THEY WERE SQUAT, PRACTICAL AND ugly, and they helped define hippie transportation in the Age of Aquarius. No, we’re not talking about the Volkswagen Beetle but its spiritual equivalent in the footwear department: the homely Birkenstock sandal. Birkenstock sales soared in the ’70s, then stalled during the early half of the fashion-conscious ’80s. Now, for reasons sociologists have yet to explain—but no doubt will, on Donahue—the pedestrian shoes are bouncing back: Harrison Ford, Madonna, Cybill Shepherd and Keanu Reeves have all been Birken-spotted.
Blame it on the mango. Or the plum or the fuchsia or any of the upstart colors and styles introduced by Margot Fraser, 62, the nation’s sole distributor of the shoe and the force behind its $40 million-plus American market. “Our goal was to create as many healthy feet as possible in the U.S.,” says Fraser, who first encountered the shock-absorbent sandal with a cork footbed during a 1967 stay at a German spa. Intrigued, she and her first husband, a cookware importer, struck a deal with the shoe’s German designer, Karl Birkenstock, to import his product. At first, arrogant retailers mocked the clunky-but-good-hearted little shoe. “We had to sell to people with a different vision,” says Fraser. So she sold the sandals through health-food stores and by mail.
Today, Birkenstock Footprint Sandals has a staff of 95 at the company’s sprawling headquarters in Novato, Calif. Naturally, Fraser and her second husband, psychiatrist Stephen Schoen, 67, wear nothing but Birks on their feet. She favors peach or black for nights at the opera; he sticks with the two-strap “Arizona” model designed by his wife. Says the thoroughly practical entrepreneur: “It’s not necessary to be uncomfortable in order to be stylish.”