt am Main, where he also steps out from the shadow of his family's past and invents his "healthy footwear" with passion, precision and enthusiasm. It is a combination of the fully three-dimensional last he invents in 1897 and the flexible insole developed in 1902.
In order to produce the flexible insoles, Konrad Birkenstock relocates his workshop to Friedberg, where he sets up a manufacturing operation in a small factory in 1925. It is the year he officially registers the "footbed" trademark for the flexible insoles.
Carl Birkenstock, Konrad's oldest son, takes up his father's ideas about healthy feet and tries to patent an "ideal shoe" he develops in 1936. During the time of National Socialism, the main Birkenstock family companies – Konrad Birkenstock GmbH, Friedberg, and Gebr. Birkenstock GmbH, Steinhude, remain small enterprises. They are not involved in the crimes of the National Socialists, nor do they produce military goods or employ forced or slave laborers. Despite the lack of raw materials, the production of the insoles is continued with substitute materials until 1943.
1896 – Birkenstock shoemaker’s workshop opens
The fourth generation of the Birkenstock family, the shoemaker Konrad Birkenstock (1873-1950), son of Johann Conrad, sells the family’s possessions in the countryside after his parents' early death, leaves his home region and opens a shoemaker's workshop in Frankfurt am Main in 1896.
1897 – The anatomical last from Birkenstock
Like other young master shoemakers, Konrad is inspired by the so-called "shoe reform" movement and its theories. Konrad develops the first fully three-dimensional last in 1897. This is the first time that the anatomy of the human foot is mapped and a distinction made between the left and right foot, even anatomically shaping the downward-facing sole of the foot, which distinguishes his lasts from those of other shoemakers.
1902 – The flexible insole from BIRKENSTOCK
Konrad Birkenstock continues to pursue his vision of healthy shoes and develops the idea of "healthy footwear." To this end, besides his last, he also has to invent the corresponding inner part of the shoe – the insole. Until then, common insoles were flat and did not fill the space between the sole of the shoe and Konrad's fully three-dimensional last, which is why he develops an anatomically shaped insole, his flexible insole. He registers the combination of both innovations as a "healthy footwear" utility model.
In contrast to conventional models, Konrad’s insole is an innovation in the field of foot health. It is not only anatomically shaped, but also flexible. The usual models of the time, especially for healing purposes, are made of metal. Starting in 1909, Konrad Birkenstock sells two of his four flexible insoles under the designation "footbed."
1912 – The perfect mix of materials
However, he continues to experiment with the mix of materials for his flexible insole for years. Besides thermoplastic properties, the material must guarantee the necessary flexibility, but can't lose its supportive effect, either. Initially the material mix consists of cardboard and leather, then increasingly latex, tar and even cork portions are used. It wasn't until 1912 that Konrad Birkenstock found a material mix that he was satisfied with, for the time being.
First World War (1914 – 1918)
During the First World War, Konrad Birkenstock works in the orthopedic department at the Friedrichsheim Hospital in Frankfurt am Main, where there is already extensive orthopedic treatment and research. Meanwhile, his eldest son Carl gives specialist lectures on the advantages of Birkenstock's health footwear on behalf of his father – the "Birkenstock SYSTEM," as it is henceforth called – trying to win over other shoemakers.
1925 – The first factory and
In 1915, his difficult financial situation prompts Konrad Birkenstock to move to Friedberg, a small town north of Frankfurt. There he builds the first machine production facilities for his flexible insoles and registers a limited liability company for this purpose in 1920. Five years later, he relocates to a small factory and expands the machine production of BIRKENSTOCK insoles. In 1925, Konrad Birkenstock registers the "Footbed" trademark for Konrad Birkenstock GmbH.
The time of National Socialism
(1933 – 1945)
At the time of National Socialism, the Birkenstock family runs three small businesses. The larger one – Gebr. Birkenstock GmbH, Steinhude – has up to 13 employees. The smaller company, Konrad Birkenstock GmbH, was still located in Friedberg. Heinrich Birkenstock opened his own small business in Büdingen, not far away.
Soldiers who suffer harm to their feet from wearing unhealthy boots for weeks and months use the flexible insoles to relieve their pain, causing sales to increase during the Second World War, as they did in the First World War. However, the insoles are only purchased privately; there is no business relationship between the Birkenstock companies and the Nazi regime.
Ideologically, the family is not close to the National Socialists. Carl Birkenstock joins the Nazi party in 1940 – relatively late – in order to protect himself from local attacks by the National Socialists, while the other family members join neither the party nor other Nazi organizations.
The Birkenstock family never does business with the National Socialists, does not produce military goods and does not act as a supplier. Likewise, no Jewish-owned properties or companies are acquired. There are no forced laborers in any of the small businesses.
1936 – Foot health in focus: the ideal shoe
Carl Birkenstock (1900-1982) continues to develop the insoles with new materials and rigorously advances the "Birkenstock SYSTEM." Since foot health can only be achieved if the insoles are adjusted professionally, Carl resorts to a radical step: He only sells the flexible insoles to shoe retailers and shoemakers if they complete his training course.
Start of the industrial era at BIRKENSTOCK
1946 – 1963
Carl Birkenstock Orthopädie GmbH is successful in the young Federal Republic above all with the sale of the "blue footbed" insole, which allows Carl Birkenstock to keep trying to industrially manufacture the ideal shoe until the early 1960s, when he finally abandons this project and dedicates himself to his orthopedic studies.
Carl Birkenstock's son Karl joins the company in 1954. Karl is just as inventive and creative as his ancestors. He creates the original BIRKENSTOCK footbed sandals, with the prototype of which he commences mass production in 1962. Karl Birkenstock invents what is known today as a "footbed", namely an insole with a heel cup and toe grip, which to this day is at the heart of every BIRKENSTOCK sandal nearly unchanged.
1954 - The next generation arrives
The BIRKENSTOCK company achieves economic success in the young Federal Republic primarily with the sale of various insoles, particularly the "Blue Footbed." While Carl Birkenstock is putting all his energy into producing his "ideal shoe" for the masses, his son Karl joins the company in 1954. In 1961, Carl finally abandons his attempts to develop the "ideal shoe" together with established shoe factories – the quality and functionality of the shoes do not meet the inventor's requirements, as the shoes are simply too uncomfortable and also the manufacture, especially the subsequent fixation of the insoles by the shoe retailer, is too impractical.
The creation of an icon:
1963 – The original BIRKENSTOCK footbed sandal (Madrid)
Karl Birkenstock inherited the joy of experimentation and innovative strength of previous generations, but opts to go his own way. He creates an icon: the original BIRKENSTOCK footbed sandal, which has been sold under the name "Madrid" since 1979. The shoe is healthy for the feet, unisex and has its very own style – minimalist and with clear lines. In 1963, the sandal is placed on the market for the first time and presented at the Düsseldorf shoe fair.
Rise to a global brand
1963 to today
The success of the original BIRKENSTOCK footbed sandals comes slowly but surely. The rise of the sandals is also dependent on the business partners who take BIRKENSTOCK abroad – including people who are simply convinced of the product and retailers who used to sell BIRKENSTOCK insoles and now also sell the sandals.
Initially, the sandals are frequently worn in an orthopedic/medical context and are soon established in professional environments, such as in the food service industry, then they are discovered by subcultures around the world. From there, they step by step make their way into all other parts of society.
As early as 1983, the fashion world discovers BIRKENSTOCK, with fashion designers looking for authenticity and finding it in the traditional brand's sandals. Since then, the fashion world and celebrities have also shaped the perception of the brand.
The year 2013 marks the birth of the BIRKENSTOCK Group. Under the leadership of Oliver Reichert, the traditional undertaking successfully manages the transition from a loose association of 38 individual enterprises to a group of companies with three divisions. In May 2021, L Catterton, a leading international investment company with a focus on consumer goods, takes over a majority stake in BIRKENSTOCK together with the family holding Financière Agache of Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH.
In 2024, the BIRKENSTOCK Group will celebrate 250 years of shoemaking tradition.
A sandal goes around the world
– from 1963
Karl Birkenstock does not allow his creativity to be slowed down by sluggish sales results. In 1964, he creates his next sandal ("Zürich") and another follows in 1965 ("Roma"). By 1973, "Athens," "Oslo," "Noppy" and "Arizona" are born from Karl Birkenstock's sketchbook. The insole of the Birkenstock sandals invented by Karl, which has since been given the name footbed, as well as the sole of the sandals always remain the same. In contrast, Karl creates new designs by changing the so-called upper. In addition to sandals, Birkenstock continues to sell a number of different insoles.
Birkenstock USA (1)
In 1966 the German-born designer Margot Fraser visits her home country from California, where she comes across the BIRKENSTOCK brand, whose shoes relieved her foot pain. She is elated and sees a market opportunity. Back in America, Fraser sells the original BIRKENSTOCK footbed sandals in the United States at health food stores and at weekly markets.
Birkenstock USA (2)
In 1972, she founds BIRKENSTOCK Footprint Sandals Inc., the nucleus of today's BIRKENSTOCK USA, which became a rapid success thanks to the reform movements and hippies. In 2002, Margot Fraser retires from her company, but returns briefly In 2004 before Christian Birkenstock acquires a majority stake in Birkenstock Footprint Sandals Inc. He integrates it into the Birkenstock group of companies and enters into a new dealer agreement with the U.S. distributor under the new name Birkenstock Distribution USA Inc.
In Italy, France and Great Britain, the company gains a foothold above all through existing customer relationships with orthopedic specialist shops and through retailers who sell health-conscious footwear. In the 1980s, BIRKENSTOCK sandals are sold in Japan, and in 1992 Marcel Goerke opens a BIRKENSTOCK store in Australia. The sandals go around the world.
BIRKENSTOCK in the fashion world – 1983
BIRKENSTOCK embodies a unique design with its varied models, independent from trends in the fashion world – which discovers BIRKENSTOCK for itself in 1983, with fashion designers seeking authenticity and finding it in the traditional brand's sandals. BIRKENSTOCK sandals are seen on runways, printed in magazines and, from the 2000s onwards, acknowledged as a fashion item. The first collaborations between BIRKENSTOCK and partners follow, super model Heidi Klum being one of the first collaborators in 2003.
From a family business to a global corporation
In order to be able to integrate his sons into the company BIRKENSTOCK Orthopädie GmbH in the 1990s, Karl Birkenstock divided it into various sub-companies and launched various sub-brands, each of which are managed by his sons. After two decades, this multi-brand strategy is being scrapped again in order to preserve the value of the BIRKENSTOCK brand.
Made in Germany - 1990
BIRKENSTOCK has always been committed to Germany as its manufacturing base. After the German reunification, various production sites were set up in Saxony. With plants in Görlitz, Bernstadt, Markersdorf and, since 2023, Pasewalk, BIRKENSTOCK still stands for "Made in Germany" to this day. Since Konrad Birkenstock's first innovations, an uncompromising promise of quality has been a key component of the company's philosophy.
2013 – a global group is created
The year 2013 marks the birth of the BIRKENSTOCK Group. Under the leadership of Oliver Reichert, the traditional undertaking successfully manages the transition from a loose association of 38 individual enterprises to a group of companies with three divisions (Production, Distribution, Services). For the first time, management is no longer in the hands of the family – a first in the company's history. Reichert gives the now global company a corporate structure and establishes a global brand strategy for BIRKENSTOCK.
Made in Germany - 2022
In order to meet increasing demand, the company is increasing production capacity for its entire range and remains committed to Germany as a manufacturing site. In 2022, BIRKENSTOCK invests 100 million euros in a new factory in Pasewalk to significantly expand production. The factory was put into operation in September 2023.
The footbed, Konrad Birkenstock's revolutionary idea from 1902, which Karl Birkenstock reinvented for sandals in 1963, is still the core of the BIRKENSTOCK philosophy of "walking as nature intended.
The inclusion of BIRKENSTOCK in the plot of "Barbie" – the most successful film of 2023 worldwide with box office sales of over 1.381 billion dollars – underlines what BIRKENSTOCK has always stood for – authenticity and natural walking.
The "Madrid" design icon is part of an internationally traveling exhibition curated by the VITRA Design Museum.
A 250-year tradition as a shoemaker – a research project
The future needs a past. 250 years of tradition is a significant milestone. The different historical contexts associated with this, coupled with a variety of exciting perspectives and questions, prompted the BIRKENSTOCK Group to commission the Society for Business History (Gesellschaft für Unternehmensgeschichte, GUG) to develop and implement a research concept in 2018. For five years, 15 historians have been researching the company's history and uncovering new facts, exciting connections and new insights.
In addition to the classic company history, they have been taking a special look at the brand's cultural interactions in its core markets. In addition, they are investigating special issues around gender identities, the publication "Foot Orthopedics" by Carl Birkenstock and "Birkenstock in Film." The Birkenstock family is connected by an enlightening idea across many generations, and this is also taken into account in the concept.
Corporate Heritage at BIRKENSTOCK – the company archive
Before the start of the research project in 2018, BIRKENSTOCK began professionally building up its in-house company archive in 2016. The small but valuable holdings are being processed in a professional manner, cataloged and mostly digitized. The files are supplemented by a collection of historical shoes. The archive preserves the company's historical treasures as well as the legacy of the Birkenstock family.