LIZ JONES FASHION THERAPY: As profits soar, why Dr Martens is the British fashion firm trampling all over its rivals…
23:30 GMT, 5 August 2012
My first pair of Dr Martens was purchased in the early Eighties. I had seen Barry Kamen, the more handsome brother of singer and model Nick, sporting a pair in the pages of The Face, and though I couldn’t get my hands on Barry — believe me, I tried — I could get my hands on his footwear.
They were a black 2976 pair of Chelsea, or jodhpur, boots with the trademark thick grooved sole. Thirty years later, I still have them: cracked and beautiful, still waterproof and incredibly comfortable.
My Dr Martens are probably the most enduring, certainly the longest, relationship of my life. And now, it seems, they are a great British success story. Asos has reported a 230 per cent rise in sales from 2011-2012. In March, the company announced profits of 22 million, making it the eighth fastest-growing private company in the UK.
Putting the boot in: Liz tries out the new range of Dr Martens
This is incredible, not just during a recession, when the boots, far from ‘designer’, can cost nearly 200. But because they fly in the face of fashion: they are not platforms, or stilettos, or wedges (though heels and wedges are creeping in; a rather unwelcome addition, in my opinion, to the range). These boots are comfortable, and as far away from the hyper-groomed aesthetic among young women today as it’s possible to get.
The factory in Northamptonshire where the boots are made has been operating since 1901, when the business was started by the Griggs family.
Full of sole
The first Dr Martens boots in the UK were known as style 1460, an eight-eyelet, smooth leather design still in production
In the Fifties, Bill Griggs saw an advert placed by a German duo looking for a partner for their new invention: the air-cushioned sole. A Dr Klaus Maertens had invented the sole after injuring his foot skiing. The name was anglicised, and the first pair made in the Griggs factory on April 1, 1960.
It was initially a working man’s boot: safe for employment in a factory, comfortable to stand in for many hours and durable.
It found fame on the feet of Pete Townshend of The Who, and was soon appropriated by skinheads and punks keen to disassociate themselves from hippies. But then this great British brand became the uniform of neo-Nazis and football hooligans, meaning it became not a symbol of freedom, but of oppression.
Liz Jones in Greenwich going through security in less comfy footwear
Sales hit the doldrums, before the brand was reclaimed in the Nineties by Nirvana and Blur, and once more became fashionable. Now, though, it is being worn by young women as never before, probably and hopefully as a reaction against the over-sexualised, skyscraper shoe that has rendered so many of us teetering cripples.
Today, stars from Rihanna to Pixie Lott are fans, and they embody the sort of woman who will want to wear them: tomboyish, independent, and a bit mouthy.
Model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn bought her first pair aged 13, and is now designing a collection for the brand which will go on sale in September.
This is not the first collaboration. Raf Simons, now creative director at Dior, has designed a range, while the Liberty print boots on sale this summer — 140 to 170 — have sold way beyond expectations, as have the pink, yellow, or purple Pascal, at 110.
My favourite is still being made: the 2976 Boot, 110 (the buckled ‘Case’ biker boot is fabulous, too, just like the chunky Dior biker, but only 110). The 2976 still has the trademark ‘Air Wear’ loop at the back, meaning it’s easy to pull on.
The thick sole adds inches, too, meaning it’s a flat boot that lengthens the leg. The bulky design makes your legs look thinner, which is always a bonus: no wonder all those teenagers are currently wearing them accessorised with miles of bare leg.
While they will never pass muster in the office, and the pink pair I’m modelling with skinny white H&M jeans make me look like comedian Max Wall, they are great with jeans for walking the dog.
The brand itself is currently up for sale, with a rumoured price tag of 200 million. It will be a shame if it is sold to a Russian oligarch or Far Eastern conglomerate, and a shame if the Cobb’s Lane factory were ever to close.
The making of the boot — from the ‘clicker’ who cuts the hide, to the ‘skiver’ who splits the leather to different weights, to the stamping and stitching with that famous yellow thread — is a long and painstaking process, still done by hand.
Heels are then stiffened and the toe given a ‘puff’, which means it will never flatten, unlike my bottom over the same three decades. Only then is the Made In England label added.
A rare pocket of British manufacturing in a sea of Chinese imports. That alone is surely something to celebrate. Oh, and no more blisters!