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Birkenstock, Germany's Original Comfort Shoe, Remakes Itself

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Fashion designer Marc Jacobs' offer to redesign Birkenstocks was greeted with an emphatic "Nein, danke,'' from the sandal maker.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Birkenstock has revived factories it once planned to close, and is operating them around the clock.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Birkenstock, a 230-year-old shoe company, is struggling with sudden increases in demand.
    • Retail orders for Birkenstock shoes are up 30 to 40 percent this year over 2013.
    • The German company has plans to license its name on sheets, pillows and mattresses too.
  • Audio

    Audio

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It’s an anecdote Oliver Reichert, the chief executive of the Birkenstock Group, likes to tell: Designer Marc Jacobs, long the creative director at fashion house Louis Vuitton, had inquired about collaborating with Birkenstock, saying that he wanted to redesign its sandals. But Mr. Jacobs’ highly “avant-garde” designs violated the company’s paramount rule: “No one tampers with the footbed.” So the company turned him down, says Mr. Reichert.

Not everyone has the confidence to refuse Marc Jacobs. But Mr. Reichert’s self-assurance isn’t merely posturing. The kind of hype shoemaker Birkenstock is experiencing today is unprecedented in the company’s 230-year history.

Until now, the flat, cork sandals with wide leather straps and a clunky footbed were only in with the muesli crowd. But the shoes are back in style, since French fashion house Céline had its models walking down the runway in similar sandals at its show last spring.

From New York to Madrid to London, the picture is much the same: Fashion-conscious women and men are wearing Birkenstocks. The prestigious New York Times style section devoted an entire story to “Birks.” Fashion chains such as Zara are selling knockoffs of the sandals, but this doesn’t bother Mr. Reichert. In fact, he says, “It just makes our shoe more popular.”

Thanks to the run on Birkenstocks, the family-owned company has seen substantial growth in revenues. Although he is unwilling to release concrete figures, Mr. Reichert has mentioned a “dramatic sales figure in the triple-digit millions” and a “dramatic profit figure in the double-digit millions.” Orders are currently 30 to 40 percent above last year’s level. The company has seen so much growth in the United States, China and Italy that it is having trouble keeping up with demand. Retailers in the United States sometimes have to wait weeks for shipments.

In St. Katharinen, one of the company’s four production sites in Germany, the machinery has been operating in two shifts for several weeks. Birkenstock has hired 200 staff since the beginning of the year. In the last year, Birkenstock has almost doubled the number of employees in final assembly.

To offset fluctuations in production, the company works primarily with temporary workers. About 30 percent of the 1,500 people working in production are not Birkenstock employees.

The boom is also giving new life to a plant in Steinau-Uerzell, near Frankfurt, which the company had decided to shut down a year ago and where it now plans to continue production. Birkenstock is adding a new building to its largest site in the eastern city of Görlitz, where subsidiary Alsa makes the footbed and where shoes will go into production in two years.

 

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