By Sara Shouhayib
When 15-year-old Joy Pasin walks through the doors of North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka she sees many of her classmates sporting the same shoes – Birkenstocks.
And last week she finally got a pair of her own for her birthday.
“I see at least 10 girls wearing them everyday, and my high school only has 250 people,” she said.
The two strap soft-soled sandal associated more with Woodstock than with Chicago’s North Shore became popular at Pasin’s school about a month ago.
“I saw a super popular junior at our school wearing them, and then the trend caught on,” Pasin said. “My mom used to have some when she was younger, and she finds it hilarious that they are popular again.”
The shoes that were popular during the hippie-crazed 60s and again in the 90s have enjoyed an unexpected resurgence in the U.S. over the past two years. Chicago shoe store owners said they see no signs of it letting up.
“A little bit of fashion and vintage and heritage,” said Richard Price, manager of Alamo Shoes in Andersonville, about the brand’s success this year. “And then the other is the practicality. It still has one of the best arch supports in the industry.”
Price said sales of the German-brand shoes are up 44 percent for the year ended March 15 compared to a year ago.
He said there is a broad base of customers buying Birkenstocks from different lifestyles and demographics, and that about 60 percent of his customers are female and 40 percent are male.
High-end department stores are carrying Birkenstocks, including Nordstrom and Barneys New York, which has a grey python-stamped leather pair for $295. Even J. Crew offers a line of the shoes.
“It is surprising that they were adopted by the fashion set since they sort of represent anti-fashion. But, there is an iconic vibe about the brand that makes it a bit timeless,” said Neil Stern, senior partner at retail consulting firm McMillanDoolittle.
Birkenstock USA declined to discuss sales figures, but Matt Hundley, the public relations and events manager, said popularity picked up for the family-owned German shoe company even before the shoes appeared at the Celine Spring 2013 runway show in the fall of 2012.
A senior customer service representative for Birkenstock USA said the company’s last upswing 10 years ago mirrors the one today.
“We kind of tapered off through the years and then it just recently, you know, within this last year, we’re back to where we were ten years ago,” said Elayne Rosson. “The phenomenon right now is that all of the high school and the college students all want Birkenstocks and we just love that.“
Williams Shoes-The Walking Spirit in Evanston has also noticed young girls catching on to the Birkenstocks trend.
“We’re getting a lot of interest from high school students. That seems to be where the trends and the fads usually start, in high school. And then adults started asking too,” said Richard Iverson, the store manager.
“We have a fairly small line of what we used to have before, but it’s going to take a while to build that up again,” Iverson said.
The store’s owner, Michael Lembeck, said Williams Shoes-The Walking Spirit has sold 195 pairs of Birkenstocks over the last year compared to “close to nothing” in 2013.
Although Stern believes the fashion may eventually fade, he is optimistic that the brand’s comfort and durability will drive its success in the future.
“They are a private German company–family owned,” Stern said. “They are built for the long haul and should do fine even as the ‘fashion’ phase dies down.”