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Dr. Martens: The doctor is still in

The iconic footwear favored by punks and postal workers alike has had a long and storied life. The company is celebrating its 50th anniversary with some limited-edition 1460s and 1461s.

April 04, 2010|By Julie Neigher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A group of rebellious Martens-wearing Italians in 1980s Trieste.
A group of rebellious Martens-wearing Italians in 1980s Trieste. (Pamela Sillani and Daniel…)

Cinderella's fragile glass slipper and rugged Dr. Martens boots appear to have nothing in common. But you'd be surprised. That storied maiden slipped into her perfect fit and lived happily ever after. Millions have laced up their first pair of DM boots and, seemingly, lived just as happily, sticking with the footwear for decades. The brand marked its 50th anniversary last week and is still drawing fans from around the world.

Not many shoes appeal to such a range of people. Mail carriers, rock stars, skinheads, rebels and conformists are among the avid converts to Doc Martens.

The official anniversary was April 1, but this iconic footwear (it even appears in the Oxford English Dictionary) has roots more than a century old. In 1901, Benjamin Griggs and Septimus Jones set up a boot business in England, and 10 years later, Benjamin brought in his son Reginald to form R. Griggs & Co. Flash forward to 1945 Germany. Dr. Klaus Maertens has invented an air-cushioned sole. On leave during World War II, Maertens injures his ankle skiing. His army-issued boots are torture, so he designs a pair with finer leather and air-cushioned soles. The footwear doesn't earn Maertens a reichsmark — until he teams up with Dr. Herbert Funck in 1947. Using abandoned rubber from Luftwaffe airfields, they create the perfect sole.

Maertens and Funck, now running a successful factory in Munich, are keen to sell internationally. Coincidentally, Bill Griggs of the Griggs company has heard of their magic soles. He calls the doctors to see whether he can manufacture them for his company in England. Getting an enthusiastic "ja," Griggs designs different footwear uppers for the German air-cushions. He conceives the eight-eyelet boot, introduces yellow welt stitching and a two-toned, grooved edge. The famous black and yellow heel loop is added. Anglicizing the name, Griggs now has Dr. Martens footwear ready to soothe weary British soles.

The first DM eight-eye boot began production in the U.K. on April 1, 1960. It was developed for factory workers, bobbies and mail carriers, but it was quickly adopted by skinheads who began emerging in Britain in the middle of the decade. And so you had rebels going "toe to toe," so to speak, with "the man" — both wearing the same boots.

If Docs belonged to the "skins" in the '60s, the '70s saw British bands like the Clash, the Who and the Sex Pistols (and their fans) start breaking in their leather too. Punks and other subcultures joined the DM movement and customized their uppers with spray paint and bottle caps to make each pair unique.

Word spread internationally. Though Griggs didn't export until the 1980s, fans flocked to England from around the globe, even bringing empty suitcases so they could take home "booty" for friends. Italian-born Daniel Auber, an Emmy-winning art designer now living in America, started wearing Docs as a teenager in the 1980s. "Doc Martens for us was a tiny shop in Camden Town — a secret," he said. "We used to collect every lira and buy our precious boots. The friend that made it to London would buy shoes for several other friends back in Trieste.

"DMs were definitely for rebel kids in Italy. Punks were usually kids with family troubles that were looking for a way to express their personal and social frustrations. It was very honest in the beginning and not at all fashionable, but rather the opposite."

By the 1990s, the movement was in full force and the secret was out. Docs were now being sold in the U.S. to teens from upper-class homes. They bought the same styles from shopping malls that subculture rebels had once purchased in the tiny shop in Camden. In 1994, Dr. Martens opened a store in London's Covent Garden, and Docs went upscale. The brand name and logo saturated advertising, sponsoring festivals and football teams. Annual sales globally hit about $400 million in 1999.

But what laces up tightly eventually unravels. The new century dawned, and not blissfully for the brand. In 2001, worldwide sales declined 20%. The following year, sales fell a further 30%. In 2003, to cut expenses, production was shifted to China and Thailand. Part-owner Stephen Griggs, grandson of Bill Griggs, takes full responsibility. "I don't think we necessarily helped ourselves — we were over-producing at a time when the fashion cycle was not in our favor. We had our factories to fill. We tried to keep all the plates spinning at once, but inevitably we had to let a lot of them fall before we could start again." (The brand's original factory reopened in England in 2007 to produce vintage styles.)

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