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.”


‘Harryhandel’: Is the return of cross-border shopping in Norway really a good thing? 

The pandemic cut-off Norway from its neighbours, putting a temporary end to border shopping. Now ‘harryhandel’ trips are allowed again businesses in the country fear they will lose out as shoppers look abroad for cheaper groceries. 

Pictured is Norway and Sweden's border on the old Svinesund bridge.
Will the return of border shopping have a negative affect on the country? Pictured is Norway and Sweden's border on the old Svinesund bridge. Photo by Petter Bernsten/AFP.

In eastern Norway, particularly along the border with Sweden, cross-border shopping has long been common for residents looking for cheaper groceries and a better selection of products. 

Norway’s Covid-19 rules effectively put a stop to that until this summer. The closed border meant a record year for food and beverage sales in Norway. 

“Due to the fact that there was little action and that people did not travel, we noticed that our sales increased greatly during the entire period,” Øyvind Berg, production manager at Norwegian dairy firm Synnøve Finden, explained to public broadcaster NRK.

Now producers and supermarkets fear the impact of cross-border shopping being up and running again. 

“Our challenge is that we see that more than half of the food and beverage producers, i.e. the industrial companies, fear that they will lose market share because cross-border trade will return in full,” Petter Brubakk, director of food and beverage at the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO), informed NRK. 

The majority of those who go shopping across borders in Norway will do so in Sweden. However, in the north, some will also venture into Finland or Russia.

Further south people will also travel to Germany or Denmark. 

Why do people go to other countries for shopping? 

Overall the main appeal of cross-border shopping is that its much better for consumers than shopping domestically. 

Norway’s EEA agreement with the EU means that most foods, drinks, tobacco products, alcohol and other agricultural products are more expensive than they are within the EU as custom duties are required to import them into Norwegian supermarkets. 

Not just that, but there is a much wider selection of products than in Norway due to laws that protect Norwegian products. For example, cheeses such as Cheddar are more readily available, cheaper and generally of better quality in other countries than those found in Norway. 

READ MORE: What is ‘harryhandel’, and why do Norwegians love it so much?

Is border shopping a bad thing for Norway?

Norwegian businesses argue that crossing the border to shop affects the whole value chain, negatively impacting everyone from Norwegian farms and producers to supermarket employees, not just companies profit margins. 

“My advice is to encourage Norwegians to buy Norwegian food, and help secure Norwegian jobs throughout the value chain,” food and agriculture minister Sandra Borch told NRK. 

In addition, shopping domestically means more tax revenue for the Norwegian system to use to fund its generous welfare state. 

While shopping domestically protects domestic jobs, shopping abroad protects jobs there, which rely on people hopping the border to get their groceries. 

Coronavirus pandemic restrictions left a black hole in some of these economies reliant on shoppers from the Norwegian side of the border. For example, in Strömstad, a Swedish town close to the border where many travel to shop, unemployment rose by around 75 percent after Norway closed its borders with Sweden.