There’s a stereotype of the person who wears Birkenstocks,” says David Kahan, chief executive officer of the shoe company’s American division. It’s that eccentric aunt, the colleague who spends his weekends hiking, the camp counselor. Or, as Kahan puts it, “a little anti-establishment, maybe not the most attractive person.” He’s holding court at a Manhattan trade show on June 5, surrounded by rows and rows of new sandals. All week department-store buyers have haunted his booth. At a recent event, “Bloomingdale’s came in with their fashion office—six twentysomething girls flitting around, picking up Birkenstocks and going, ‘So cute! So cute!’ ” he says. “Six months ago, they would have said, ‘That’s the ugliest thing I could ever wear.’ ”
Birkenstocks have been sold in the U.S. since 1966, when a woman named Margot Fraser started importing them after discovering the shoes on a German vacation. The business has had few ups and downs, with the exception of a faddish bump in the 1990s. Since then sales have been stable, buoyed by hippies, preppies, and Vermonters who stuck with Howard Dean after the scream. But in the past two years, something strange has been happening to Birkenstocks: They’ve gotten kind of cool.