Document travels to Görlitz and Bernstadt, the remote German towns home to Birkenstock's sprawling factories
It’s not easy to travel to the Birkenstock factories in Görlitz and Bernstadt. After a flight from New York to Berlin, a two-and-a-half hour train ride from Berlin to Dresden, and an hour drive to Görlitz, Document finally reached the remote picturesque town bordering Poland in Eastern Germany. Görlitz’s rich mix of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, and Art Nouveau architecture resembles something out of the pages of a Grimm Brothers fairytale—even Hollywood caught on, earning the town the nickname Görliwood. Films like Inglourious Basterds and The Reader were also shot there, and the Görlitz Department Store was used as the set for Wes Andersen’s Grand Budapest Hotel.
After a night’s rest, Document traveled to Bernstadt, a town 25 minutes from Görlitz by car, to get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the highly-coveted Valentino Birkenstock, of which another round drops June 25. In an environment where fashion collaborations often add cachet to commercial brands, benefitting both labels involved, Birkenstock has been ramping up its designer partnerships in recent years, even creating a line—named 1774 for the year the brand was founded—charged with organizing and designing them from a Paris atelier. With reports that the German footwear brand turned down collaborations with Vetements and Supreme while working with others like Rick Owens and Andreas Murkudis, we asked Birkenstock CEO Oliver Reichert about the genesis of the Valentino Birkenstock.
“Actually it was Frances McDormand who was kick-starting the collaboration. Frances is a real passionate Birkenstock lover,” wrote Reichert in an email. “She’s a very strong character; in a way she’s a prototype of the emancipated female Birkenstock fan—she’s worn our sandals for most of her adult life, she’s completely in harmony with herself, and she doesn’t care about her appearance. And she also loves Valentino.” McDormand caused a coup last February at the Oscars when she wore a pair of bold custom yellow (her favorite color) Valentino Birkenstocks with her fuschia Valentino gown on the red carpet, causing a rush of traffic to the Birkenstock website. Sadly, the pair she wore to the Oscars weren’t available.
At the moment there are two styles of Valentino Birkenstocks: An leather-covered version of the iconic two-strap Arizona in Valentino red, and a black version of the Arizona with the VLTN logo on the side. The Birkenstock uppers and footbed lining are produced at the Bernstadt location. “In the GDR [German Democratic Republic] there was a factory to produce thread, yarn, and then after the Berlin Wall broke, or fell, Birkenstock acquired the property, and they brought the footbed industry here,” explained our tour guide Marco Warm. The 216,000-square-foot factory, which Birkenstock acquired in 1991, has the capacity to create lining for 40,000 pairs of footbeds and uppers for 90,000 pairs daily. There, Document got a peek at all the parts used to create the Valentino Birkenstocks: the leather lining used to cover and elevate the cork footbed, the metal plates used to emboss the insoles with the Valentino and Birkenstock logos, and the pieces of red leather needed to create the two straps on the Valentino Red Arizona, as well as the black straps with the letters VLTN in white.
Next, Document traveled back to Görlitz, where Birkenstock produces the very foundation of its shoes: the cork fussbett (footbed in English) that is molded to the shape of the human foot. The footbeds for the waterproof Ethylenvinylacetat (EVA) styles that are popular at the beach and pool during summer are also produced in Görlitz. The 324,000-square-foot factory has the capability to produce 80,000 footbeds and 90,000 pairs of Birkenstocks daily. At the factory, Document got a glimpse of how the leather uppers are attached to the footbed through a manual machine. After everything is assembled, the shoe is checked for quality control—and if that checks out, you have a pair of Birkenstocks ready to be worn through a farmer’s market or Soho gallery.
“Everything came quite organically,” said Reichert of the Valentino and Birkenstock collaboration. “It started as the fulfilment of a long held wish of an old friend and then turned into an official collaboration. Everything else followed, because there was simply demand and relevance.“