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Birkenstocks take teasing in stride

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Tamara Perkins wears a pair of Birkenstock Gizeh sandles while enjoying a cup of coffee at the Spasso Coffee House in Oakland, California, on Wednesday.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In Thank You for Smoking, an acerbic movie about a tobacco lobbyist, the camera paints a quick but telling portrait of his bane, Senator Ortolan Finistirre, an antismoking environmentalist Democrat from Vermont, played by William H. Macy. A poster of Cheddar cheese hangs on his office wall. Tins of maple syrup crowd his desk. The proof positive of his moral rectitude, however, comes in a cutaway shot of the senator's feet encased in thick white socks and sandals.

They are not just any sandals, but boxy buckled Birkenstocks, the footwear that has become synonymous with a certain type of noodge. Or in the senator's case, worse. In his rabid desire for citizens never to inhale, he is portrayed in the satiric movie as mercilessly berating an employee, manipulating consumer sympathies and seeking to slap a skull and crossbones on every package of cigarettes in the land.

"Nothing says, `I want to tell you how to live your life' more than Birkenstocks," said Jason Reitman, the director of the film, which is to open in New York, Los Angeles and Washington on March 17. "The visual registers immediately. There's something about the shoe that is universally understood that makes it so funny."

The sandals are emblems of liberal do-gooderness, he said, and the senator -- a villain in the movie -- wants to "regulate the world."

Though real Birkenstock wearers may come in all political persuasions, using the sandal to represent the pushier side of liberalism is a long-running joke. As it turns out, Birkenstock doesn't mind at all.

"He's wearing the Vermont costume," Scott Radcliffe, the marketing director at Birkenstock Distribution USA, said of Macy's character.

The "Birkenstock-wearing, granola-crunching, Volvo-driving fill-in-the-blank stereotype" emerged in the broader culture without any doing on the company's part, Radcliffe said. The company finds it entertaining, he said, that the sandals have reached the kind of status that qualifies them for movie close-ups, even disparaging ones.

"To me a Birkenstock fan looks at that, laughs and is not alienated," he said.

Of course, not every film pokes fun at the shoes. Sometimes, Radcliffe suggested, a Birkenstock is just a Birkenstock, as when Michelle Pfeiffer wore a pair around the house in What Lies Beneath.

Other times it is the sandal's unabashed frumpiness that lands it an on-screen cameo. Take The Office, the NBC comedy. In one episode this season the nerdy salesman Dwight Schrute wears Birkenstocks with socks to an after-work barbecue and mentions that he keeps an extra pair in the car for special occasions.

Dwight, who venerates the corporate ethos, might not seem the Birkenstock type, until one considers that he lives on a beet farm and does karate (later in the episode he hits it off with an obvious soulmate, a female colleague in felted gray Birkenstocks). Carey Bennett, the costume designer for the show and herself a happy Birkenstock wearer, said that she wanted something "that would fit in with Dwight's wardrobe, because he's very sensible."

Oddly enough, Birkenstocks were first embraced by a segment of society that was considered anything but sensible: flower children.

In 1966 Margot Fraser, who was born in Germany and was living in Santa Cruz, California, spotted the foot-friendly sandals on a visit back home and wanted to sell them in the US. Local shoe stores weren't enamored of the sandals. One potential retailer described them as hideous, Fraser said. It took a health food store owner, who noticed them at a convention and scooped up a few pairs for her customers, to bring them to the attention of others with back-to-nature tendencies, who became smitten.

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