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FASHION : Some Trade Beauty for Comfort : It takes about two weeks for owners of the clunky-looking Birkies to get used to their new shoes, then many say miracles happen.


If you're shopping for sandals to get you through the summer, you probably don't already wear Birkenstocks, the elite sandal that, like the Energizer Bunny, just keeps going and going.

What's so unusual about the clunky-looking shoes that trade beauty for comfort?

Made in Germany by descendants of the Birkenstock family who started making shoes in 1774, they feature a deep heel cup and a unique, cork foot bed patterned after a natural footprint and are made of burlap, suede and jute. Some people believe they produce miracles.

"They change the shape of your foot," says James Branson, manager of The Comfort Zone at The Oaks Mall in Thousand Oaks. "The cork causes [the foot bed] to actually compact, and with heat and pressure from your body, you'll get the perfect arch and heel."

It takes about two weeks before most people feel comfortable in the shoes. Branson says it's hard to get away from them once you own a pair--his wife owns 12.

At Santa Paula Hospital, Laboratory Manager David Malmin has worn them since 1975. He's on his feet for long periods of time, and comfort is a priority. The Birkies, as they are affectionately called, satisfy that need.

"Other shoes feel tight and restrictive," he says.

Hospital policy requires covered toes, so he wears his closed-toe Birkenstocks at work and his sandals off-duty. When the shoes wear down, he has the cork beds repacked and adds heel and toe taps.

Ann Filsinger, a lab technician, bought her first pair in 1977 and still wears them. They've been resoled twice and have had the cork in the heels built up. She rotates them with four other pairs, and says they feel just like slippers. She tried on a cheaper imitation selling for $19 but was disappointed.

"One or two steps and you know you're not in a Birkenstock--it doesn't have the same feeling," she says. She discovered that the Price Club carries some models at $49, and happily passed that tip along.

Ventura counselor Jim Hoover was left with one foot shorter than the other after an accident in Vietnam. He says Birkies adjusted to the problem.

Bad backs reap benefits, too. Des Shields, a mental health counselor, was told to get a cane and take pain pills after an MRI identified disk problems in his back. A second doctor prescribed shoes with a negative heel. But the closed-toe Birkenstock he wears daily brought almost immediate relief without the cane or pain pills.

Oxnard podiatrist Dr. Scot L. Roberg confirmed that certain physical benefits are possible with Birkenstocks.

"The reason it's good for the back is that we have a center of gravity to our body that should be centered through the hips, just back of the knee and through the ankle," Roberg says. "When you pitch your heels, it throws that whole center of gravity off and gives your back a sway that isn't good. Birkies will return your body, if it can, to a better center of gravity."

The latest Birkenstock innovation is the Footprint collection, with its removable insides. Once they're worn down, you can lift the insides out and have them replaced. It costs $40 or $50 for the replacement, about half the original cost of $80 to $100, but you have new life in the old shoe.

An alternative to the Birkie is the Mephisto, a handmade sandal from a Paris manufacturer who raises his own cattle for the leather. Costing as much as $160, the Mephisto is also made with latex, which gives it more resiliency, and cork to retain the shape of the foot. It seems to work better for people with heel spurs who find Birkies too hard.

For an even softer sensation, you can try the UGG, an Australian import made from sheepskin, keeping the foot cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Priced from $39 to $69, the sandal is sold at Aussie Imports in Fisherman's Wharf at Channel Island Harbor. Owner Beth Novak says they have a similar foot bed to Birkenstocks and provide the same therapeutic effect.

If that isn't enticing enough, we learned that Rush Limbaugh endorses UGGs. I tried to give President Clinton equal endorsement space, but he was out jogging, no doubt in something recycled, American made and guaranteed to last another four years.


* WHERE TO GET BIRKIES: Birkenstock Footprints, 518 E. Santa Clara St., Ventura, 643-7043; The Comfort Zone, The Oaks Mall, 474 W. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks, 496-0118; Channel Islands Repair & Bootery, 707 W. Channel Islands Blvd., Port Hueneme, 985-5080.

* WHERE TO GET UGGs: Aussie Imports, 3866 W. Channel Islands Blvd., Oxnard, 984-5545 or (800) 847-8447.


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