Natty Nana

How an obscure German orthopedic sandal became chic.

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.

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?

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.

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.)

Although there have not been any big features on the Worishofer since that Kuczynski takedown, all the vendors I contacted said that their sales continue to rise due to young women’s interest. Weitman is now selling about 50,000 Worishofers a year, and he says that since 2006, his sales have gone up about 25 percent each year. He supplies both independent boutiques and Amazon, which started carrying the shoe in 2008; Weitman says he ships between five and 100 pairs to the online retailing giant every day, and his company’s sales to Amazon continue to increase.

The uptick in Worishofer sales could be explained by the power of social influencers—your friends and celebrities alike. I purchased my first pair two summers ago, after spotting Style 711 on my fashionable friend Becca. I told her how much I liked them and she got the fevered look of a televangelist. “They are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned,” she insisted. “You must get a pair!” Every woman I know who owns a pair recommends them to friends, because if you live in a walking city like New York, finding a pair of cute-yet-comfortable sandals is of paramount summer importance—and it’s more difficult than you’d think. What’s more, Maggie Gyllenhaal has been featured on People’s celebrity baby Web site wearing the 251, and a celebrity’s seal of approval can be just as powerful as a pal’s.

Yet the Worishofer might stop just short of total footwear domination. Weitman says the post-collegiate ladies he sells to are mostly in the New York metropolitan area, while Banyas says he sells the shoes to young women across the country—but only in other major cities like Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. When you don’t have to walk all the time, as you do in more urban environments, the extreme comfort that the Worishofer offers is not such a fantastic selling point. Why not rock a 5-inch heeled clog if you’re driving to the party? Additionally, although their faintly elderly look is a selling point in Cobble Hill, it could be a liability in the hinterlands. Schwister says that for stylish middle-aged women, the fact that Worishofers are truly old lady shoes is a “turn-off.” Which is to say, a 25-year-old can wear an orthopedic sandal without fearing that she looks like she’s preparing for the nursing home, while the same shoe might cause a 50-year-old some consternation.

Still, I’m rooting for the Worishofer to become a mainstream hit, even if it completely destroys any indie cred the shoes once claimed. It’s hard to know what takes a fashion trend from small-scale urban success to the floors of local malls nationwide. An endorsement from Oprah? A cameo on the first lady’s feet in the Presidential Flickr stream? An infomercial starring Angelina Jolie? But whatever it takes, I hope these shoes go wide. They are so comfortable, and so cute, that it will be good news for women everywhere when we decide they’re not just for the nursing home anymore.Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.