What unites Pope John Paul II, Pete Townshend, Brooklyn Beckham and Rihanna?
All of them, at some point in time – along with legions of other high-profile figures, not to mention workers, schoolchildren, punks, rockers, anyone who wants a good stompy boot to pair with jeans or a midi dress – have worn Dr Martens. But shares in the iconic brand have hit a record low, falling by almost 25 per cent, it emerged on Thursday. Chief executive Kenny Wilson warned that earnings are to fall below expectations as a result of warm weather for much of the autumn and reduced demand in the US.
You probably don’t need me to describe a Dr Martens boot. You’re already picturing the cherry red leather, ridged sole, yellow stitching, and the branded Airwair tag at the heel, which has promised “bouncing soles” since 1960. The design has remained virtually unchanged in the intervening years, transcending class, culture and trends.
The origin story isn’t exactly marketing gold. Dr Martens was the brainchild of physician Dr Klaus Maertens, a doctor in the German Army. In 1945, while recovering from a broken foot, he designed a boot with air-cushioned soles made from tyres and soft leather looted from a cobbler. From this, he developed a boot for sale, which proved a hit, especially among women over the age of 40.
By 1959, Maertens was considering expansion into the UK market. British family-owned work boot maker Griggs acquired the licence for the technology, anglicised the name, and the Dr Martens 1460 – the original eight-eyelet boot – was born. The number, 1460, referred to the date of its launch: 1st April 1960.
The £2 boots, manufactured at the Griggs factory in Northamptonshire, were popular with workers who spent hours on their feet, such as police officers, postmen and miners. By the end of the decade, they had become a symbol of working-class pride, and worn by the likes of Pete Townshend of The Who and Labour politician Tony Benn. Elton John wore a macro pair in the 1975 musical film Tommy. Dr Martens were the original democratic footwear.
They were loved by The Clash and the Sex Pistols, and became part of the uniform for punks, goths and later grunge enthusiasts. The boots were easy to decorate and customise, while remaining comfortable and affordable. Dame Vivienne Westwood was perhaps their most famous customiser, often ripping, painting or adding embellishments to them, the perfect pairings for her rebellious clothing designs.
But they also developed a countercultural following: far-Right skinheads who would roll up their jeans to better expose their boots, and even white supremacists. With that came an association with violence, though this history hasn’t hindered their popularity, says Dr Benjamin Wild, senior lecturer in fashion narratives at Manchester Metropolitan University.
“I think it comes back to its design,” he says. “It’s very comfortable. It’s very durable … As a staple since the Sixties, it has become imbued with all of these different cultural ideas. [This] gives it a longevity, but as those trends flow and sometimes diminish, still, the boot has traction, it has appeal, because fundamentally: it is that quality item. You’ve just got a really good product.”
The company has continued to experience peaks and troughs in the years since. In 2003, it came close to going bankrupt, and shifted manufacturing from Northamptonshire to China and Thailand. It’s a move that kept the brand in business, but longtime customers claimed that quality had taken a hit. Today, Dr Martens offers a handful of “Made in England” styles, made in the same factory as they were in 1960.
There was a surge in popularity in the early 2010s, in line with the rise of indie music – young people everywhere eager to echo the looks of Pixie Geldof, Agyness Deyn and Alexa Chung who all championed the boots, styling them with skinny jeans, biker jackets and denim shorts.
Then, at the end of the decade, the stompy lace-up boot became the perfect contrast to floral “cottagecore” dresses, and Dr Martens was in vogue once again. When the firm floated on the stock market in January 2021, it was valued at £3.5 billion, today’s share price is around 75 per cent below the figures from almost three years ago.
So where has it gone wrong in the past couple of years? Chunky track-soled boots haven’t gone out of style. Dr Wild believes that reduced appeal for British goods worldwide has had an impact: “Dr Martens is very much linked to Brand Britain… [which] has become more beleaguered. I think those cultural resonances just have less traction globally.”
Another failing is that the company is simply trying too hard to be relevant. “The brand’s lost some of its identity in some of its collaborations, like with the National Gallery,” he says. “You can buy boots that have Van Gogh’s sunflowers on them … but for the majority of consumers, the institution is quite establishment and doesn’t really convey the excitement and youthful vigour and energy that the Dr Martens 1460s were tapping into in the Sixties and Seventies.”
The latest collaboration, with Danish label Ganni, is more promising. The product, a nylon take on the ultra-chunky soled Jadon boot, will put Dr Martens back on the radar of cool young things who enjoy being a part of the cultural zeitgeist.
Dr Martens will ride out this storm, though. “Fundamentally it’s withstood time, and it’s about resilience,” Dr Wild says. “There is something in the simplicity of good design that transcends cultural fads.”
Dr Klaus Maertens and engineer Dr Herbert Funck, with whom he developed the air-cushioned sole.
The Who’s Pete Townshend wore Dr Martens as a symbol of working-class pride
Dr Martens also became synonymous with skinheads, seen here wearing their distinctive look at Meadow Park Football Ground in Borehamwood
The classic 1460 boots were adopted by punks in the 1980s, as essential to their unofficial uniform as mohawks and ripped jeans.
Dr Martens’ countercultural image made them popular among teenagers still at school – these pupils from Reading said they were fans of the shoes because they “feel good, look cool and, perhaps most of all, because parents don’t like them.”
At a 1993 film convention in Las Vegas, Demi Moore epitomised the era’s grunge trend, teaming her Dr Martens with a black, cut-out dress, crucifix choker and a sweater tied casually around her waist.
Rochdale-born model, musician and actor Agyness Deyn was a style inspiration to many in the 2000s, which made her decision to wear Dr Martens with jeans and a checked shirt an influential one.
Can Brooklyn Beckham revive the brand? That remains to be seen, but he exhibited a modern way to wear them in Paris earlier this year.
Ganni x Dr Martens: the financial fortunes of Dr Marten might be at a low, but the label’s new collection with hip Danish brand Ganni will restore some of its cool.