LANDSHUT, Germany — It’s not everyone who has the opportunity — or capability — to wake a sleeping giant. Especially one over 240 years old. When chief executive officer Oliver Reichert first came on the scene as a consultant to Birkenstock’s founding family in 2009, the earlier techno club owner, war correspondent and sports TV executive had to unravel a corporate knot of 38 feuding companies, labels and family members. He sets the new age of Birkenstock in 2013, when a comprehensible structure was in place that could actually accommodate a ceo, which he then became.
For decades, Birkenstock was a remarkably off-the-radar global player nestled in this town even most Germans have never heard of. Forget public relations. As the maker and guardian of the health-oriented cork footbed sandal, a product that suddenly became fashionable in spite of itself, one of Birkenstock’s most curious claims to fame is having turned down collaborations with designers such as Marc Jacobs or Yohji Yamamoto, designers most other companies would have begged to take notice.
But that, perhaps, is the defining characteristic of Birkenstock: it’s not like most other companies. Not then. Not now. Reichert didn’t only rouse the giant to its feet but is preparing it for a sprint, powered by a new global marketing director and international p.r. team, a growing network of worldwide offices and showrooms, unexpected line extensions, ads by Dan Tobin Smith that are both high-profile and low-key, and a slew of innovative projects. Yet with its high/low, stop/go and often idealistically driven activities, Birkenstock remains as idiosyncratic as ever.
Producing 95 percent of its range in Germany, Birkenstock has doubled its domestic workforce to about 3,800 since 2013, another head-shaking feat in high-labor-cost Germany. There are no deals. No bank loans. No licensing. No house-generated social media or VIP freebies. Retail prices, calculated at current exchange, span from $33.75 rubber bathing sandals to $1,125 knapsacks, $5,625 to $11,250 bed systems, and a mid-tier natural cosmetics line that’s not yet precisely positioned. Coming up are cost-intensive projects like the mobile Birkenstock Box, to debut with select retail partners in July. Plus the first fashion show for this self-proclaimed “beyond fashion” brand on June 24 during Paris Men’s Fashion Week.
Is this any way to run a modern company? Reichert thinks so.
WWD: After the restructuring of Birkenstock and you became ceo in 2013, then what?
Oliver Reichert: It was the rebirth, the wake-up call. But basically it was a release — in terms of creativity. To concentrate the energy on what is Birkenstock and somehow define the core of the brand, which is the footbed. It meant being aware of tradition but not being afraid, because with such a huge, iconic and traditional product-driven thing, some people freeze. Then we invited all these people to take a seat around the Birkenstock brand and have an influence on it, in a positive way.
WWD: Like who? One always hears about who you turned down.
O.R.: It’s about real creativity, about filling a white wall, and our wall is not purely white. It’s the [cork] footbed. You cannot touch the orthopedic thinking behind it and just crucify it for your own benefit. If you’re not willing to accept there is a reason why Birkenstock looks like this, then maybe you want too much. It must be a partnership, not a hostile takeover. And there must be an add-on. Then it’s a good cooperation.
O.R.: We’ve had successful cooperations but we’re not interested in publicly promoting this.
WWD: You often say Birkenstock is beyond fashion.
O.R.: Yes, and it’s not arrogance. The fashion is there, but if you’re beyond fashion, you release yourself. It’s all about emancipation. Be yourself. Be comfortable.
We don’t want to move Birkenstock into being a fashion brand, but we also don’t want to be a museum for the traditional Birkenstock wearers, the old hippies. I mean, we’re still there for the grandmother who’s been wearing her Birkenstocks for 50 years and will wear them to the end. But now there are the hipsters in New York wanting the same style and shape. Everything is the same value for the company. So it’s a 360-degree approach to brand awareness, and for this you need people. We are opening offices in New York, we opened in São Paulo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Munich, Cologne, London, Copenhagen. We need to explode, more or less. We need to be very quick.
WWD: Birkenstock is still pegged as a mass market shoe brand.
O.R.: Somehow it’s both right and wrong. The mission of the Birkenstock family is to give everybody on this planet access to the footbed. It sounds strangely religious, but in reality, we do believe in the footbed and in the function. For me, Birkenstock is the perfect combination of quality and function.
WWD: The price range for Birkenstock’s cork footbed sandals is wide, but also surprisingly low: from $33.75 for rubber slip-ons to the core at $73 to $95.50, up to about $225 for models with a leather-lined footbed.
O.R.: All these products were around for years and years, and there were some products existing that luckily no one ever saw, but now we’re just doing it. It’s part of the hysteria around the brand to say, yeah, let’s make it happen. Don’t wait. People are hungry for quality, even if a huge amount of people growing up don’t know a thing about quality.
We are one of the brands — not the only one — holding the flag of quality and function. If you talk about fashion, in the past it was driven by craziness, color…it was uncontrollable, but now everyone is looking back to what is classic, what is quality, what is function? It’s just a circle of re-innovation, there’s nothing new, more or less. The center of fashion is quality, and form and content or substance should be together. Then you don’t think about the pricing, you think about the value. Pricing is secondary.
WWD: But let’s go back to Birkenstock’s high/low divide, because a lot of people might be confused about a $33.75 to $11,250 price span.
O.R.: This price range has existed a minimum of 20 years. In the past, you could find guys in Los Angeles putting gold or platinum buckles on our Arizonas and selling them for $20,000 a pair. It was there already. It is not an invention from us.
O.R.: The logic behind it is very simple: If we create a desire out there we should be ready to deliver. That’s what we learned over the last three years when we were sold out with our sandals and it was a big mess.
Existing territories are growing very fast, want more variety and are not just buying brown, black and blue, which spreads the whole collection. And we’re doing everything on our own. We’re not only a brand, we’re a production company. We cover the whole value chain from start to finish. It’s just us. And this is a capacity that should be respected.
WWD: Which is what these days?
O.R.: If we just did one type of shoe, it could be 50 million pairs a year, but right now, the normal range is 20 to 25 million pairs a year.
WWD: We’re in cosmetics headquarters in Landshut. Birkenstock Natural Care was launched in spring, yet it’s still in the works.
O.R.: It was just a soft launch. We have around 30 products that are OK for the European and North American market, but we asked ourselves can we separate Asia from the whole or do we have to step back a little? We decided we have to increase the range, because Asia is more gels than creams, and they need sun protection, which if you’re trying to make a 100 percent natural product is a very thin line.
Right now we’re thinking this through, but honestly, nobody is waiting for us. There’s not an empty shelf in any area reserved for us, and we need to prepare ourselves properly. But take the Arizona [sandal] or any of our products. Even if Arizona has been on the market for 60 years, it’s still in the testing phase, improving, improving, improving — the buckles, the uppers, the insoles. It’s the same with natural beauty. There is no pressure.
WWD: And licensing?
O.R.: When we started wanting to diversify, it took us just eight weeks to learn it’s not possible to give someone our brand and trust that he’s doing the right thing in terms of function and quality the way we understand it. The problem is people are so far away from our way of thinking. So we said forget it. We have to do it [ourselves] and started looking for people who are on the same page.
All the bags are handmade in Poland by family-owned companies who also produce for brands like Hermès. It’s a very small world if you talk about this sort of embellishment — full brass fittings, fully waxed military canvas. These companies are dying because their kids aren’t interested in taking them over. So we are now more or less major shareholders in 10 to 15 companies. We want to keep them alive and in good shape, because if they’re unhappy in any way they lose the quality.
WWD: Who else do you support in that way?
O.R.: The whole leather industry. The quality of leather we’re asking for is dying. You can see me and my attitude in my bags. You will never destroy these things. If something is broken, you can repair it. It’s not a throwaway mentality.
All the traditional workers who know how to treat wood, leather, cork…these skills are dying. It’s a cultural loss, and no one is taking care of this. Whoever is related to quality should carry a piece of it, and that’s what we are doing, because it is not a business — it’s a belief!
WWD: And you’re having a fashion show in Paris.
O.R.: We’re not willing to say we’re part of Paris Fashion Week, but somehow we are. We’re not on the schedule. We’ll be in the middle of the Tuileries with a huge tent at the Orangerie, in an area sort of shaped like the Birkenstock footbed. Male and female models will walk on a slightly elevated walkway…
WWD: Wearing what? Besides their Birkenstocks?
O.R.: Bespoke looks, developed between the shoe product teams and stylists. It’ll be as easy as possible: all the women the same, all the men the same, though I’d almost prefer to have them naked, just wearing the shoes. Honest.
It’s going to be like an intergalactic relaxation area, showing you a thousand reasons to change to Birkenstock. The new beds will also be there, and the cosmetics range. People can walk around, we’ll have some displays, and a review area backstage where production managers can explain the product. It’s another first step for the company, to bring these [fashion] guys out and say let’s talk about these shoes. It’s almost a threat, but for me, a voluntary risk taken. We want to show who we are, and then we can see what the effect is on us and the industry. I have no expectations. If you have expectations, you’re about to lose. But this will be green. Outside. And people can just kick off their Louboutins and relax.
WWD: To quote the web, “No social media at Birkenstock.”
O.R.: One-hundred percent true. Because if you start with social media, you get surrounded by strange advisers and people offering content. People simply don’t believe what we create in earned media: Real content from real people who put it up. We don’t touch it or try to create a new revenue stream out of it. We leave that to others.
What we’re now doing is posting information like a news desk, but we don’t pay anybody. If you see a celebrity wearing Birkenstocks, they bought them. We never pay influencers, ever. I’m a wall of concrete about this.
WWD: Let’s talk about non-concrete walls: The mobile Birkenstock Box, debuting with Andreas Murkudis July 6 in Berlin.
O.R.: The box is a steel construction handmade in Berlin, designed by architects Gonzalez Haase. It can be either one or two levels for a total of 375 to 750 square feet of sales space. Besides Murkudis, we’ve invited Kirna Zabête in the Hamptons [Aug. 10], 10 Corso Como in Milan [Sept.10], and as of now [negotiations with others are under way] also The Webster in Miami.
We’re creating a room together with state-of-the-art retail concepts around the world. The retailers can design their own interior and their own Birkenstock product, and the overall assortment of brands and products is up to them. There will be special numbered shoe boxes, too; it’s all really bespoke.
WWD: Any other retail ideas?
O.R.: We have about 40 own doors, and about 500 monobrand Birkenstock doors globally with partners. We recently asked nine architects around the world to make a pitch. I think there’s a common feel for what the future of retail holds, which is obviously a combination of online and physical — but very small and to the point. We’re somehow special in that we don’t have to explain the product, though maybe we have to show it in a more edgy way, with more of the basics online. But in terms of [retail] look and feel, it’s international. I’m really eager to see the designs.