How the $48,000 “Birkinstock” Became the Ultimate Consumer Culture Troll
The story of a hippie sandal, a six-figure handbag, private equity, and a very mischievous art collective
Object of the Week is a new column exploring the objects a culture obsesses over and what that reveals about us.
Birkenstocks, “fashion’s original ugly shoe,” as the Business of Fashion put it the other day, are having a moment. A pretty weird moment, actually, that has somehow caused the brand to stumble into the realm of high luxury.
Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that the maker of the hippie-dippie casual-culture icon was in talks to be acquired by L Catterton, a private equity firm backed by lux mega-business LVMH. The talks value Birkenstock in the neighborhood of $5 billion.
But the real news came the next day when Birkenstock — completely against its will — became entangled in the most amusing and high-profile consumer culture art prank of the year so far: the debut of the limited-edition “Birkinstock.” This is a sandal with a traditional Birkenstock silhouette, but made out of the remnants of willfully destroyed super-expensive Hermès Birkin bags. Perhaps you heard that rapper Future obtained a pair, prerelease for $48,000.
The Birkinstock is apparently authorized neither by Birkenstock nor by Hermès. It’s a creation of MSCHF, a New York-based art collective masquerading as a company, or perhaps vice versa. The outfit has become notorious for a string of arty pranks that often seem to mock conspicuous consumer culture tropes and are designed to go viral. Sometimes these ventures make money, and the collective has supposedly attracted more than $11 million in venture capital.
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Some of its creations, released every two weeks — you can sign up to be notified of these “drops” on its site — are digital. Recently, for instance, MSCHF dropped this site, claiming to have bought up domain names for likely 2024 presidential candidates, which it intends to “ransom.” An earlier example is the YouTube channel Man Eating Food, which you’ll just have to explore on your own.
But some are physical objects, such as the Jesus Shoe, a Nike Air Max 97 modified so that the sole contained (“holy”) water. Which brings us back to the Birkinstock, described on the product’s site as “the most exclusive sandal ever made.” This document explains that the shoe is a luxury good made from valuable raw material (not gold, but Birkin bags), and a promotional video underscores their bespoke nature. If you want a pair, you can send an inquiry; they cost $34,00 to $76,000, depending on size. Supplies are said to be extremely limited.
But clearly, the way most of us will consume these shoes is exactly the way you are doing so right now: as an idea. And whatever it says about the long-standing culture of exclusive goods in general, the Birkinstock also speaks to the moment. One of the reasons Birkenstocks are on a (non-satirical) luxury fund’s radar is that high-fashion footwear has suffered in the pandemic era, while not-so-fashionable comfort gear like Birkenstocks and Crocs have thrived. Birkenstocks may be a joke to many, but they’re undeniably an icon.
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The Birkin Bag is of course every bit the icon Birkenstock sandals are, but for the opposite reason: Instead of everyday familiarity and practicality, it draws its status from exclusivity and scarcity, with prices starting at $40,000. The idea of disregarding their design and construction, and treating them as mere raw material to serve the design of middle-class sandals is, among other things, hilarious.
And really that seems to be the goal here. MSCHF is a group of very smart, mostly male, young-to-youngish, and exhaustingly online people who appear to be having a ball. “We’re just sort of fascinated with destroying expensive things,” one MSCHF member told the New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman in explaining the Birkinstock, “and creating something new out of them.”
And as childishly giddy as it must feel to trash something as valuable as a Birkin bag, it must be truly exhilarating to convert the remnants into something even more valuable. This is why it matters that the Birkinstock isn’t just a concept, that at least a few of these preposterous objects actually exist, and were actually purchased. This isn’t because the reality of the object and its consumption is a provocation. It’s more like a confirmation.
Yes, the unveiling of the Birkinstock prompted a flurry of press coverage striking a dutifully raised-eyebrow tone — but really, nobody was shocked or outraged. Much like a collaboration between a familiar brand and an edgy one, the exercise told us something we already know, but in a way that was novel and amusing.
“We’re not here to make the world a better place,” MSCHF’s CEO once told an interviewer. “We’re making light of how much everything sucks.” To another, he said: “Everything is just, ‘How do we kind of make fun of what we’re observing?’ Then we have as much fun with it as possible and see what happens.” That fun is MSCHF’s real product. It’s free, and they’re quite good at making it.