Growing up on Long Island had major perks, especially during the summer. For one, we had the best outdoor amphitheater located on Jones Beach. Every weekend began with a day at the beach, a trip to Ralph’s Italian Ices, and ended with tailgating, an open-air concert, and amazing sunsets. We frequented Rusted Root shows, Santana, H.O.R.D.E Festivals with Neil Young, Lenny Kravitz, and, my favorite, The Black Crowes with Jimmy Page. Of course, as a young teenager with a meager bank account fueled from working the cash register at the Ralph Lauren store in Manhasset, I had to dress the part for my weekend activities.
My first real splurge was not on a purse or a cute dress or the stacked loafers at Steve Madden (it was the '90s, remember!); it was on Birkenstocks. My parents could not understand why I wanted to spend so much on a pair of shoes that Fred Flintstoned my feet. Even then, the price was pretty high for my low-budget lifestyle. I wanted so badly to have orthopedic shoes to wear with my flowy peasant dresses. It was my first taste of mixing the ugly with the pretty, and I was hooked.
As a teen in the late '90s, wearing a pair of beat-up Birks was a rite of passage. Flashy or trendy clothes were for the masses listening to Britney, while we were listening to The Allman Brothers. The more dilapidated you looked, the cooler and more chic you were. The items we coveted were beat-up Wagoneers, Bass boat shoes matted with age, and handmade jean shorts — worn objects that had more importance and personal value.
We were subconsciously living the Abercrombie & Fitch lifestyle, or as close to it as we could, without the obvious, store-bought graphic shirts, abundance of cargo-pant pockets, and overwhelmingly musky cologne. Fellow Birk lovers frowned upon wearing something trendy like Juicy Couture velour pants. Choosing to be anti-trendy was a statement in high school and the badge to prove your oath to this, your Birks.
My parents just could not fathom why I wanted shrunken Salvation Army tees, dresses from Cheap Jacks in NYC, batik scarves in my hair, and, to finish the look, overpriced basic sandals. They both came from working-class backgrounds and worked so hard for a better life for my brother and me, and there I was, desiring to have the majority of my closet consist of consignment scores. I wore those Birks until they ran off into the woods like a sick, mangy dog and quietly died one night.
Photo: Courtesy of Kelly Kasouf.
And, now, I've got to thank Céline for bringing back the Birk. My ugly sandals and my pretty dresses had a baby, and they are today’s designer, flat sandals. At first glance of these shoes, you would think the entire fashion world was trying to market to the elderly. They scream comfort and make your foot look wide and flat. The new designer Birks remind me of a girl who decorated her cast for the prom. Glittered and meticulously designed to match her dress, but under all the jewels, it's still just a big ol' cast.
Is the redesign of the Birkenstock just masking what the shoe really is? An ugly, yet comfortable, sandal? I can hear the words of my Irish mother now: “A lot of powder and paint make a woman she ain’t!” With the growing, new anti-street-style-star philosophy of fashion, these new Birk designs are attracting the attention of the whole world, not just the fashion peeps.
And, the choices are endless. It was as if every design house got the memo to give us its rendition of our favorite Jesus sandal. In order to satiate my need for Barney Rubble feet for my Suno sundresses, I searched high and low for the perfect pairs at reasonable prices. Because, after all, I wouldn’t want my 16-year-old self to smack me upside the head for purchasing $600 Birks that are (gasp) ultimately just another trend to follow. That defeats the purpose, right?
For summers in Antarctica.
Senso Igloo Sandal, $175, available at Farfetch.
It was a splurge for me then to make an anti-fashion statement by wearing Birks, and today, I can safely say it is a splurge for me now but supported by different reasons: one part nostalgia and three parts comfort, because walking in wedges on gravel when picking up my kids at summer camp is not an option. So...maybe they are for the elderly?
Kelly Kasouf is the author of the chic children's book series The Super Adventures of Sophie and the City.
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