1774 THE ROOTS OF THE SHOEMAKING DYNASTY
The roots of the shoemaking dynasty can be found in 1774 when Johannes Birkenstock is mentioned as a shoemaker in an official document for the first time. At the same time, the world is on the brink of a new era. Not long before, the North American colonies had revolted against the British Crown at the Boston Tea Party, the French Revolution was looming ahead in France, and a certain Johann Wolfgang Goethe was publishing the novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther” in Frankfurt.
Less than 30 kilometers away from the prosperous city on the Main, in the small Hessian town of Lange-Bergheim, 25-year-old Johannes Birkenstock has no time to dwell on world history. He already has his hands full with keeping his family afloat. His younger brother Johann Adam – also a shoemaker – dies early. He leaves behind a young son, Johannes, who now learns the trade from his uncle, by now a master shoemaker. What the two men do not know: they are laying the foundation for a shoemaking dynasty and a company that still bears their name today: Birkenstock
1897 KONRAD BIRKENSTOCK AND THE ORTHOPAEDIC LAST: THE DISCOVERY OF FOOT HEALTH
Konrad Birkenstock, visionary and tinkerer and great-grandson of Johann Birkenstock, experiences the consequences of industrialization firsthand at the end of the 19th century: machine production reduces the profession of the shoemaker to that of a mender and cobbler; with the exception of those few whose customers can afford custom-made shoes. Shoes are becoming affordable mass-produced goods. But the industrially manufactured shoes are highly uncomfortable.
The cheap mass-produced goods make the shoemaker’s profession unattractive: repairs do not bring enough money, and there are hardly any affluent customers. Konrad Birkenstock sells everything he owns and opens a shoemaker’s store in Frankfurt am Main. There he comes into contact with the ideas of the shoe reform movement. So the passionate shoemaker begins tinkering and experimenting. He spends every waking moment in his workshop with a vision unheard of at that time: shoes that are not only comfortable but also good for your feet. In 1897, he makes his first revolutionary breakthrough. Konrad develops an orthopedically crafted three-dimensional shoe last. At last, shoes are adapted to the form of the foot and the feet are no longer squeezed into ill-fitting forms. The idea of healthy footwear is born. An idea that will shape the Birkenstock family for generations to come.
1902 THE NEXT BRANDED PRODUCT: The BIRKENSTOCK Footbed
In the early 20th century, the German economy flourishes during the “economic miracle” and the euphoric atmosphere inspires young shoemaker Konrad Birkenstock. After the success of his shoe last, he now focuses on ailing or deformed feet. Up to that point, deformed feet were treated with insoles made from rigid and unyielding metal. In 1902, Konrad presented his first flexible insole, which he soon marketed as a footbed. He experimented with materials for several more years, until finally a mixture of rubber and, among other things, cork offered a very good solution.
But that was the easy part. Now, Konrad has to convince the shoe experts and industry of his invention. As a first step, he travels from shoe store to shoe store – a task that is soon taken over by his 15-year-old son Carl when Konrad is prevented due to the war. In the young Weimar Republic, father and son present the invention to doctors, orthopedists and shoemakers with missionary zeal. They need a lot of staying power: in professional circles the headstrong man, who shook up the conventions of an entire profession.
Meanwhile, Konrad devotes all his energy to his mission: nothing less than the revolution of foot orthopedics. The Blue Footbed becomes Konrad Birkenstock’s second major contribution to modern and healthy footwear as we know it today.
1930 THE BIRKENSTOCK SYSTEM IS ON THE RISE
A new generation is raising its voice in the Birkenstock family: Carl Birkenstock's missionary zeal for foot health is in no way inferior to that of his father Konrad. In order to further establish the Blue Footbed and to familiarize the public with the concept, the entrepreneur, who has been running a small factory in Friedberg for the production of the footbeds since 1915, spares no effort and no risk. Carl decides to sell his footbeds only to specialist retailers who have successfully completed a training course with him – he would rather miss out on sales and profits than allow customers to be given poor advice when it comes to their footwear. For the first training course, he writes the first of numerous papers on his understanding of a natural gait and the idea of healthy footwear perfectly adapted to the human foot under the title “The Foot and its Treatment”. In the following years, a total of more than 5,000 specialists in Germany, Austria and Switzerland visit the training courses of Carl Birkenstock. In the meantime, he has also convinced the first physicians of his Birkenstock system. The vision of the Birkenstock family is becoming reality.
1936 NEW GENERATION, OLD MISSION: CARL BIRKENSTOCK’S "IDEAL SHOE"
When it comes to ingenuity, Carl also takes after his father Konrad. He tirelessly focuses all his attention on healthy feet and eventually creates the “ideal shoe” that would finally allow wearers to walk naturally. In 1936, partly with his wife Emmy, he applies for patents for his ideal shoe. In the 1940s, he manufactures a few hundred pairs of shoes by hand, which receive rave reviews from experts.
After the end of the First World War, he wants to make the ideal shoe accessible to the masses. However, the challenges for a machine production of the ideal shoe are great and the search for the suitable materials for the technical processing is difficult.
But Carl, whose single-mindedness matches his father’s, does not give up. Over many years, he negotiates with countless shoe factories and exchanges ideas with the leading manufacturers and experts of his time. He does not want to make any compromises under any circumstances. Everything needs to be perfect. But Carl is too far ahead of his time. For the time being, the “ideal shoe” remains a visionary idea.
1963 AN IDEA FINDS ITS FEET: THE INVENTION OF THE FOOTBED SANDAL
With considerable persistence, which seems to run in the Birkenstock family, Carl does not want to give up his dream of the perfect shoe which would make a natural gait available to everybody. And together with the next generation, he will be able to realize it – at least in part. Carl Birkenstock persistently and uncompromisingly pursues the goal of creating a closed-toe “ideal shoe” but fails because of technical difficulties concerning the materials. It is above all his son Karl who dares to take the decisive step and pleads for a pragmatic solution that can be realized with the means available at that time. The idea of the footbed sandal is born. The complicated challenge of uniting the insole, footbed and leather to create a shoe is reduced to the task of keeping the insole and footbed on the foot. And that can be achieved with a simple strap.
In May 1963, BIRKENSTOCK launches the Original BIRKENSTOCK-footbed sandal – and in 1979 it is given the name under which we know it today: Madrid. But the new creation initially proves to be a colossal flop: the sandal’s look simply doesn’t correspond to the fashion trends of the time. But, since this is the Birkenstock family we’re talking about, giving up is not an option. They send shoes and brochures to a large number of physicians. It’s an extraordinary success: physicians from all over the country order the footbed sandal – a breakthrough at long last! People in Germany at the time of the economic miracle have more and more free time which means that footwear must not necessarily by stylish but first and foremost comfortable. And another rather surprising social group contributes to BIRKENSTOCK’s success: the members of the alternative youth movement of the 1970s, with their eco-friendly lifestyle and urge to distance themselves from the establishment, take a liking to the BIRKENSTOCK sandals. Soon after, BIRKENSTOCKS are part of the signature style of left-wing students in Tübingen, Paris or New York's West Village.
1966 Reborn in the USA
No other decade shaped recent history more than the 1960s: it is the time of the Vietnam War, flower power, sexual revolution and the Cold War. And it’s also a time of unexpected developments for the up-and-coming Birkenstock family business. In 1966, a German-born designer from California is on a visit to her home country. Young Margot Fraser suffers from chronic foot pain and by chance comes across BIRKENSTOCKS in an orthopedic store. She buys one pair – and after only a few months, her foot pain improves considerably. Fraser is over the moon – and comes up with an idea: there are hardly any high-quality orthopedic shoes available in the USA. So she contacts BIRKENSTOCK and offers to sell the “German Health Shoes” in America. The Birkenstock family agrees and soon the official sale of the first BIRKENSTOCKS is up and running in the Land of Opportunity. At first, Margot Fraser is ridiculed for her “ugly shoes”. But Fraser, who is just as determined as the Birkenstock family, gradually manages to convince her fellow Americans of the sandals. It’s the beginning of a great success story that continues to this day: these days, there is no other country in the world where more BIRKENSTOCKS are sold than in the USA.
1992 BIRKENSTOCK Down under
Also the youngest of all continents cannot resist the appeal of BIRKENSTOCK and its protagonists for long. Almost 16 years after the USA, BIRKENSTOCK is ready to conquer the Australian market. The course of events leading up to this is similarly unconventional as the launch on the US market. Again, it is a non-family member who paves the way: Marcel Goerke is 16 years old when he decides to emigrate to Australia. The son of a shoemaker and early BIRKENSTOCK salesman from Braunschweig, Germany, finds out that the profession of orthopedic shoe technician qualifies for immigration and completes the training – much to the delight of his father, who is already well acquainted with Karl Birkenstock. And at some point, the two men come up with an exciting idea: Marcel could develop the business for BIRKENSTOCK in Down Under. Goerke Junior is on board. The young man may have no business plan, no experience and hardly any language skills – but he has been familiar with BIRKENSTOCKS since his childhood days and is just as determined as Karl, Carl and Konrad before him. A few years later the time has come: Marcel opens the first BIRKENSTOCK store in Australia – in Melbourne, to be precise. But once again, success is a long time coming. The first customers are mostly backpackers who know the BIRKENSTOCK sandals from their travels. But Marcel Goerke, much like the Birkenstocks, is on a mission: He wants everyone – no matter what age or gender – to own a pair of BIRKENSTOCKS. Step by step, like so many times before in the history of BIRKENSTOCK, the footbed sandals find a loyal clientele in Australia. Today, 30 years later, Marcel Goerke is still responsible for BIRKENSTOCK's Australian business as Managing Director.
2013 A family business becomes a corporation
Neither Carl Birkenstock, nor his father Konrad or his son Karl, and certainly not the master shoemaker Johannes Birkenstock from Langen-Bergheim in Hesse, who founded the shoemaking dynasty in the 18th century, would have dared to dream of this: in 2013, BIRKENSTOCK, until then a more or less loose association of 38 individual companies, officially becomes a corporation under the name BIRKENSTOCK Group. And for the first time in the history of the long-standing company, management is not in the hands of the family: with Markus Bensberg and Oliver Reichert, two experienced managers now hold the reins of the BIRKENSTOCK Group – a first in the then almost 240-year history of the company.
2017 So much more than foot health – sleep systems and natural cosmetics
The Footbed, Konrad Birkenstock's revolutionary invention from 1902, is still a cornerstone of BIRKENSTOCK's philosophy of “Naturgewolltes Gehen” (the natural gait) and the foot as the foundation of the body's overall health. With the introduction of sleep systems and certified natural cosmetics, BIRKENSTOCK continues to develop this principle with a holistic approach: BIRKENSTOCK sleep systems represent a further development of the anatomically shaped footbed into an anatomically shaped bed – just like the BIRKENSTOCK footbed, the BIRKENSTOCK sleep systems adapt to the body shape and provide optimal support. The certified natural cosmetics series BIRKENSTOCK NATURAL SKIN CARE also focuses on health and well-being: the natural cosmetics products are made in Germany and are completely free from chemicals. And in the formulation we can find an old friend: the natural material cork, which gives BIRKENSTOCK footbeds their elasticity, is also the key component of the active ingredient concept of BIRKENSTOCK's natural cosmetics.
2019 BIRKENSTOCK’s creative studio: 1774
When BIRKENSTOCK presented its sandals at a fashion trade fair for the first time in the 1960s, buyers and the trade press were absolutely horrified – who would want to wear such a shoe? Today, almost 60 years later, many BIRKENSTOCK models are considered product icons. Boston, Madrid or Arizona are an integral part of the international fashion world – on the feet of models, artists and actors or in the studios of designers. And so the list of luxury brands with which BIRKENSTOCK has collaborated is as long as it is exclusive. Since 2019, the creative studio 1774 has been BIRKENSTOCK’s platform for fashion, art, architecture and design. Here, on Rue Saint Honoré in Paris, exclusive collections and collaborations are created with fashion houses such as Dior, Prada, Rick Owens, Manolo Blahnik and many others.
2021 Expansion and focus on what is important
With its uncompromising focus on functionality and quality, BIRKENSTOCK has steadily evolved from a small niche player into a culturally relevant global lifestyle brand. It is not surprising that such a phenomenon also attracts the attention of the big private equity houses and global players in the fashion business: in May 2021, L Catterton, the largest global private equity firm focused on consumer goods, acquires a majority stake in BIRKENSTOCK. BIRKENSTOCK is using its partnership with L Catterton – and with the affiliated family holding Financière Agache of Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH – to continue its growth in future markets such as China while expanding its leading market position in Europe and America. The Birkenstock family's historic mission to make natural walking and foot-friendly, healthy footwear accessible to all feels more alive than ever.