A hip, young marketer at a hip, young agency once admitted to me something memorable. Getting a cool new brand off the ground wasn’t really the hard part of his job, he told me. What was hard was making that coolness sustainable. He compared it to opening a trendy restaurant: What happens when the trend fades? “There are always lots of new places, and people love to try them out,” he said. “But what you really want to be is the one they keep coming back to, year after year. You want to stop being the new place and turn into the old place.”
Dr. Martens, which went public last week on the London Stock Exchange at a valuation of £3.7 billion (or about $5 billion), is definitely the wearable equivalent of an old place. And yet, some 60 years after its founding, in the thick of a pandemic that has hammered fashion and apparel brands that aren’t explicitly comfort-focused, and causing some shoe retailers to report sales halving or worse, the maker of punky footwear is selling more than 11 million pairs of “Docs” or “DMs” a year — and enjoying a hot IPO representing a tenfold increase in its value from just seven years ago.
While the brand has had a near-death experience or two over the decades, it’s proven a reliable youth culture signifier for multiple generations, becoming a British design icon. But as is often the case with iconic brands, the way it achieved this status is easily misunderstood.
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For starters, the “quintessentially British boots” trace back to Germany, where their origin had nothing to do with fashion, let alone rebel style. After World War II, German army doctor Klaus Märtens (some accounts render the name Maertens) devised a boot with a thick air-pillow sole to help him recover from a skiing accident; in the late 1940s, he worked with a partner to sell the design commercially, with respectable success. But as late as 1960 it…