A Slave to Sandal Fashion

First, there were Birkenstocks. Well, probably not—I’m sure there was some sort of uber-hip sandal before that, but I wasn’t privy to it. I admired Birkenstocks in college, but didn’t get my own pair until 1994. Before that I made do with a $10 pair of something vaguely resembling Birks that I lovingly called my “Shadowstocks.” Even then, when I couldn’t afford sandal cool, I coveted sandal cool. And that’s really never changed.

What redeemed Birks from being merely a granola fashion statement or a gesture of allegiance to functional German design was that they actually were really comfortable. But their biggest obstacle—and I’m talking about the classic pair of Birks here, all cork and leather—is that water was hell on them, and they weren’t particularly rugged, so you couldn’t use them for a day at the beach or the lake. Indeed, Birks are best as winter sandals, on a frigid, snowless day, worn with really thick wool socks. (Sadly, the current Birkenstock web page is advertising the “Heidi Klum collection”—clearly, Birks as a brand have jumped the shark.)

I still own and cherish a pair of Birks, but sandal fashion has moved on. Sportier footwear came into vogue, and the place to buy it was (and is) REI. Sure, there are other outdoor stores that may sell similar things, but REI is a co-op, which gains it an unbeatable amount of sandal cool cachet. For the past six or seven summers I’ve been using my pair of Tevas which, at the time I bought them, were the height of sandal cool. They’re waterproof, they’re sleek, and they’re embroidered with an interlocking scorpion pattern. One big problem with Tevas, though, is that they absorb and even magnify foot odor. That was explained to me when I bought them, but at that time, when they were the “it” sandal, having to contend with the odor by soaking them regularly was a badge of honor. Now, of course, it’s just a pain in the butt, and besides, they’ve aged to a point when they’re no longer super-comfortable—and they were never anywhere as comfortable as my Birks in the first place.

So earlier this week I set out to REI to regain my sandal cool. And I thought that meant going there to buy a pair of Chacos. Suanna bought hers before we went to Thailand, and couldn’t praise them enough. Their gimmick is that the strap is one continuous piece, making them kind of funky to adjust, but very minimalist and light. I had envied her Chacos for a year and a half, and was good and ready to catch up with the times . . .

But Chacos are so 2002. The new big thang in sandals are Keens. Keens eschew the minimalist aesthetic and go so far as to put a big rubber toe in the front. They’re kind of ugly-looking, actually, but sturdy enough that, if you had to sprint away from a tiger, whether across the jungle floor or across concrete, they’d back you up. Plus, wearing them is like wearing a cushion of air. I can’t explain it, because they look big and clunky, but they feel great. I’ve walked on mine for about six miles so far and they keep getting better.

It seems that, with Keens, the pendulum has swung as far as it can go in the direction of functionality-as-fashion. Eventually, the non-sturdy-but-groovy-looking Birkenstocks, or something like them, will come back into vogue. Maybe when that time comes I’ll still have my old pair. Now that would be cool.