Do you remember your first pair of Birkenstocks? Whether you first slid your feet into the contoured footbed while watching an episode of Saved by the Bell after school or during the seemingly endless days of early quarantine, it’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years since the two-strap Birkenstock Arizona was released.
The unisex sandal has been available for half a century, but the wardrobe staple still permeates fashion, culture, and Hollywood as it has done decade after decade. Even the brand itself is somewhat in awe of the Arizona’s hold on popular culture and how it’s organically grown over the years. “When we look at the ‘80s and ‘90s, it’s not through [Birkenstock’s] own mediation and business plans,” Alice Janssens, fashion and history expert who works with the company, tells Vanity Fair. “It’s predominantly people who are working in fashion and Hollywood discovering the shoes and deciding they like them.”
The German brand developed its product as an answer to supportive walking shoes; the cork footbed being the crux of every style. The Arizona was the third model that was created in 1973. “These models were developed in a very classical way to appeal to many functions,” says Andrea Schneider-Braunberger, head of corporate history** **for Birkenstock. Besides some minor—mainly, branding—tweaks, Arizona has stayed much the same since its inception. It wasn’t until the early ‘90s that the brand was iterating on what was possible in terms of color. “[It was] always about the footbed, the walking, and not about the styles,” Janssens adds.
Still, the Arizona managed to subtly inspire trends in the footwear market. “Phoebe Philo’s October 2012 show for Céline in Paris…has a direct reference,” Janssens says. Their 2013 collaboration with J.Crew began a frenzy for metallic sandals. “All [Birkenstock] really did at that point,” Janssens says, “[is] they changed the color of the upper and offered two different colors for men, and the following year, two different colors for women…in silver and gold.” The brand has had a steady stream of pointed partnerships between then and now, opening an office in Paris to work on trends and a more expensive arm of the business named 1774.
Much has happened between the ‘90s and 2019, when Frances McDormand wore a pair of Birkenstock x Valentino to the Academy Awards. Her pairing of the yellow Arizona sandals with a custom red gown was an easy moment in the zeitgeist and helped encourage wearing a pair with a formal outfit or justifying a Manolo Blahnik x Birkenstock crystal-buckle purchase. Attitudes shifted, and sharing our authentic selves was suddenly in fashion. “Even in this moment of luxury coming back, people have become a lot more comfortable in comfortable footwear not just for inside,” Janssens says, much to the Arizona’s delight.
To celebrate the anniversary, Birkenstock has created a limited run of 1973 pairs of Arizona sandals for purchase at their flagship stores.