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Blog/Brand Bible/Dr Martens History
We stock plenty of brands with an awful lot of history. Converse began life - legend has it - after their founder slipped down some stairs. Dubarry are, despite their sterling reputation, relative newcomers to the country attire arena - they started as (and remain so to this day) producers of high quality sailing boots and shoes.
However, in terms of varying appeal, Dr Martens may just have the edge. Having enjoyed inauspicious beginnings as a medical remedy, they went on to become a functional staple in their native Germany, before consistent co-opting by subcultures here in Britain catapulted them to the stratospheric levels of popularity which they enjoy today.
It all started - similarly to Converse - with a slip-related mishap. This time, rather than Marquis M. Converse falling down some icy steps, it was Dr Klaus Märtens, a doctor for the German army in World War II, coming a cropper on the ski slopes of the Alps.
Laid up in hospital with a badly sprained ankle, Märtens was staring down the barrel of a long period of convalescence, exacerbated by his ill-fitting, standard-issue army boots. Not particularly fancying limping around for months on end, Märtens took some leather from a cobbler’s and created a new pair of boots. He used some old tyre to create the sole, which combined the natural bounciness of the rubber with air pockets which could be compressed, thus giving the foot a soft, unrestrictive cushion.
Realising he had - literally - stumbled upon a winning idea, Märtens set about selling the shoes, without much initial success. After a fruitless year, in 1946 he teamed up with friend Dr Herbert Funck, whose knowledge of production techniques made him perfect to bring Märtens fledgling idea to life. Working together, using rubber from the airfields of the Luftwaffe, their shoes finally caught on, largely thanks to their first group of loyal fans - housewives, who spent much of their time on their feet and found the sole’s comfort little short of a revelation.
From here, Märtens’ invention went from strength to strength, and by the late 1950s, he was looking to expand abroad by selling the rights to local producers. In the UK, he found one particularly keen suitor, the R. Griggs Group. The family, from Northamptonshire (so long a hotbed for English shoemaking) had been making boots since 1901, and with the option to start producing shoes with exotic, innovative soles, the company jumped at the opportunity. They Anglicised the name, stitched the outsole to the leather upper with bright yellow thread and reshaped the heel to make them fit better, and on the 1st of April, 1960 (a date immortalised in the iconic style’s name, 1460), the first pair of Dr Martens boots - in cherry red leather - rolled off the production line.
The AirWair (trademarked by Griggs at the same time they acquired the license to sell the shoes) soles proved an instant hit with those who spent time on their feet, and continue to be the boots of choice for policemen and postmen decades later.
They continued to bubble under the surface of popular consciousness until they were donned by Pete Townshend, the stylistically enigmatic, energetic guitarist of The Who. Like the skinheads, Townshend liked the boots because they reminded him of his working class roots, and because they acted as a response to the florid, psychedelic outfits more commonly associated with rock music at the time. Townshend was famously quoted saying, “I was sick of dressing up as a Christmas tree in flowing robes that got in the way of my guitar playing… so I thought I’d move on to utility wear”. They have remained inextricably tied with music ever since, being worn by everyone from The Clash and the Sex Pistols to Rihanna and Ellie Goulding.
Docs were never just going to fulfil a utilitarian destiny. From Hippies to Skinheads, everyone in britain was obsessed with Docs, after Pete Townshend. They first demonstrated their countercultural chops when their status as the go-to boot for posties and bobbys made them the ideal choice for the first wave of skinheads, whose look was designed as an affectionate nod toward traditional working class garb. The boot’s sturdy, brawny design made it the perfect antithesis to the shoe-less hippy movement that the skinhead style was born out of opposition to.
As the skinhead movement started to phase out in the 1970’s, other subcultures started to get involved with the Dr Martens craze. The decade of glam, punk and goths sees youth subculture splinter into countless groups. Dr Martens became a symbol for self-expressions and rebellion during the anti-establishment movements. The iconic Dr Martens boot established itself at the heart of British youth culture.
The 1990s saw Dr Martens most successful period, in era dominated by Britpop and Grunge. These two cultures could not be more different, yet they both still adopted Docs as their staple footwear. By the late 1990’s, Docs began to engage in festival culture and football sponsorship, as between 1998 and 2005, Dr Martens was the main sponsor of Northamptonshire based Football Club Rushden and Diamonds. During this golden era Global footwear sales hit a record £250 million.
Every movement since the late ‘60s seems to boast a connection to Docs. Everyone from goths to glam rockers outwardly celebrated the brand’s working class roots, its status as a symbol for rebellion, and the sense of community between those that wore them, while inwardly delighting in just how comfy they were.
Miraculously, given their popularity with so many contrasting and conflicting subcultures, Docs retain their sense of individuality and rebellion. Now, with their original style over 50 years old, they’re still showing no signs of selling out.
Originally produced for predominantly men in Britain, Docs started to release more and more female shoes, in the early 90’s. By 1994, 50% of Dr Martens owners were women, and shoes of different colours and designs were released.
The brand’s fortieth birthday, in 2000, was a time of celebration, only to be followed shortly after by problems. New stores open overseas but sales begin declining in 2001, pre-empting a dark period for the brand. By 2002, Griggs and Co and Airwair International almost collapse as sales fall dramatically, so all but one of the UK factories are closed to stave off bankruptcy.
However, Dr Martens quickly got back on their feet, as the revitalisation of the brand began with world-renowned designers, such as Jimmy Choo and Vivienne Westwood, reinterpreting and customising the classic 1460 boot. Shortly after, R Griggs won ‘Turnaround of the Year’ award, which was a testament to the brand’s ability to get back on their feet.
Since then, Dr Martens continued their brand resurgence, with a new store opening in London and the original Northampton based factory started to release the limited edition ‘Vintage’ range, which replicated the original pair of Docs.
In 2010, Dr Martens celebrated its 50th anniversary, in just 50 years Dr Martens has immersed itself in British culture, from policemen and postmen to goths and skinheads, all cultures in britain have joined the Dr Martens hype. Now, with their original style over 50 years old, they’re still showing no signs of selling out.
Image courtesy of WireImage and Shuperb