Ersatz-America and Esquire : Step One to getting Berlin right: No Birkenstocks!

Esquire magazine has offered its readers “Four Steps to Getting Birkenstocks Right.” Kevin Cote can only ask: Huh? A service feature on how to wear Birkenstock sandals the right way? Was there a wrong way? Weren't all ways the wrong way?

Birkenstocks may have been on display here at the Berlin "Bread and Butter" fashion fair, but they're definitely not cool.
Birkenstocks may have been on display here at the Berlin "Bread and Butter" fashion fair, but they're definitely not cool.Foto: dpa

To be successful as an expatriate, you have to pick out some things you can use as a reality check. Something to remind you of where you came from, so you can better understand where you are. My reality check has been America’s extraordinary Esquire magazine. Until last week.

My dad still had a subscription when I was growing up in suburban Philadelphia.  He and hundreds of thousands of service men were tricked in to buying it by the amazing watercolor pin ups by Esquire illustrator Alberto Vargas.  The Varga Girls, and their gravity-defying breasts, were long a legend by the time I started peeking into Esquire in the 1970s.

But it had become a forum for New Journalism. And the art directors were blending photographs, illustrations and typography to create compelling covers and dramatic new ways of telling stories.  There was great fiction.  Fashion and grooming was also part of a mix that Esquire called “A Man’s Life,” putting it at the vanguard of a wave of lifestyle publications to come.

The world you come from

I never aspired to live “A Man’s Life.”  But the ideas, priorities and attitudes I discovered in Esquire went with me as I moved around Europe. I would pick it up from time to time, check out the stories and the pictures and the ads, and always think: this is the world you came from, so this is the world you would probably living in now… if you were still in America.

Though I had long stopped being a regular reader, the bond was eerily underscored when Esquire launched a UK and than a German edition. By following me around the globe, the magazine seemed to be validating my own expatriate experience; an American concept transplanted, embraced and thriving in another place.

So it is hard to describe the sense of loss and disorientation I felt recently when I dropped by and found their fashion blogger with “Four Steps to Getting Birkenstocks Right.” 

Huh? A service feature on how to wear Birkenstock sandals the right way? Was there a wrong way? I thought all ways were the wrong way.  Beyond being really comfortable, in this man’s life, Birkenstock’s fuck-you-fashionista vibe is frankly part of their attraction.

Keep things fun

But no. Esquire says to do them right you should wear a long, tailored coat with a printed pattern.  And don’t forget the solid tie to “keep things fun.”  You should also be thinking about some light drawstring trousers, with just a “hint of bagginess.”  And finally, Esky encourages readers to be confident, by feeling them on their feet, and in their hearts.

The offending blog post on
The offending blog post on Esquire.comFoto:

There is something terribly wrong with a magazine as celebrated, sophisticated and American as Esquire giving style advice about how to wear an iconic German shoe. That’s not the America I can identify with, that’s certainly not the life I would be living if I was there. Baggy drawstring trousers. Solid ties. With Birkenstocks?

I forgot to say earlier the German edition of Esquire closed down in 1990 after only a couple years on the newsstands.  Last year the Burda publishing company was supposed to revive it in partnership with Hearst, the US publisher. That plan has apparently been spiked.  Maybe now we know why.

“Four Steps to Getting Birkenstocks Right” not only shows me that Esquire can no longer reflect a weird kind of Ersatz life that I might be living at home in America today.  It also suggests that today’s editorial formula would probably be thrown out at the border before it gets let in to Germany.

Once an old buddy of mine was visiting us in Berlin from America. He wanted to go to some clubs here. That’s all they read about Berlin in America these days, so I felt obligated.  I gave a head’s up to my son, who knew the sélecteur at Cookies, to make sure we wouldn’t get turned away because we were older, or looked like tourists, or whatever.

Won’t let us in

We show up there around midnight, and the guy at the door is eyeing us up and down. The bouncer shakes his head to my son. Won’t let us in. Doesn’t like the look of my guest. Has the wrong clothes on. My friend is incredulous. He protests. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to him at clubs back in Boston. Leaving, he says he can’t understand. Clothes? He even has his brand new white trainers shoes on.

Turns out you can’t blame my buddy.  Esquire lists plain white trainers as number 7 in “The 8 Pairs of Shoes Ever Man Should Own.”  Maybe in America.  Maybe in Britain. But not if you want to get Berlin right. 

Kevin Cote is a television news producer at Deutsche Welle in Berlin and an early editor-in-chief of Zitty magazine