How Worishofer German orthopedic sandals became chic.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 15 2010 4:32 PM

Natty Nana

How an obscure German orthopedic sandal became chic.

Maggie Gyllenhaal wearing Worishofer sandals. Click image to expand.
Maggie Gyllenhaal wearing Worishofer sandals

I am frequently complimented on my Worishofer slingback sandals. They are made of perforated black leather with a little cork wedge, and they lace up the front, revealing a demure hint of toenail. These are grandma shoes—they're manufactured in Germany and are worn primarily by older European women as medicinal sandals. But they're amazingly supportive, distinctive, and as attractive as sensible shoes could possibly be. For years, I've been bragging that I purchased them from an online outfit called Buddy's Shoes (of Boca Raton), where actual grandmas probably shop.

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

I thought I was fashion-forward, procuring darling shoes from an obscure, geriatric South Florida hookup, but it turns out I'm not alone. Just yesterday, the always avant-garde MIA was spotted wearing metallic Worishofers over enormous white sweat socks. And while most young European trendsetters still shun the shoes, Americans have taken to the Worishofer. According to Bernie Richfield, the national sales manager at Laurevan Shoes, the only Worishofer wholesaler in the United States, the sandals have exploded in popularity among the under-40 set. The president of Buddy's Shoes Inc., John "Buddy" Banyas, says that he's tripled his sales since 2009, and he attributes this jump to the brand's popularity among young women.

Longtime U.S. sellers of Worishofers, which feature an insole designed by a German podiatrist 70 years ago, are deeply baffled by the shoes' new popularity among the young and sartorially inclined. "We used to joke that they were the bunion shoes," Paul Weitman, president of Laurevan, says of my kicky lace-up numbers. So what's the bunion special doing on the feet of celebrity style icons like Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst?

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It all started with a mention in Lucky Magazine in the June 2006 issue. The influential shopping magazine called them "chic" and "ridiculously comfortable." Before that summer, the only mentions of Worishofer in Nexis are a squib from a footwear business publication and a brief write-up of the Girls Club of Pinellas Park's "Really Big Shoe Sale" in September 1989. After the initial mention in Lucky, mainstream media outlets began covering the shoe. Weitman said he saw a bump in sales of about 25 percent that year. For the first time, he was selling Worishofers to trendy boutiques, like Shoe Market and Bird in Brooklyn. Today, the company supplies between 35 and 50 boutiques in the New York area, funky hot spots where older women "don't even walk in," says Richfield. Before then, says Weitman, who has been flogging Worishofers wholesale for 26 years, his sales had peaked in the mid-'90s, and then started declining when the independent, often family-run shoe stores that sold them to their older clientele began to go out of business.

Worishofer Women's 583 Slingback Sandal.

Later in the summer of '06, the sandals got a shout-out in Women's Wear Daily in a round-up of senior-inspired fall fashion. The granny-chic aesthetic that has become popular among some young women has helped bolster sales, says Shoe Market co-owner Dana Schwister, who discovered the brand at an "old lady shoe store" on Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn when she was pregnant and looking for some foot relief. She started carrying them at her own store in 2007 and says they're one of her best-selling summer items, particularly Style 251—the basic slide.

The following summer brought a bit more media glory to the humble Worishofer, and the first mini-backlash. In June, Daily Candy's Dannielle Romano discussed the shoe on the Today Show with Al Roker and a podiatrist named Suzanne Levine. Romano declared them stylish but also added, "These are made for old grandmas. You can picture them with their ankle-length nylons." Banyas says that the Today Show mention was Worishofer's second big break in terms of driving sales, after the Lucky mention. But then in November, New York Magazine included the 251 in a historical round-up of ugly-yet-trendy shoes. The following August, the New York Times' Alex Kuczynski lumped them in with Crocs and decried their "faux irony." (I don't know about other Worishofer owners, but my love for them is earnest—I genuinely think they are attractive.)