Making comfy footwear for hippies and supermodels

The Local’s series “Made in Germany” presents the best the country has to offer. And what better way to get things off on the right foot than by profiling the iconic Teutonic footwear maker Birkenstock?

Making comfy footwear for hippies and supermodels
Photo: Birkenstock

From luxury cars to precision machinery, “Made in Germany” still means quality craftsmanship around the world. But the Teutonic attention to detail goes far beyond engineering. This series will feature a diverse array of products from both well-known German brands and less famous firms. But no matter big or small, all of them are focused on being the best at what they do.

Birkenstock, the “transcendent” comfy German footwear known all around the world, turned 235 last year – marking a supportive step for mankind. Since 1774, the Birkenstock family has followed the foot, starting with shoemaker Johann Adam Birkenstock. His grandson, Konrad Birkenstock, ran two shoe stores in Frankfurt when he hit on the idea that would change the shape of footwear for years to come. Konrad noticed that shoe soles were flat – but the feet that fit in them are not. So, in 1897, he designed a special inlay that followed the natural contours of the foot.

His invention was an instant hit. Popular all over Germany, the curvy, supportive Birkenstock shoe inlay made inroads as far away as Austria. During World War I, Konrad Birkenstock worked in an orthopedic clinic, designing shoes for injured soldiers. By 1925, Konrad Birkenstock Jr. built a large factory in Hesse that ran day and night producing the blue inserts that the family business exported, now, all over Europe. The company survived the war period intact, and in 1947, a book detailing the “Birkenstock System” was published.

But global greatness lay ahead: In the 1950s, Carl Birkenstock, grandson of Konrad Birkenstock Sr., took over the company. By 1964, he had come with a brand new innovation. Instead of inlays, Birkenstock made a foot-hugging sandal. By 1966, the Birkenstock shoe was patented in Germany and the United States, and had been spotted by an American, Margot Fraser, suffering from pained feet while on vacation in Germany. She took the shoes back to California, where they quickly became a sign of the times. The flower children embraced the shoes, and they became an icon of the counter-culture generation.

Times changed, but the shoes, at least for the most part, haven’t. They did, however, adapt, on more than one level: In 1990, shortly after the fall of the wall, Birkenstock opened one of the first new factories in the former East German state of Saxony. Today, the Birkenstock company is still in family hands, and is a brand established the world over. It has a number of subsidiary companies, including Papillio, the fashion-forward Tatami, Birki’s for kids, Footprints, Betula, and BIRKO Orthopaedie, which makes inserts.

While the hippie days are over, the company has steadily evolved, coming up with new and more stylish variations on the health-first footwear theme (even supermodel Heidi Klum is a fan). Birkenstock shoes, whose headquarters are in Vettelschoss, a town just south of Bonn, are still made entirely in Germany, in production centers in Saxony, Hesse, and Rhineland-Palatinate.

“Tradition is very important for us,” said spokeswoman Erika Reinhard. “But, in spite of our advanced age, as a company, we feel very young.”


Amazon workers across Germany go on strike for higher wages in build up to ‘online Xmas’

Employees of the online retailer Amazon have downed their tools at several locations across Germany in a protest against precarious wages, but the online shopping giant insists that the strike won’t impact Christmas deliveries.

Amazon workers across Germany go on strike for higher wages in build up to 'online Xmas'
Photo: DPA

In Bad Hersfeld, in the central state of Hesse, employees at an Amazon logistics centre started their strike early on Monday morning. A spokeswoman for the Verdi trade union said they expected about 500 workers at the retail company to take part. 

In Rheinberg and Werne in North Rhine-Westphalia, the strike began shortly before midnight on Sunday evening, with some 500 workers taking part and further 300 workers in the town of Werne joining in.

The union action has hit six locations across the country in total and strike action is set to last until Christmas Eve.

The trade union Verdi had called for strikes at various locations as it sought to push Amazon into recognition of the collective agreements which are commonly established established between trade unions and employer associations in Germany.

“Last week's closure of on-site retail has once again significantly increased the volume of orders placed with mail-order companies such as Amazon,” Verdi said in a statement.

“While the corporation continues to increase its billions in profits, it refuses to pay employees according to collective bargaining agreements. These are minimum conditions,” the union added.

A Verdi spokesman added that Amazon was earning “a golden profit” while workers' health suffered under the stress of delivering packages on time during the pandemic.

Additionally, the trade union said it wanted to push for better health and safety at the workplace in Amazon logistics centres. 

Amazon has always resisted joining in such agreements, claiming that it offers good wages outside of the traditional trade union structures.

Amazon said Monday that its employees already benefit from “excellent wages, excellent fringe benefits and excellent career opportunities.” 

The US-based firm also said that it made health and well-being at work a top priority. 

The company insisted that the strikes would have no impact on customer deliveries in the run up to Christmas, stating that the vast majority of employees work as normal.