Questions for Shelly Glasgow, Birkenstock USA
What is your official job title and what do you do at Birkenstock?
My official job title is Director of Product Development and Merchandising, though I’ve never been comfortable with that title. It sounds quite long and complicated. I’d say my title is more like Brand Ambassador.
My job is to cherish and protect the history and heritage of the Birkenstock brand. My official job description probably says something like “… manage and present the Birkenstock product portfolio for the USA market that meets the needs of the Birkenstock brand customer and upholds and nurtures the Birkenstock brand values.” That means only classic timeless designs, warm comfortable colors, and no unique trims or embellishments. We leave that to the other brands.
How were new styles like the Chania or Larisa developed? By the way, here at Birkenstock Express we love the looks of the Chania and Larisa.
Well, as you know, introducing new styles for Birkenstock is pretty rare so when we saw we had an opportunity to offer something for Spring we were pretty excited. We had been looking for some time for another solid backstrap style t o add to the portfolio. We have a couple of solid styles like the Bali and Rio but we were looking for something to strengthen that group, for a number of reasons. One, the backstrap provides a secure fit that many of our customers appreciate and expect from us. Two, the traditional backstrap look is on trend right now. Many of the top designers introduced the chunkier strap look (“Birkenstock like”) this season …for both women and men. So we landed on the Odessa first, quarter strap with two adjustable straps. But Birkenstock is also thrifty so we always try to do more with less. So from here we saw we could make it an open back slide as well, the Larissa, and from there an ankle strap style, the Chania.
The Chania ended up being a nice surprise in the end. Definitely a bit more hip looking but also very classic looking. And oh by the way, it fits great! It’s really an update to the Athens that has been around for years. One of my favorite styles.
Where do you find inspirations for new colors or styles? Do you read certain blogs or trade journals? Do you attend fashion shows?
Well, some folks think this is probably easy but it’s actually pretty tough. For me anyway. My job is to cherish and protect the brand values and so that means only using certain types of leathers, certain types of tanneries, no stitching, no special embellishments, no prints or patterns and mostly earth tone colors. That can feel pretty limiting. The goal, though, is to be the solid foundation. To maintain the look and feel that everyone associates with the Birkenstock brand. This discipline is actually the hardest part of the job but it’s what has kept us relevant with consumers for close to 50 years. The fact that we don’t change a lot has really turned out to be our greatest asset.
Specific to inspiriration though, it can come in many ways. I do use an online trend service that provides a 360 degree view of the business from color inspiration, social trends, tradeshow recaps, market recaps, and way way more. It’s a very cool tool that I could spend hours and hours on everyday but alas….only time to check in weekly. But
true inspiration comes from so many places and really just keeping your eyes open and then applying context.
For example, on my recent trip to Germany just last week to develop Spring 2012….while walking home from dinner we went by this new Olive Oil store. It wasn’t open but we probably spent 30 minutes examining everything in the window, in this small German town. We noticed all of the colors, from greens, blacks, greys, purples, and browns. To the various textures of the oils, olive leaves, branches, etc. There is was right in front of us…wonderful inspiration. So sometimes its big things like high tech trends and colors and then sometimes its small things like what you see in a shop window in a small town in Germany.
What do you find most gratifying about your work?
Making a difference for people. I used to work in retail for years and years and specifically selling Birkenstock products for years and years. There’s nothing like fitting a customer that’s living in pain in a new pair of Birkenstock sandals and then having them come back in 30 days later to tell you how they changed their life. That really doesn’t happen to everyone and I’ve been lucky that it’s happened to me a lot! For many years I told people I was in the health care business, not the shoe business. Shoes just happened to be the vehicle to wellness.
But after that, and more specific to my current role, I would say it’s seeing our product featured in places like Elle magazine, being interviewed by the The New York Times fashion editor, seeing people like Usher and Paul McCartney wearing Birkenstock. Okay, that’s cool!
How has the footwear industry changed in the last 10 years?
Hello, can you say internet! That has really changed everything hasn’t it? Not just the footwear industry but all around the world. Look at Egypt and China and how the internet has changed the lives of so many people in huge and powerful ways. Who knew one or two emails could change the world. In the end though, luckily, folks still need healthy comfortable footwear and Birkenstock is one of the most recognized footwear brands around the world. Most recently with all the economic uncertainty folks have come back to the brand that they know and trust will deliver true value for them. That’s a great feeling.
Do you find that people from different countries think of the Birkenstock brand differently than Americans? If yes, then what are the differences?
Yes, it’s funny. Many folks of course think the brand is from the US and more specifically from California since the brand became so popular in the 60’s in San Francisco. But of course they are a German brand and in Germany they are viewed more as house shoes not so much as outdoor shoes. They are perceived more of a “health” product, not so much a hippy or green brand. You might find them in your local pharmacy or drug store as well as your neighborhood shoe store.
Apparently in the Netherland Birkenstock is quite popular right now, I think because of the renewed focus on clean and simple design, in all things. While in Japan they are just wild and crazy popular. They really love the whole (perceived) “Americana” look and play this out to the extreme.
How many pairs of Birkenstocks do you own?
You’d think I own quite a few but I don’t. Okay maybe eight or ten pair but that’s not allot compared to some of my coworkers. I probably wear the same 3 or 4 pairs for a year or so. I guess I’m a true Birkenstock customer because I love having a classic “go-to” pair that is perfectly broken in. Plus, a huge part of wearing Birkenstock is having the footbed shape to your foot and that only comes from wearing the same pair for awhile. I’m not the type that wears a different style everyday. Currently I’m wearing Mayari Silver Birko-Flor but probably my all time favorite is Arizona Navy Silky Suede.
If a college student wanted a job doing what you do, what advice would you give him or her?
Work in retail first. Retail is such a great learning opportunity for so many things in life and certainly in this case you need to know what the customer wants and needs first. That has to come first before all else. You can’t tell those things from a computer report, an excel spreadsheets or anywhere else. You have to talk to the customer, fit the customer, try the shoes on, go through difficult issues, and learn how to build report and confidence. That will prepare you for most anything. And when can you start.
How do you imagine the Birkenstock brand 10 years from now?
I hope to be imagining it from a small town in Italy somewhere. Sipping a glass of wine having just finished a beautiful bike ride and looking forward to a wonderful pasta dinner.