Punks on King’s Road, London, in 1983. Youth tribes adopted Docs as symbols of independence from authority © PYMCA/Universal Images/Getty

Forty-four years later, I can still remember unboxing my first pair of Dr Martens — the 1461 black shoes with air-cushioned soles. Worn with the narrow-lapelled postal worker’s suit that I acquired in a vintage clothes shop, those DMs made my teenage self feel quite the business.

It was the age of punk and two-tone, and bands such as The Clash, The Who and The Specials wore lace-up boots with yellow stitching from Dr Martens, a German orthopaedic brand accidentally turned into British street style by a Northamptonshire family firm of shoemakers. “Wear your braces round your seat/Dr Martens on your feet,” wrote Pete Townshend of The Who.

My DMs came to mind this week when Dr Martens, which has been owned by Permira, the private equity group, since 2014, announced that it will float on the London Stock Exchange. It still sells vintage 1461s, made in England in similar leather, although most of its shoes are made in Asia. They cost £159 — quite a mark-up from 1977 prices.

Fashion is an unforgiving industry, with new collections every season and constant drops of new streetwear. Few footwear brands have lasted so long and grown so much, while changing so little, as Dr Martens. What is its secret?

One strength is that Dr Martens or Docs or DMs — the brand has several venerable nicknames — are instantly recognisable without having to do anything to attract attention. Nike and Adidas put logos on the side of sneakers to identify the brands, but Dr Martens are inimitable.

The eight lace-holes on the 1460 boot and side ridges on the air-cushioned soles — created in 1945 by Dr Klaus Maertens, a Bavarian soldier, to ease his injured foot — are as distinctive as Adidas stripes or the in-your-face logo of Supreme, the luxury streetwear company. But they are there for a purpose, not as a fashion tag.

Dr Martens’ second strength is being ordinary. The cushioned soles were licensed in the UK in 1959 by the shoemakers R Griggs, which created first the 1460 boot and then the 1461 shoe as cheap, comfortable workwear — they sold for £2 a pair in the early sixties, equivalent to about £42 now.

Griggs was not a fashion company and had no great marketing budget or following of social media influencers. Its AirWair shoes were meant to be simple and functional and were worn by police and postal workers. If nothing had changed, my 1977 ensemble would have made me look like a trainee postman.

What changed was that a succession of youth tribes, from mods to skinheads to punks, adopted Docs as symbols of rebelliousness and independence from authority. “The wearers gave them their identity, which was beyond the company’s control,” says Cath Davies, a lecturer in visual culture at Cardiff School of Art & Design.

Dr Martens was one of the first brands to be customised by users — from skinheads who bought cherry red leather boots and smeared black polish into creases, to the punks who graffitied them. Women bought DMs and the trend of painting the boots in floral patterns soon emerged.

The boots were a blank slate, which their owners could transform. Dick Hebdige, now a professor at the University of California, called the suits, collars and ties worn by mods “a symbolic ensemble, which served to erase or subvert their original straight meanings” in his influential 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style.

It helped that DMs were cheap. Buying a new pair was not like saving up for the latest Supreme flannel shirt design and lining up outside one of its stores; the boots were lifted down from the shelves of local shoe shops in cardboard boxes. Even now, most of its range sells for between £110 and £190 — more than in the past but not in the luxury combat boot stratosphere.

The formula still seems to work. Dr Martens sold 11m pairs in 60 countries in its financial year to last March, and revenues and profits have risen sharply in recent years (they have even been resilient in the pandemic). Potential investors in its IPO were this week promised that the “canvas for rebellious self-expression across generations” has plenty of room to grow.

Dr Martens was ahead of its time — many fashion brands crave the ethos that it unintentionally invented. Permira acquired Golden Goose, an Italian company that makes deliberately scruffy-looking trainers, for just under €1.3bn last year: a pair of Golden Goose Super-Star leather sneakers with “For Dreamers Use Only” handwritten on the side of the sole sells for £370.

But Dr Martens has lost its innocence. Half of its charm in the 1970s was that it was not really in charge: it sold work shoes, but I was buying something else. Today the company is much more knowing about the brand, which leaves less room for customers to find their own meaning in its boots.

“We just stay true to who we are, and respect the past,” says Darren Campbell, Dr Martens’ chief marketing officer. If only it were that simple. Its 1461 shoes look the same and their spirit endures in my mind, but selling self-expression is a fragile business.

john.gapper@ft.com 

Letters in response to this article:

How Dr Martens outgrew its workwear origins / From Amanda Nicholls, London E17, UK

Recalling the pope who knew how to be well shod / From Harold Mozley, York, North Yorkshire, UK

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