AN English High Court judge once said: “The story of Dr Martens is so improbable that no novelist would have dared to invent it.” Quite possibly, there has been no other boot in history that has proved so popular with such diverse groups of people as politicians, punks and pop stars. Even Pope John Paul II ordered 100 pairs in white.
Dr Martens, also known as Doc Martens, Docs or DMs, are probably the most potent and universal symbol of youth rebellion. And they’re comfy. Madonna wore them. So did the Dalai Lama. And many others: Sid Vicious, Pete Townsend, Billy Bragg, Joe Strummer, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, Kurt Cobain, Elton John. Tony Benn, MP. And of course, Natasha Stott Despoja.
Then there are all those for whom Dr Martens were standard-issue work wear, so to speak: policemen, postmen, street buskers, football hooligans, socialists, London Underground workers, supermodels, firemen, crack SAS teams during the Falklands War, factory labourers. And, of course, skinheads the world over.
The story of Dr Martens, the boots with the bouncy, air-cushioned sole, is as improbable as it is compelling, especially since they were originally made for elderly German women with foot trouble.
But Dr Martens have not worn so well over recent years. Just when the yellow-stitched iconic boots of British street fashion, with their indestructibility and unrivalled street-cred seemed immortal, something changed. Some time around the 1980s, their grip on the youth market began to slip. Many subsets of youth culture stopped wearing them, as did postmen and their ilk. Tastes were changing and economic growth was slowing.
Although Dr Martens remains one of the world’s most high-profile footwear brands, the family-owned company that makes them, R. Griggs, is no longer the fashion powerhouse it once was. The halcyon days of the 1970s are over — for now, anyway.
Perhaps it was the rise of hip-hop and rave culture. Teenagers didn’t want thick-soled boots any more. They wanted lightweight sneakers. With the explosion in dance music, getting down on the dance floor was just that much easier in sneakers.
In the late ’90s, sales reportedly plummeted over four years from £250 million to £90 million. In 2001, the company lost £20 million. All but one factory in Britain was closed in 2002, with 2000 jobs lost. Production in Britain got the boot and the company’s operations moved to China.
There are about 250 styles of Dr Martens footwear sold in more than 78 countries, but the company relies heavily on the US, which accounts for about 60 per cent of sales. A brief resurgence during the rise of punk-influenced grunge rock in the ’90s made little difference. Sales at the beginning of the century continued to decline.
In the past we thought we were a brand that transcended the normal rules of competition, but I don’t think that is true any more — if it ever was,” William Johnson, R. Griggs company secretary, said at the time. In a newspaper interview last month, chief executive David Suddens, put it more bluntly: “Fashion changes and we didn’t see it coming.”
Still, the Dr Martens website is stoicly kicking on, desperately trying to pull in the fickle youth market. “There is no comparison,” it says. “This is not a brand, it’s a way of thinking, a mode of expression.”
Trying to find a way into the “yeah, whatever” internet generation, the website is attempting to talk their language: “Dr Martens have always been different. No other brand has been mutated, customised, f—-d up and freaked out like DMs.”
For the marketers, it’s not just about flogging footwear, it’s about trying to re-create a rebel mindset: “You need anchors in this sea of creativity. You need things you can rely on,” pleads the website. “Dr Martens anchor you, liberate your creativity, inspire and fuel your identity. Our heritage fits your future: your future is our future.”
It sure is.
It was a very different world in 1945, when the Dr Martens story started. The famous air-cushioned sole was originally developed by Klaus Maertens, a doctor in the German army during World War II. While skiing in the Bavarian Alps he injured his ankle and found his standard-issue army boots too uncomfortable. During his recuperation he designed improvements to his boots using soft leather and air-padded soles.
After the war in 1947 he went into business with an old university friend, with the delightful name of Dr Herbert Funck. Using discarded rubber from Luftwaffe airfields, the duo made comfortable, durable soles that proved popular with elderly women.
In the 1950s the concept was spotted by British boot maker Bill Griggs who took over production. The family firm made some key changes. They gave the boots a stronger leather upper, a more bulbous toe and yellow stitching. They also changed the spelling of the name to Dr Martens to avoid any unpleasant postwar German connotations. Under the trademark AirWair, the boots were sold to workmen. The first pair came off the production line on April 1, 1960, hence the sub-brand name 1460. The black eight-lacehole 1460 remains today’s classic Dr Marten boot.
Undeniably, Dr Martens are no longer the boot of the working class. They come in the shape of boots, shoes and sandals, and in a multitude of colours. The famous ox-blood red boots (cherry docs) are also still in production. Football hooligans made cherry docs their trademark, supposedly so the blood of their enemies would not stain the boot.
So enduring was the appeal of Dr Martens, two Sydney brothers, Garry and Ronny Lewy, owners of three Raben Footwear stores, decided to pay the original designer of the boot’s logo for the copyright. But it all ended in a copyright battle in the British High Court. Peter Prescott, the judge who spoke of the improbability of the Dr Martens story in his judgement in 2003, ruled the copyright belonged to R. Griggs.
But that’s not the end of the story.
In an attempt to stop Dr Martens being trampled underfoot by the sneakers boom, the company has a new team designing more relaxed sports-casual styles. The launch of the Dr Martens canvas and leather pumps is expected in September.
But the planned 21st-century reboot has already hit a hurdle. In May, the company fired Saatchi & Saatchi for running a campaign featuring dead rock stars Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious, Joey Ramone and Joe Strummer wearing togas and Dr Martens in heaven, presumably indicating their durability beyond earthly measures.
In The Guardian R. Griggs denied commissioning the ads and apologised for any offence caused. But Saatchi & Saatchi maintained the campaign had been approved to run once in a British magazine.
In the business of marketing, where all publicity is good publicity, the furore over the ads might yet prove a boon for the boots — all things considered.
The company that admits it suffered because it didn’t see a change in fashion trends coming, says sales are beginning to creep up. Debts have been paid off and new styles are about to hit the streets. It seems the people over at Dr Martens have finally got their skates on.
by Sushi Das