"Charity bracelets are all the rage," my father told me when he picked me up at Heathrow. I was visiting my family overseas and, as usual when I am in the UK, I was taken aback by how many people buy into the local fads. My track-pants-loving Dad is "not fussed about trends," but in England they're unavoidable. The countless tabloids and celebrity magazines ensure that the entire country knows what's what-from the Crazy Frog ring tone to the cast of Big Brother UK to Kylie Minogue to St. Tropez self-tanners. When it comes to clothes, fast-fashion outlets like H&M and Zara catch on to what's been touted as "the look" and new items go from concept to sales rack in a matter of days.
With such retail velocity, irony often becomes the first victim of fashion. Like those rubber charity bracelets that every starlet has been wearing to support a cause; as it turns out, many of them have been produced in China in sweatshop-like conditions. Oops.
The Birkenstock trend fascinates me because the shoe has so long been tainted with stigma. My German friends still scoff at the idea that the sandals could be fashionable.
This time around, the fad I noticed most while traipsing around England was Birkenstock sandals. Victoria Beckham (the artist formerly known as Posh) recently appeared on the cover of a magazine wearing a pair of white ones. A trend was born. Of course, other people have been wearing Birks for ages simply because they like comfy shoes, but now the charmingly ugly sandals have been officially endorsed by a beautiful person. Heidi Klum has even been commissioned to create a gem-incrusted line of Birkenstocks for the fashion-savvy-and those who are willing to drop £170 on a pair of sandals. But of course now that there are Birkenstock rip-offs in every store from Aldo to Browns, you can just pick your price.
The Birkenstock trend fascinates me because the shoe has so long been tainted with stigma. My German friends still scoff at the idea that the sandals could be fashionable. One even tells me that Birkenstock, a German company, was given a bad reputation in the eighties due to some hard-right political affiliations. I couldn't find anything on this, but then apparently the hippies didn't hear about it either because the two-strapped Birk-the "Arizona"-has been the shoe of choice of left-leaners for over thirty years. And why not? A well-made, orthopaedic style sandal is certainly in order for long-lasting protests and tree planting. In fact, some claim that certain Birks are solid enough to hike a mountain in.
The pretty Birkenstock (that's the one-strap "Madrid" for the uninitiated-it's offered in baby pink among other colours) came much later. Londoners went mad for it a few years ago, but what made that trend so strange was its durability. Everyone in London is still wearing the Birk- from thong-toe to two-strap-even though it was last season's look. I guess once you wear in your pair of Birks (which eventually forms to your foot) you realize that happy feet make a happy gal. And so shoppers hit the Convent Garden flagship store in droves ...
Not without a dash of controversy, of course. Susanne Birkenstock, the estranged and beautiful wife of a Birkenstock heir, has started her own shoe company, Beautystep, and still invokes her married name ("Beautystep shoes-Designed by Susanne Birkenstock"). The Birkenstock family is less than pleased with her branding, and legal action has been taken. Suzanne can use the Birkenstock name, the courts ruled, just not too "prominently." Surely brand-name-driven shoppers will get confused.
"Not a shoe for you," said the salesperson, shaking his head disappointedly at me. "This is a pool shoe. Not for walking, only for going around the pool."
I guess I should confess now that I am a bandwagon jumper. I have been skulking around, hoping no one would notice that I haven't been a loyal Birks wearer since birth. Just last month, I went in for the baby-pink Madrids-38 narrow, thank you very much-and discovered that while Birks are now flirty and fun, the Birk store clerk is anything but. After trying on the one-strap pink shoe (which I thought was delightful and a great price at $40), I was given a grim prognosis. "Not a shoe for you," said the salesperson, shaking his head disappointedly at me. "This is a pool shoe. Not for walking, only for going around the pool."
Well, I don't have a pool. And after the clerk prodded at my feet a little more and made some alarming comments about flexible joints and the risk of falling arches, I ended up walking out with the most orthopaedic (and expensive) Birkenstocks in the joint. I can tell you these didn't make it into the Heidi Klum collection. They are two-strap, black monoliths designed to move people up the sides of mountains. I left the store dejected, worried about my postural alignment, my bank balance, and my unsexy new treads.
But don't lose heart, dear reader. Like any Birk-wearer, I have come to love my black clunky podiatrist-approved sandals, and it didn't hurt that my boyfriend said he actually likes them better than the pink ones (maybe the word "sexy" wasn't used, but I'd like to think it was implied). It also didn't hurt that I traipsed around the moors of Cornwall in them for the duration of my time in the UK-I even managed to play tennis unhampered in the things. Plus, apparently they are going to save me from bad knees and truckloads of back pain at some point in the future-that is, if I continue to wear them.
And I think I will (alternating, of course, with fantastically impractical high heels that have major sex appeal). Those Brits are on to something. Of course, now that the mania for ortho-footwear has started, nothing can stop it: Masai Barefoot Technology is the newest trend and thousands of Londoners are already on waiting lists. It's nice to know that there is still some cachet in slightly ugly but practical footwear. After all, there are far worse trends than comfortable shoes. So pack away your Uggs, girls-It's summertime.
Emma Appleby (Poppy Wilkinson) is a fabulous force on the Montreal scene. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Emma Appleby.