Trippen out




The highlight of Michael Stipe’s trips to Berlin is always a visit to the Trippen store. What is it about these odd shoes that’s made them a global cult?

In Zehdenick, a village an hour north of Berlin, there’s a sprawling industrial estate that served as a computer chip factory in Soviet times. Today, it’s an organised chaos: steam is pumping out from hulking machines, on which sculptural leather boots are shaped; dust billows from heavy-duty sanding machines; and monstrous leather sewing machines clatter away. It’s here that more than 120,000 pairs of shoes are produced each year by Trippen, an eccentric footwear brand that has developed an almost slavish following in the fashion and art worlds.

The factory’s basement houses an atomic bunker (complete with an energy-producing bicycle for ventilation) and a Soviet-era bowling alley, both of which are now used to stockpile stacks of pelts amid old timber bowling pins – soft calf leather and cowhide, sturdy buffalo leather, delicate sheepskins, textured nubuck leather, specially shrunk elk skins, and denim-lined batik-effect goatskins. Outside is a lush garden planted with plums, apples and pears from which the staff make cakes and jam in the summertime.

It’s summer when I visit, but the plum trees aren’t producing fruit this year. Instead, Claudia Hoess, who’s in charge of design and pattern making, offers me a tiny, tart pear. Being summer, the 130-odd factory workers are in the middle of the winter production, a labour-intensive process of up to half a day for each pair of boots – “Even with the fittest and toughest sewing ladies,” says Hoess.

I’m particularly excited to visit this out-of-the-way factory because Trippen shoes aren’t exactly ordinary shoes. It’s a brand synonymous with eccentric avant-garde style and lagenlook creative types. Fashion royalty such as Issey Miyake and Comme de Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo are fans, German Chancellor Angela Merkel owns a pair, and REM frontman Michael Stipe likes them so much that during a recent concert at Berlin’s Waldbühne, he announced that visiting the Trippen store was his favourite part of playing in Berlin.

They’re the footwear de rigueur at events like the Venice Biennale and Milan’s design Salone, but rarely will you see two identical pairs – there are over 1,350 distinct styles, and they’re all still in production, selling for between €200 and €450 (up to NOK4,320). Retailers tend to stock them in neutral black and brown, but for an additional €20, you can order a bespoke pair in any colour of your choosing – think silver knee-high boots, or violet timber-soled wedges.

Creator of the iconic red-soled, sky-high stiletto Christian Louboutin once quipped, “I would hate for someone to look at my shoes and say, ‘Oh my God! They look so comfortable!’” It’s the antithesis of Trippen co-founders Michael Oehler and Angela Spieth’s ethos. Flicking through a Trippen catalogue you get the feeling that their biggest fear is someone looking at their shoes and thinking they look even remotely like any other shoe they’ve ever seen. “Many people want to be different,” says Oehler. “We recognise that and offer difference and comfort – that’s what makes us so successful.”

There’s the Closed collection – boots which look as if they’ve come straight from Middle Earth by way of a steampunk Victoriana fantasy world, all thick seams, buckles, superfluous laces, raw leather edges and hoof-like rubber soles; the Cup collection, which Oehler describes as “a very sophisticated sneaker”; the Penna and Split collections, with innovative split soles; the X + OS collection with its striking cross-shaped rubber sole; and the Happy and Box collections, with extruded 7cm-tall Japanese geta-style soles. But, the brand is best known for its first collection of timber-soled shoes.

The Wood collection is the most diverse of all the Trippen styles. Continually added to, it encompasses everything from austere geisha-style platforms and whimsical curlicue styles to carefully engineered, architectural constructions and delicate, shiny-soled objets d’art hand-lacquered by a furniture-maker in Berlin. It was with this collection it all started in 1991.

Oehler spent the decade prior to setting up Trippen creating bespoke shoes in Kreuzberg, West Berlin, for theatre and film productions. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, many of the West German theatres closed, and he was soon searching for new creative business opportunities. He met Angela Spieth, a trained fashion designer who had been working in large-scale footwear production, at a gallery opening in 1991.

Within four weeks of meeting, they had decided to collaborate on a shoe collection, and the following year they presented the first Trippen collection of 60 timber-soled shoes at a Berlin gallery. The shoes quickly caught the attention of Berlin’s fashion elite – the likes of Claudia Skoda and Wolfgang Joop – who used the shoes in their catwalk shows.

“The decision to use timber soles was less an attraction than a practicality,” Oehler says. “We could make shoes very quickly and on our own by hand without a production line. It was a nice time at the beginning because we were so free. There were no limits.”

For three years Oehler and Spieth made their timber-soled shoes in small quantities in a small courtyard in Berlin, enlisting the help of then-apprentice Hoess, several students and a conscientious objector from the Balkans. “We weren’t really thinking about growing the brand,” says Oehler. But grow it did, and following the launch of the Closed collection, the duo set up production in Italy.

Japan, in particular, appreciated the handcrafted aesthetic of Trippen, and early on the shoes were stocked in every fashion boutique in Tokyo’s hip Shibuya district. In 1996, the duo negotiated an exclusive deal with an importer who paid four months up front, giving them the funds necessary to move production of the Closed collection from Italy to their own factory in Germany. “We wanted to produce in Germany to keep the art of shoemaking alive here,” says Oehler. “But, we would never have got money from the bank for shoe production in Germany.”

Almost 25 years after that first Wood collection, Trippen has an annual turnover of €10 million (NOK96m), is available in 35 countries, and has won a host of international awards for everything from design to innovative pattern cutting techniques. Despite their global success, Oehler and Spieth are still driven by the brand’s founding principles: innovative design combined with environmental friendliness, sustainability and social responsibility, and the understanding that in a world of skyrocketing environmental concerns, people are willing to pay more for products that last.

Since the start, Trippen has run a repair workshop that restores well-loved shoes to their former glory. During my visit, the workshop was full of shoes, including a pair of decade-old, paint-spattered Warrior boots, awaiting the careful attention of Mehmet Ucar, the man responsible for giving the shoes new life. “People have a very intimate relationship with their Trippen shoes,” says Hoess. “One of our main ideas is that you have a product that lasts as long as possible.”

Then, there are the experiments into sustainable new materials. “Maybe in the future the perfect shoe will be a simple flip-flop made from milk and sugar,” says Oehler. Until then, there’s a collection of shoes made using FRS, a hybrid rubber material up-cycled from old bicycle tires; a collaboration with Berlin-based design studio Blond & Bieber that uses algae-based dyes; and ongoing research into how the natural rubber in dandelion roots could be used to make a new material.

“In another 25 years, there will be over nine billion people on the Earth,” says Oehler. “It’s difficult to put this knowledge of a growing population into a strategy for a small luxury goods company like Trippen. Back in 1960, I wanted to change the world. Then I worked out that it’s easier to make a difference in a small way. I can’t change the world with my shoes, but we like to make shoes and we make really lovely shoes. If we keep doing that then I think there will be a place for us in the future.”

Comments are closed.