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Doc Martens Trying to Pull Up Its Socks

The battered shoe brand is seeking ways to get a leg up in the industry

July 28, 2002|HANK STUEVER | WASHINGTON POST

Late last week, a thoroughly British icon of all that's punk and oddly comforting sent up a flare indicating a spot of trouble.

Sales are way off for Dr. Martens footwear--the giant-soled combat boot and assorted shoes that came to mean so much to the kind of people who wished not to be entirely understood.

The fashionably rebellious have, of course, moved on from the combat boot seen in the mosh pits of yore. Hard-core punks, skinheads and goth kids are still bitter about the decade-long sellout of their beloved Docs, to the point where the shoe became widely seen on the Man (who bought them at Macy's and wore them to work, in a bloody cubicle).

Dr. Martens' parent company, the R. Griggs Group, in addition to announcing that it will close one of its three factories in England, put forth some ideas to "shape new perceptions about the brand." Soon it will be coming up with shoes that will be lighter in weight, different in style, prettier. (It will continue to make the "1460," its trademark black, eight-eyelet, lace-up boot of 42 years, along with other classic styles.)

"We'll always have a core group of consumers, but there were opportunities to evolve. I don't think we evolved enough," Bobbie Parisi, global brand director for Dr. Martens, says from Portland, Ore. "There is still a lot of opportunity for us to evolve. In my own mind, the brand name stands for self-expression, and we think there's a way for that to be carried on."

But self-expression is a difficult thing to bottle and sell to 5 million selves, which is how many people bought a pair of Docs last year. (Dr. Martens says sales will be "well down" this year.)

Just as Levi's 501 jeans and Adidas track suits and Lacoste tennis shirts have all learned a thing or two about the ebb and flow of a finicky phenomenon called "retro," Dr. Martens will probably learn the hard way that what goes around comes around and then it has to leave again.

Inasmuch as it's a story about one business hitting a slump, the Doc Martens falloff is a larger tale about a philosophy of life being in trouble. Decades never quite begin and end according to the calendar, yet there is delayed evidence that the '90s are over: Planes hit skyscrapers, Internet whiz kids are moving back into their parents' houses and nobody is rich anymore except the rich.

And Doc Martens, as we knew them, are passe.

The future isn't as grimy and post-apocalyptic as we were led to believe. For all its artificiality and cleaner lines, it's a lot more real. It is again a striped-sneaker kind of place, with loafers and slides.

It all began when Klaus Maertens, a German medical doctor, injured a foot while skiing in the Bavarian Alps. Recuperating, Maertens and an engineer named Herbert Funck designed an air-sole shoe to take the load off. They marketed the shoe locally, and eventually sold the patent to R. Griggs & Co., shoemakers of London. The first pair of black boots--with the thick, patented, heat-sealed sole and distinctive yellow stitching--were made in 1960.

After that, no marketing plan could have intuited the slow path to high fashion that the boots took.

London Mods wore them, and so did the police officers who chased their scooters. The first punks wore them. The ska bands wore them, and the goth kids wore them. The second coming of punk wore them (or wore the Converse All-Star sneaker, now no longer made in America but in China), and the widely defined "grunge/alternative" universe heat-sealed the shoe's fate.

By then, a pair of boots cost $120 or more, millions and millions were sold, and there's not much punk about that. In everyone's rush to be alternative, the Doc Martens lost its angry credibility.

But Parisi isn't about to give up.

She describes the new Dr. Martens campaign and talks about some of the new sandals. The soles are about one-quarter of the thickness of the old Dr. Martens sole, she says.

A kicky pair of thong sandals craftily incorporates the logo seen on the loop on the back of the original 1460 boot, "and there are lots of colors."

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