In a deal thought to be worth a cool £3.5 billion, Parisian super-conglomerate LVMH announced on Friday that it had acquired the majority stake in family-owned German sandal brand Birkenstock.
The group, which is owned and overseen by Bernard Arnault, the richest man in France, is best known for transforming legacy luxury brands into global fashion powerhouses. Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Celine and Givenchy all exist beneath the ample LVMH umbrella.
And although the acquisition – which saw LVMH fight off a competing bid from Breitling owner CVC Capital Partners – is undoubtedly good news for Birkenstock, not least due to the fact that it will allow the family-run company to rapidly expand production from its Görlitz-based factory, it’s the wider message it sends about the fashion industry’s current direction of travel that is perhaps most intriguing.
Founded by cobbler Johann Adam Birkenstock in 1774, Birkenstock has done much in recent years to shake off its reputation as the world’s premier manufacturer of footwear for Teutonic pensioners and allotment owners. Helped along by a host of smart collaborations with designers ranging from Rick Owens and Valentino to students of Central Saint Martins and Proenza Schouler, the brand has acquired a new sheen of cool in a very short space of time. What’s more, the global pandemic gave it a surprise extra shot in the arm.
Indeed, where many fashion brands floundered last year, stymied by reduced production capabilities and limited customer desire, 2020 became Birkenstock’s surprise moment to shine. The brand’s Boston mules quickly became the unsuspecting poster shoes for the world’s lockdown (Birkenstock’s CEO, Oliver Reichert, dubbed the footwear produced by his company the “official home-office shoe”) and sales – though not officially reported – were expected to vastly outstrip those in 2019, a year which saw the company shift some 23.8 million pairs of shoes globally.
And though many journalists and trend forecasters have predicted a boom in smarter clothes and shoes that are appropriate for a post-pandemic world in the second half of 2021, the news of the LVMH acquisition would suggest that our current collective preoccupation with comfort isn’t going anywhere any time soon – at least not if Mr Arnault has anything to do with it.
The shift towards a more understated mode of dressing was happening long before the pandemic struck, after all. The burgeoning athleisure sector, for instance, hit a record-breaking value of $414bn in 2019 and many of the world’s major luxury brands (a vast swathe of which Mr Arnault owns) that once made the bulk of their cash from selling expensive suits and slick dress shoes to the world’s well-heeled had started moving in a more laid-back direction. This has been thanks in part to the casualisation of the city, which was, in turn, precipitated by the digital boom of the 2000s and the 2010s.
The most enduring calling card from Alessandro Michele’s current tenure at Gucci, for instance, will undoubtedly be the fur-lined Jordaan slippers he showed as part of his first collection in 2015. Elsewhere, Dior’s collaboration with Air Jordan, which centred on a pair of branded high-top sneakers, sold out globally in a matter of minutes. Even Hedi Slimane, who has made his name designing ultra-form-fitting party clothes, put a low-key pair of babouche slippers at the heart of his SS20 collection for Celine, which was designed well before the pandemic struck. The key piece from Slimane’s SS21 offering, which is in stores now, was a shell suit finished with cosy panels of leopard-print fleece.
Personally speaking, I bought two pairs of Birkenstock shoes last year (a shearling-lined pair of caramel-hued mules and some classic sandals in brown nubuck), but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t already jumped on the dad-sandal train back in 2018, when I wore a pair of black shearling-lined Arizona sandals nearly every day. If you’d told me that that would be the state of things back in 2014, when I was a dyed-in-the-wool-suit-and-lace-up man, I’d have laughed in your face.
The truth is that the pandemic has proven beyond any and all doubt that we can live, work and socialise in our domestic environments. And though there will of course be a return to the freedoms we knew in the time before Covid, it’s unlikely that we will want to completely remove ourselves from the close proximity to comfort we’ve acquired over the past 12 months. It’s a potentially permanent shift in mindset which will impact the way we live our lives with as much force as it will the clothes and shoes we wear to do so.
LVMH’s acquisition of Birkenstock may be a high-rolling gamble on the belief that our collective dedication to comfort will endure, but it’s a smart one too. And we should perhaps be most excited to see how it impacts the conglomerate’s forthcoming company buy-outs.
Could Homme Plissé Issey Miyake be next on Mr Arnault’s list, perhaps? The Japanese brand’s diffusion line of pleated loungewear has, after all, become the go-to gear for home workers who are unwilling to wear sweatpants. Or perhaps edgy underwear manufacturer CDLP is next on the roster – the Scandinavian brand’s sustainably produced yet sexed-up undies would sit neatly alongside the wares pedalled by Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty line, which LVMH also owns.
In the meantime, however, if anyone has access to the waiting list for the first-ever Dior x Birkenstock collaboration, be a dear and put my name on it.
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