The first time I left the house in a pair of Birkenstocks I felt like I was walking along the streets of Athens — not for the straps and buckles, but for the distinct feeling of walking on ancient cobblestone that pokes sharply at your feet. I wasn’t in Athens, but rather stepping gingerly along a smooth pavement at home in London, and the discomfort came from the soles of my brand-new shoes.
Everyone says the same thing: Birkenstocks are sooooo comfortable! They’re sanctuary for your feet! But as I hobbled toward a bus stop to cut short my first outing I felt more like the princess on the pea: A source of promised comfort was leaving me black and blue.
I know I’m not alone in the Birkenstock struggle -— these shoes require you to trust that the discomfort will be worth it. Just like everyone knows that Birks are heaven once they’re broken in, they’re also widely known for requiring a certain commitment. There seems to be a perverse pride attached: First you suffer, then you collect your reward and enjoy the smug fruits of your labor.
“I hated them at first,” says Pragya Agarwal, a Birkenstock fan in Lancashire, England. It took her about a week to break in her new shoes: “I was disappointed because I’d heard they were supposed to be comfortable. But I didn't want to seem like an idiot in front of my now-husband, who thought they looked ugly, so I persevered!” Agarwal laughs. “I'm a tad stubborn like that. But eventually it all worked out, and they’re so comfy now.”
But that wasn’t the case for Laurena McKenna, a Londoner who found her brand-new Birks actually drew blood after a day of sightseeing in Rome. “I had to buy Band-Aids and sprays, and [the sores] seeped for the rest of the week,” she says — the photo evidence shows she’s not kidding. McKenna’s had lots of positive experiences with Birkenstocks in the past, she says, but the Roman ordeal was caused by a different model: “I was lulled into a false sense of security! I have three other pairs of Birkenstocks and they have been brilliant, but this style just didn’t work.”
But most people seem to have drunk the Kool-Aid on how it’s all worth it in the end — “Power through! The reward is for life!” as one chipper tweeter said to me — and it’s this reputation that convinced me I’d be willing to tolerate a few blisters before the bliss. Good sandals are hard to find! So when my partner, influenced by over a decade in the Pacific Northwest, suggested Birkenstocks, I decided it was time. A week later a pair of Kairos in black oiled leather landed on my doorstep, box fresh and pretty. When I took the first steps across the kitchen floor I winced, wondering if this was all an elaborate joke. But I decided to persevere, armed with nothing but faith.
“So what's your experience been like?” asks Jochen Gutzy, head of communications at Birkenstock, when I call him at company headquarters in Neustadt, Germany. I can’t help but think he’s a little too delighted to hear about my ordeal, although he claims the suffering is not part of the brand ethos. It’s partially because they’re my first-ever Birkenstocks, Gutzy tells me. Apparently my habit of thin-soled flats, Converse, and brogues have made my feet a bit lazy. “So when you return to a shoe with a good footbed, it starts to train the muscles of the feet. This leads to some counterintuitive reactions,” Gutzy laughs, before assuring me: “I'm not putting the blame on you!” Really? “No, no.” He continues: “It’s not that the shoes are uncomfortable — it's an indication that your feet are regaining their natural function.”
In fairness, Birkenstock is very open about the fact that this is an orthopedic-inspired product. The German institution has roots back to 1774, when a cobbler named Johann Adam Birkenstock started the proud tradition of designing “fitness sandals” to promote the “natural gait.” The sole, standard across the range, has an “anatomical molding” that follows the shape of a healthy foot, says Gutzy: “The cork-latex core reacts to the shape of your feet. By wearing the shoes, your feet are molding and shaping the footbed.” This is what the famed Birkenstock breaking-in process is all about: the wait for the shoes to mold to your feet, and, presumably, vice versa. ”But when you're finished with this process, you'll find these shoes fit your feet perfectly.”
Birkenstocks do indeed have “a good profile”, says Stuart Metcalfe, a consultant podiatric surgeon at Spire Parkway Hospital in Solihull, England. “They incorporate some support for the natural foot arch. This, combined with a reasonably firm cork construction, is beneficial for many people.” Those are the people with normally shaped or mildly flat feet, adds Metcalfe — people with more serious foot problems will need a prescription sole. “While great shoes, Birkenstocks are not a substitute for proper medical assessment and diagnosis.”
Asked if support shoes are supposed to hurt at first, Metcalfe says this is something he often hears from patients. “Some minor aches and pains are not uncommon when we prescribe orthotics,” says Metcalfe, using the medical term for corrective shoe inserts. “Any shoe that attempts to support the foot arch can take a while to become comfortable.” Having said that, Metcalfe thinks sneakers with good arch and heel support can be just as healthy for the feet as Birkenstocks, all without the initial pain. Still, cheap flats are a definitely bad idea — they may seem better than heels, but they stress the Achilles tendon: “I see many many patients with tendon problems from wearing flat, flimsy shoes,” says Metcalfe.
Ever since the Madrid, the first modern Birkenstock model, saw the light of day in 1963, the brand has had a unique place in the culture. While podiatrists have never stopped recommending them, the hippie movement of the ’60s and ’70s was the first in a line of subcultures to embrace the Birkenstock, before the neo-hippies, or “granola-crunching liberals,” took to the brand in the ’90s and early 2000s. These associations are still alive and well today; fashion and consumer culture scholar Laura Portwood-Stacer remembers it was mainly “dorks” who wore them when she was a kid, when they were linked with people who prioritized comfort over style and wouldn't think twice about wearing them with socks.
But Birkenstocks have started to break free from the old stereotypes. “They came back around the same time as the normcore trend [in 2013-14],” says Portwood-Stacer. “It was the idea it's so ugly it’s hip.” They were spotted on the feet of influencers such as Chloë Sevigny, Kate Moss, and Rihanna, and elevated to the catwalk by Celine, Marni, Giambattista Valli, and Isabel Marant. This time, Birkenstocks are being paired with cool fashions and painted toenails, a far cry from an unwashed tree-hugger. This re-imagination is probably what tipped Birkenstocks into the mainstream, and moved it from trend to staple.
“It’s not just an ‘ugly’ shoe anymore,” says Portwood-Stacer, pointing to how the brand now offers lots of colors and styles alongside the classics. “So for people who want to look baseline fashionable, if not necessarily hip, there's a Birkenstock for them too.”
Birkenstock isn’t paying any brand influencers, says Gutzy, but the impact of social media has been significant to accelerate the word-of-mouth spread. “Birkenstock is a love brand. We have a very high recommendation rate,” says Gutzy, adding that they didn't do any marketing at all before 2013. The Arizona model is the top-seller because it works across setting, says Gutzy; you see the same white Arizonas on doctors in hospitals as in Vogue. “This is the magic behind the product: it's function, and at the same time it's high fashion.”
The kind of dedication enjoyed by the likes of Birkenstock isn’t something that can be created by a marketing team, says Portwood-Stacer: “This stuff comes from the bottom up.” This is especially true if there’s an anti-establishment vibe: “If it's not organic, people will sniff it out.” Dr. Martens, Converse All Stars, and the Iron Ranger boots from Red Wing all have dedicated fans who will push through the break-in pain. But these are also well-made, long-lasting shoes that are sure to be worth the effort, and this is probably the real reason why Birkenstock and other brands requiring upfront investment have clung on between the trend waves. Gutzy tells me my Birks will last a decade if I look after them, meaning a couple of weeks of strife is nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Beyond ensuring I have the right size (apparently the temptation is to get a pair that’s too snug), Gutzy doesn’t really have any advice for how to speed up the breaking-in process. The internet, however, has plenty, and this is where I, deep in a Q&A forum about Birkenstock hacks, read that you can get a hammer out to help with the softening. I dare not tell Gutzy that I did this on my own pair — just a little on the arch! But I’ll tell you this: It worked like a charm.
Yesterday I wore my Birks for a full day and for the first time I didn’t limp afterward. I’d made an extra buckle hole that morning to accommodate my slightly smaller left foot, and that seemed to have done the trick. There’s a pronounced indentation on the footbed now, a testament to the work I’ve put in. Not that Birkenstock wants me to suffer for the pleasure! Gutzy assures me of this, before adding: “But do you know of any medicine that will help you that doesn't taste a little bitter?” The German accent really sells it. But Gutzy just really wants me, and everyone else, to have healthy, supported feet. And I can now confirm that the legends are true: These are some damn comfortable shoes now! I have to admit that having to work so hard for it has made me even more fond of them.