Rick Owens on the Unconventional Appeal of a Birkenstock Sandal

From a childhood spent in California to German artist Joseph Beuys, the designer traces the inspiration behind his first collaboration with the German shoemaker

Founded on the simple maxim that a good pair of shoes should be both comfortable and built to last, at 244 years old, German shoemaker Birkenstock may seem incongruous to the mercurial, impulsive shifts of modern fashion. But, as an abundance of replicas on the catwalks of the last half-decade proves, there is much appeal to the orthopaedic sensibilities of a sandal which reveals that life is better in a shoe you can move in.

That said, it is suprising to note that for all the pervasiveness of the style, no single designer has collaborated with the storied shoemaker. Until now. The designer in question is Rick Owens, well versed in transforming the mundane (his own childhood was spent in the uneventful surburban heartland of California’s central valley) into the monumental, creating collections that balance dark romance and a richness of cloth with stark, architectural proportions.

And, if ever the time was right for collaboration, it is now – over the past seasons, across both mens- and womenswear, Owens has moved away from his reputation as American fashion’s premier Brutalist, softening his collections to favour creations that physically swaddle his models in swathes of fabric and padding. His pieces at once evoke the trappings of ceremonial garb, and a protection against the many affronts of modern life – not to mention Owens’ own take on the concept of comfort. 

On more practical terms, the Birkenstock was already a familiar fixture in Owens’ life. “In the 1970s, when I was growing up in Porterville, which is in the California central valley, they were perceived as I think they are now: slightly countercultural, form follows function, ignoring conventional standards of attractiveness,” he says. If you are to find him on the beaches of Venice, where he spends much of his off-time, you will likely find him in his footwear of choice – Birkenstock’s signature Arizona sandal. “There is a modesty to the fact they aren’t coquettish,” he says. “They are kind of severe, which adds to their allure.”

His own offering for Birkenstock falls somewhere between comfort and severity, the ease of Los Angeles and the precision of the shoemaker’s German roots – the latter in a physical sense, with Birkenstock’s nomadic art space the Birkenstock Box, designed by Gonzalez Haas, landing in Los Angeles’ La Brea tomorrow. Inside the reclaimed shipping container viewers can expect full Owens immersion, the space sparsely filled with the designer’s monolithic furniture, as well as the footwear styles he has designed. “I insulated the interior with grey felt,” he explains, “then installed felt- and fur-covered angular modules to create my version of a cross between a Joseph Beuys temple and Le Corbusier’s beach cabin.”

The shoes themselves – Owens’ take on the classic Arizona, Madrid and Boston styles, here in suede, felt, leather and cow fur – also found inspiration in the work of German artist Beuys. “I am a big Joseph Beuys fan,” he says. “Grey felt Birkenstocks seem to fit comfortably in his socially conscious, but Pagan world.” Though taking heed from the Birkenstock’s no-frills approach, Owens subtly disrupted the traditional shape by extending the length of the straps, or increasing the size of the ring-hole fastenings. “I like the idea of taking things too far, as in my own collections, making things drag, or extend,” he says. “It’s a way of thinking: you can go further, think beyond the accepted standards.”

The other prescient inspiration was photography of Hans Suren; Owens has collected numerous editions of his series Der Mensch Und Die Sonne. In his images, the nude forms of German men and women, captured in black and white, undertake various forms of physical exercise in fields or in the woods. “The nudity is titillating and sensual but not overtly carnal,” he explains. “It’s very much about being one with nature and about living a natural life. When I think of Birkenstock, I think of that kind of innocence.”

The Birkenstock Box can be found on La Brea, Los Angeles from April 17-21, 2018.