Its footwear has been stomping down British high streets for nearly 60 years but Dr Martens is reporting record sales as fresh political upheaval and a trend for chunky platform shoes make its sturdy footwear more fashionable than ever.
The classic brand has won over millennials and generation Z with twists on its classic styles, such as vegan sandals covered in hearts and £170 iridescent pink, stacked boots. Sales of these new lines jumped 84% in its last financial year, while the overall number of pairs sold rose by 20% to 8.3m.
While its shoes were originally destined for building sites, a recent version with a non-slip sole sold out as they were snapped up by a new army of restaurant and coffee workers.
Damien Wilson, its global creative director, says the bootmaker is not trying to morph into a fashion brand because its new products are a riff on its classic styling: “We are totally aware of trend and fashion but we don’t follow it. We’ve got this core classic look and everything spins from that.”
The Dr Martens brand was born when R Griggs Group, a family-run British shoe manufacturer, bought the design from its eponymous German inventor. They were initially worn by postal and factory workers but by the end of the 20th century had taken on a life of their own as groups ranging from skinheads, punks and goths to schoolgirls embraced them.
Today social media has dramatically changed how youth culture trends are disseminated. Alternative bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Who shaped Dr Martens’ past; more recently they have been spotted on the feet of high-profile pop and film stars such as Pharrell Williams, Rita Ora and Julia Roberts.
Wilson says pictures posted online by DM wearers – the brand has more than 4 million followers on Instagram and Facebook – are now its biggest inspiration. “The patterns and trends we see on social media are more interesting to us than looking at the catwalk. A lot of designers get their inspiration from the streets but we are already on the streets.”
The shelves of the Dr Martens design studio in Camden Town, London, are crammed with piles of boots in every colour of the rainbow – including rainbow-coloured. Mood boards pinned to the walls are filled with images culled from social media along with fabric swatches for exotic-looking metallic finishes and luminous soles. To the outsider, it is hard to tell which DMs are current and which are vintage pairs plucked from its archive for inspiration.
The brand’s biggest seller is still the 1460 boot, which with its eight eyelets and distinctive grooved rubber sole is the blank canvas the 20-strong London design team returns to each season. The name is actually the boot’s birthdate, as it first rolled off the production line in the company’s Cobbs Lane factory in Wollaston, Northamptonshire, on 1 April 1960. There are about 700 lines in the Dr Martens range but only 30% change each season.
“As far as we are concerned there is a 1460 for every single human being on the planet because we can spin the boot in lots of different ways,” adds Wilson, a Central Saint Martins graduate who has worked for the brand for nine years.
The majority of Dr Martens are made in Asia but the brand’s success is good news for the Cobbs Lane factory, which survived the company’s 2002 near-death experience when it closed its other sites and shifted production offshore.
Buoyed by the success of a Made in England collection, the company’s private equity owner, Permira, invested £2m in the facility and the apprenticeship scheme is being expanded to plug a shortage of skilled labour.
Since Permira bought Dr Martens for £300m six years ago sales have nearly tripled to reach £454m. With profits also up sharply, the scene is set for the business to change hands again, either via a sale to another financial investor or a stock market flotation, as its backers look for their payday.
Last year Kenny Wilson, a seasoned fashion industry executive with long stints at Levis Strauss and Cath Kidston under his belt, was hired to run the company, which has set a target of breaking through the £1bn sales barrier within five years.
But can Dr Martens chase growth and keep its cool? Recent collaborations include a Sex Pistols range that included boots with a picture of Sid Vicious on them as well as a collection inspired by Joy Division album artwork.
Wilson is adamant that the brand will not lose its way. Behind-the-scenes investment in its IT and supply chain – rather than the current vogue for chunky soled boots – is what is shifting the dial. At the same time its boots are a familiar accessory for people with something to say, whether about the climate crisis or politics.
“There are a lot of things happening around the world that are about independence of thought and that is a zeitgeist moment for a brand that is all about rebellious self-expression,” says Wilson. “Wearing DMs is a state of mind.”