Material Marvels – Designing for subculture

Materials World magazine
29 Aug 2019

Dr Martens boots were a symbol of British craftsmanship and culture for decades, and the brand has successfully allied with multiple diverse groups over the years. How have these boots stood the test of time and what remains of the British manufacturing? Ceri Jones takes a look.

As a staple item of footwear, Dr Martens, Docs or DMs are tough, durable and often referred to as boots that will probably outlive you. With the addition of a guaranteed For Life line, this is now true. Prized for their longevity, they have also managed to maintain a foothold in social movements and popular culture. Now entering a new phase with its vegan product range, we take a look at the journey of the much-loved boot to find out how they have won over each new generation and the transition to new materials.

A foot in the past

The predecessor to the modern Dr Martens footwear was established in the 1940s by Dr Klaus Maerten, who repurposed his German army issue boots into a sturdy but comfortable design to help the recovery of his broken foot. He replaced the standard inner with an air-padded sole made from rubber tyres and later went into business with friend and plastics engineer, Dr Herbert Funck, to market the design. Formal production began in 1947, using discarded military shoes for leather and ex-Luftwaffe rubber tyres for the soles, kicking off 10 years of modest business. The soles were popular with German housewives who were on their feet all day long, but by 1959, Maerten and Funck decided to try selling overseas and placed an advert in Shoe and Leather News.

At this time, English footwear manufacturer R Griggs, maker of the Bulldog boot, saw the advertisement and bought the patent to sell the air-cushioned soles in the UK under the name AirWair. Company owner Bill Griggs modified Klaus Maerten’s shoe, adding the now iconic elements, including the shape, sole pattern and grooving, yellow welt stitching and the infamous yellow pull-on heel loop that reads ‘With bouncing soles’. Re-design complete, the first generation of the Anglicised Dr Martens 1460 was launched in April 1960.

Griggs’s existing products were aimed at factory workers, so these new boots were made resistant to oil, fat, acid, petrol and alkali substances, and included a steel toe cap for safety. Retailing at £2 a pair, the comfortable and long-lasting boot became the footwear of choice for factory staff, as well as policemen and postmen. As such, Dr Martens became a symbol of proud working class identity.

In a strange turn, this tough old boot was soon embraced by rebellious younger generations, particularly skinheads who liked the steel toe caps for fighting, and the boots became associated with violence. As such, they were generally worn by both sides during clashes between skinheads and the police – a situation echoed in later years by the simultaneous favouring by anti-capitalist groups and lovers of haute couture.

Standing up for subculture

While the politics and music changed, Dr Martens were favoured by subsequent subculture movements for generations, gaining a fresh lease of life when The Who guitarist Pete Townsend wore a pair on stage in 1967, bringing them to the attention of rock fans in the UK and USA.

A great choice for protecting feet at a concert or festival, whether moshing or marching, they were adopted by rock, punk, goth and grunge fans, even earning a song by comedian Alexi Sayle in 1981, who sang, ‘It’s not class or ideology, colour, creed or roots. The only thing that unites us is Dr Martens boots’.

The leather provided a canvas for customising footwear and indicating their tribe. The company has since partnered with celebrities, musicians and designers to create limited edition designs to keep Dr Martens at the core of social culture. Coming full circle, in June 2019, Dr Martens collaborated with The Who on a special edition line to celebrate Townsend’s influence the brand’s success.

Made in England?

Popularity waned for almost a decade, thought to be due to the huge popularity of sports shoes for leisure wear. While the company tried to compete, its range of sports shoes was unsuccessful and caused hefty losses. In 2003, Dr Martens was sold to private equity firm, Permira, which moved production overseas to China and Thailand and closed the UK factories to reduce costs until business picked up.

While almost all boots are still made in the East, the original factory in Wollaston, England was re-opened in 2004 to manufacture handmade boots of the original design on a small scale. It has proven successful and created a niche line for the company. Although it only produces 1% of the company’s total output, this year, the company announced plans to double UK manufacturing levels to reach 165,000 pairs per year, from 2020.

The classic 1460 is made with a typically bovine leather upper that is a byproduct of the meat industry. While not entirely bovine-derived, the company stated in 2018 that 99% of all its leather materials were sourced from Leather Working Group medal status tanneries, to ensure ethical standards and no exotic animal skin or fur products. Certification also requires best practice in staff treatment, as well as water, chemical and energy use and emissions. However, the level of medal status has not been disclosed, neither has information for the other materials.

At the UK factory, hydraulic hand-wielded presses are used to cut the leather pieces which are then pressed to a precise, uniform thickness. Pieces requiring branding, such as inner soles, are hot metal embossed and holes are punched in for the laces. The leather elements are joined by industrial sewing machines, and finally run through a Puritan stitch machine which provides a high degree of structural strength. The eyelets are punched in one at a time and a toe puff is hot sealed in to round out the shape where it would have previously had a steel cap.

Next the shoes are put on a cobbler’s last to be moulded to the correct shape, and once the leather is trimmed down, the yellow stitching is used to join a polyvinylchloride (PVC) welt to the leather and padding is glued inside. The PVC soles are injection-moulded to create the correct pattern and are melted on to the welt attached to the shoe body. The boot is hand-squeezed to help bind the melted PVC and create a solid, single piece without the need for an adhesive, and it is neatened off with a hot roller that makes the groove marks.

Finally, each boot undergoes a trim, polish and inspection before being boxed into 100% recycled paper and paperboard boxes, printed with solvent-free soy inks.

Giving the V

For the first time in its history, Dr Martens was unable to rely on a new generation donning its boots and had to reinvent itself to catch up with changing trends.

To do this the company launched a vegan range in North America, which has proved successful but not without its problems. In 2017, the company recalled 30,000 boots from across the USA and Canada due to a potential chemical issue. Under a voluntary fast track recall, the company offered refunds or replacements for unisex vegan 1460 eight-eye boots in cherry red with black laces, produced from a single factory in Vietnam.

For the lining of the boot tongue, the factory had accidentally used restricted azo dyes that can degrade into harmful substances, including benzidine. Prolonged direct contact with the fabric could expose the wearer to benzidine and cause illness. The chemical has not been used in North America for nearly 50 years, as benzidine can break down into carcinogenic chemicals in the body.

The substance was identified during routine product testing, and the company contacted the US Consumer Product Safety Commission to initiate a full and voluntary product recall as a cautionary measure. However, this incident has not affected sales and the range is popular in North America and Australia.

Since then, Dr Martens launched its vegan range onto the UK market in 2018, which includes vegan versions of the eight eyelet boots, as well as shoes, sandals and even a selection of satchels and wallets. Permira attributed these to the company’s huge growth in sales up to the end of March 2019. In a financial statement, the company confirmed that total revenue grew by 30% to £454.4mln and EBITDA grew by 70% to £85mln. Vegan boots represented 4% of all sales.

The vegan 1460s have the same construction as the leather boots, with an AirWair comfort sole, and are finished with the iconic yellow welt stitching. Dr Martens has been reluctant to discuss its new vegan footwear in detail, but has branded two types of non-animal leather for the uppers.

Felix rub-off is used to create a matte, dull appearance, while Cambridge brush-off makes for a shiny, patent effect. They are both made using a combination of polyurethane and polyamide (nylon), but no further information on raw ingredients is available. Customers have reported that the vegan boots are resistant to stains and scuffs, as flexible and strong as the original versions, although not as warm.

Permira said it is committed to aligning with evolving consumer interests, and right now that is ethics. The rapidly rising number of people becoming vegetarian and vegan prompted Permira to tap into this market and said in a statement it would cater to the ‘uncompromising commitment’ of people following vegan lifestyles.

Regardless of intent, material switches tend to come with a compromise and Dr Martens is now facing criticism for the high volumes of PVC used in its boots across the board. With many companies facing pressure for transparency in their foreign supply chains, and the remit of ethical extending beyond animal welfare to environmental responsibility, the time of pleasing all may be coming to an end.